Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Elephant No. 164: Stacked Coins

I've been seeing print ads for months with this idea, and yesterday I saw a television commercial with stacked coins, so I thought I'd try it for today's elephant.

Although shells, stones and other forms of currency had been used before the invention of coins, the world's first coins developed in either India, Anatolia or Greece, around the sixth century B.C. There is some debate about whether the earliest coins were actually used in commerce, but by the fifth century B.C. or so, it appears that coinage was being used in many parts of the world as a bona fide medium of exchange.

The first Anatolian coins were made of electrum—a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver—which was further alloyed with copper and additional silver. Minted by private individuals as a personal form of exchange, these coins were not standardized in any way. They rarely have inscriptions, and generally feature only a symbolic animal, which may have represented the issuing family.

In India, bronze coins debuted in the sixth century B.C. They were punch-marked and came in "denominations" called puranas, karshapanas, and pana. Similarly, in China, bronze tokens in the shape of cowrie shells—an earlier form of money—were minted in the sixth century B.C. Most numismatists, however, do not consider these to be coins in the strictest sense, since they carry no marks indicating a specific value.

Silver half-karshapana unearthed in Sri Lanka, ca. 400–350 B.C.

The first Roman coins, made of crude, heavy bronze, were issued around 289 B.C. The first European coin to indicate a minting date in Arab numerals was the silver Swiss St. Gallen plappart, produced in A.D. 1424.

St. Gallen plappart from 1424.

Over time, the composition of coins has varied. In antiquity, pure silver and gold coins were produced, as were coins made of bronze. As skill improved in the smelting and working of other metals, coins made of copper were added to the repertoire. For centuries, the value of the metal used in producing the coins was intended to approximate the face value of the coin. As metal prices rose, coins came to be made of base metals clad in silver, gold or copper. Canadian pennies, for example, are made of steel clad in a thin layer of copper, giving them an intrinsic value that is a little less than one-third of their face value. Similarly, American pennies are 97.5% zinc, clad with 2.5% copper.

Coins are sometimes made of even less expensive metals. In my own collection, for example, I have Indonesian coins made of pressed aluminum; I have other coins made of steel, plated brass and tin. Today, most coins have a face value much higher than the value of their metal content, although some gold and silver collector coins have a nominal face value much lower than the worth of the metals they contain. These coins are not intended to circulate at face value, but are said instead to have a "fiat value"—or decreed value—rather than a "market value".

Occasionally, the metal content of coins has led to hoarding by illicit smelters interested in the copper, nickel or silver content of older coins. In anticipation of this, in 2006 the United States Mint implemented rules criminalizing the melting and export of pennies and nickels.

Some other interesting coin-related practices include the defacing of coins by British convicts headed to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The coins were smoothed and inscribed with messages to loved ones, and became known as "convict love tokens" and "leaden hearts".

Convict love token, ca. 1787.

Another enduring practice was shaving or clipping, which involved slicing off small bits of precious metal from the edges of existing coins, in order to create new coins. According to one account, sterling silver coins in Britain could sometimes be reduced to almost half their weight as a result of this practice. In Tudor England, for example, rulers would occasionally have to recall circulating silver coins, melt them down, and remint them. In response to coin-clipping, changes were eventually made to the way the edges were produced, either adding a milled edge, or a design around the inside rim, making clipping easier to detect.

Although coins are usually round, many have a number of flat sides, or even wavy edges. Coins are also occasionally minted in triangular and square shapes.

Triangular two-dollar coin from the Cook Islands, 1992.

The "heads" side of a coin is technically known as the "obverse" and usually bears a portrait of a monarch or other head of state. The "tails" side is known as the "reverse". Usually the year in which the coin was minted appears on the obverse, although most Canadian coins, and some British and Chinese coins, imprint the year on the reverse.

When a coin is flipped vertically in order to present the reverse image right-side up, it is said to have "coin orientation". When the coin must be flipped horizontally to show both images right-side up, it is said to have "medallic orientation". The Euro and British pound coin, for example, are medallic; while American coins are coin-oriented.

For today's elephant, I decided I'd use mostly copper pennies. I had 259 Canadian and American pennies in my jar of change, along with a few dimes for a tusk, and a quarter and dime for the eye.

I started by laying out a general elephant outline.

I layered on top of this in a sort of brick pattern, covering the gaps between the pennies in the first layer.

I continued doing this for a third layer.

And a fourth layer.

After this, I built up a few areas, like the elephant's cheek, with some extra layers, and added dimension wherever I could. It turns out that 259 pennies isn't enough for something truly dimensional. This elephant measured about 20 x 25 cm (8 x 10 inches), and I think I would have needed something like 2,000 pennies to create a relatively high-relief piece.

To finish this off, I added dimes in layers for a tusk, and layered the eye with a quarter, a heavily oxidized penny, and a dime.

This took me about half an hour, and wasn't all that hard. The most difficult part is layering the pennies evenly, so that they don't create little tent-like structures.

I'm not sure my skill at stacking coins would have extended to something in a higher relief, so it's probably just as well that I only had 259 pennies at my disposal. But if I had a whole day, it might be worth a try sometime.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Looking at today's coin elephant made me wonder what it might cost to buy an elephant these days. Asking this question online brings a raft of ridiculous answers, mostly plucked out of the air, to judge by the flippancy of the responses. So I began digging a little deeper, and discovered that prices can literally be all over the map.

In 2010, an online post offered two baby Asian elephants for 10,000 Kuwaiti dinar ($35,829 U.S. at today's exchange rate). In 2008, at a livestock fair in India which included elephants, a trained adult elephant went for 100,000 Rupees (about $2,004 U.S.). In Kerala that same year, a trained temple elephant was offered for 300,000 Rupees ($6,012 U.S.). In early 2012, an online ad in Pakistan offered a baby elephant for sale at 50,000 Rupees (about $557 U.S.). In Asia, where the concept of captive elephants is more culturally ingrained, elephants are often swapped and sold in print and online advertising, at festivals, and at livestock fairs.

In North America, elephants are far more expensive, and their sale is restricted, due to their status as an endangered species. In February 2011, for example, two men from the Cole Circus arranged the sale of two Asian circus elephants for $150,000. Because they didn't have a permit, they were fined more than $10,000, and ordered to give money to organizations that rehabilitate captive elephants. The circus itself was put on probation for four years, and fined $150,000. Interestingly, this same circus bought the first elephant ever to go up for auction in the United States, purchasing the unnamed elephant for $6,600 in 1882.

In some parts of Africa, hunting (and yes, killing) an elephant costs between $35,000 and $50,000 for a hunting safari, with surcharges for the elephant's tusks. African elephants tend to be valued more for their tusks than their value as live animals, given the African elephant's less tameable nature. With ivory currently worth about $1,000 to $1,500 a kilogram ($2,200 to $3,300 a pound), a full-grown bull elephant is essentially sold for the value of its tusks (each of which can weigh up to 10 kg), which could thus be as much as $30,000.

It is extremely difficult to find legitimate current prices for the sale and purchase of zoo elephants. Many zoo elephants today are acquired from private owners either through donation, or for a tax receipt. Others are rescued from circuses for a nominal fee, or received from zoos that can no longer look after the elephants properly.

Beyond the cost of purchasing an elephant, there are also the costs involved in housing and caring for it. Elephant houses and enclosures can range from simple fenced-in areas with a lean-to, to the controversial $42-million high-tech enclosure recently built at the Los Angeles Zoo. As for food, elephants consume hundreds of pounds of food every day, with an estimated average worldwide cost of $500 a month to feed a single elephant. In addition, captive elephants require the attentions of humans to look after them: bathing them, exercising them, seeing to their health and emotional well-being, keeping them from being bored, and so forth.

In many places in the world, the sale of elephants is technically banned under various forms of protective legislation. These laws are often overlooked, or overturned by high courts, to allow the trade in captive elephants to continue. Given a lack of viable wildlife preserves to allow elephants to roam free, particularly in Asia, this can be a tricky issue. Are elephants better off coming into conflict with humans and perhaps being shot—or even hit by trains passing through their preserves? Or are they better off in captive situations, where they may be fed and cared for, but perhaps also mistreated, and certainly not free?

Charging African elephant.

Elephant's World (Thailand) 
David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust


  1. It might be fun to melt down some pennies and make your own coin with the image of an elephant on it. It is surprisingly easy to do you just need some clay to make your shape. Plaster for the mold and a good way to heat pennies and dry the mold.

  2. If you want to not melt currency you can always buy some pewter for this project.

    Also on the coin spectrum a hobo nickle of an elephant would be amazing though when I tried it it was very difficult.

  3. Those are both really cool ideas, Mike! I think I'll try them both before the year is out. And I don't mind melting currency at all. I'll just do it in my secret alchemical lair (car-less cinder block garage to everyone else).