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Numismatics in Russia

by Vasily Gerasimov

Numismatics during socialism
For Russian numismatics, the socialistic era started with the end of all private coin collections: most of them were seized by the new government and distributed amongst nationalized museums. Others were taken abroad while some were simply stolen and got lost (like the collection of Grand Duke George Mikhailowich).
During the entire Soviet period, the numismatic science had only a quasi official status: it was a matter of the national academic institutes and museums. Associations and private persons were practically immaterial.
The reason was that in the USSR the circulation of precious metal of all shapes and kinds – that includes coins – was strictly supervised by the state. The purchase and sale of coins made of precious metal that were regarded “exchange valuables” was the privilege of the state and prohibited for private persons since 1918. Anyone undertaking such transactions was severely punished (up to penalty of death). The only things allowed to collect were coins made of copper, bronze or similar metals.
Like any other old association, the MNG was forced to operate illegally during the first years of the Soviet rule until it was finally closed at the end of 1924.

Between 1921 and 1941, there existed numismatic sections in the All-Russian Organisation of Collectors and the Soviet Philatelic Association established under state control. The main purpose of these organisations was to raise money by the sale of collection items to finance several state-run programmes. The Philatelic Association, for example, had the right to sell stamps but was obliged to transfer 50 % of the revenue to the treasury. Soon the numismatists renounced those organisations.
The Soviet state’s attitude on numismatics becomes apparent when considering the melting of 150 millions of old Russian silver coins of different nominations, including many rarities, in the 1920ies.
Because of that collectors tried to establish numismatic societies in the big cities. Some could not curb their passion for collecting and dared to assemble collections illegally. They were officially referred to as exchange speculators (when collecting foreign coins) or monarchists (collectors of old Russian coins) and were severely penalised. Hence, A. V. Gavrilov, member of the Artistic Theater, wrote in his diary: “August 24th, 1939. Last week, the houses of many actors and employees of the theater were searched – silver coins were confiscated. Roughly 100 silver Roubles and foreign exchange were found with the old usher G. F. Leontyev who collected coins. The newspapers reported. Some are imprisoned…“

During the Khrushchev Thaw, public life saw a boost. In 1957, the Collectors Society was constituted in Moscow with the numismatic section, and in 1966 the All-Russian Philatelic Society was re-opened again with the numismatic department soon becoming the biggest and most popular – to the great displeasure of the authorities and the management of the Philatelic Society.
In 1969, a campaign was launched against coin collectors in Kiev, Moscow and other cities. In a number of lawsuits various numismatists, together with exchange speculators, were sentenced to imprisonment. For the management of the Philatelic Society that was reason enough to exclude the numismatic department from the society.
The numismatists consequently were “homeless” for approximately two years. On Sundays, they gathered in the parks in Moscow where the militsiya tried to chase them away. In the early 1970ies, the Moscow numismatists managed to form a club under the name “yugo-sapad” (South-West) that was semi-illegal until 1980 and posed as a branch of the Philatelic Society. Several petitions to the authorities to legalise the Philatelic Society remained unanswered. What is worse, the persecutions of numismatists were even tightened. In 1977, the law on transactions with exchange valuables in the USSR was passed, and in 1982, the regulation pertaining to the limitation of transactions with coins made of precious metals for collecting purposes inured. Those documents cleared the way for further repressions of numismatists. They were followed by criminal procedures and the confiscation of collections.
The “yugo-sapad” club, however, continued to operate – its members published several numismatic papers, organised exhibitions as well as public performances, and established contact with numismatists in other areas of the USSR and abroad. Therewith, the club became a well-known organisation that was hard to ignore.

After in the time of the perestroika a number of legal obstacles were removed, the Moscow Numismatic Society was officially re-established in 1987. Having more than 500 members the society regards itself as centre of all “amateur numismatists” and stays in close contact with state history museums and institutions.
MNG publishes its essays in a Numismatic Journal (Numismatitscheskij Sbornik) and has its own website: www.mosnumismat.ru
Although there are local associations of numismatists in a number of Russian cities, a national, pan-Russian society is still missing.

In the meantime, the “official” numismatic science of the USSR produced impressive results. To staff members of the national museums and academic institutes such as A. W. Oreschnikov, A. K. Markov, A. A. Iljin (1858-1942) and R. R. Fasmer we owe important works on the classification of coins. I. G. Spassky (1904-1990) developed a new method to date coins with a die analysis.
Their disciples and followers – including N. D. Metz, W. L. Janin, W. M. Potin (1918-2005), V. V. Uzdenikov (1919-2008), A. S. Melnikova (1929-2005) and P. G. Gajdukov – represent the present-day Russian numismatic school.

Coin collecting in present-day Russia
Unfortunately, the coin market in present-day Russia is still young and insignificant. In order to understand that it is necessary to realise some of the country’s ins and outs with the most important being legislation: for one thing in Russia there are no laws on coins and numismatics. For another thing even in democratic Russia the circulation of precious metals is still under government control. To the law, coins of all kinds that contain only an amount of precious metal belong to precious metals with no distinction between ancient and modern coins, current or former currency. For that reason coins are subject to the same restrictions that apply for precious metals. To take one example: the export of coins that are official currency is the prerogative of the Central Bank and credit institutions. At the frontier, the control of the coins to be exported is accompanied by administrative barriers at the customhouse and the essay office to such an extent that only the Central Bank possesses enough influence to export coins abroad. No other bank gave it a try so far – except for Sberbank that provided its branch in Kazakhstan with modern Russian coins a number of times.
Since the import of coins to Russia is likewise difficult only a few big banks import coins.
A particular issue is the tax system. The Tax Code makes a distinction between “collectible” and “non-collectible” coins. The latter category includes coins that have no prooflike luster (like PP) possess currency status at the same time.
Those coins are not taxable – hence, practically, they are bullion coins. Any other coins – of PP grade or non-valid currency of any kind (PP or otherwise) – belong to the “collectible” coins and are subject to 18% VAT (20% in the past). Therefore, the coins become more and more expensive with every sale with the VAT being a multiplying factor.

Another law (aiming to protect the Russian cultural heritage) demands that every art object (including coins) older than 50 years can only be exported with permission of the Ministry of Culture.
Against that legal backdrop the Russian Central Bank started in the early 1990ies to sell an increasing part of the commemorative coins in Russia – in earlier days, entire coin editions in silver, gold and platinum were solely exported in foreign countries. In Russia, modern coins are sold by the banks. There, the customers can acquire the coins the institute has received from the Central Bank. At present, the ratio between the Russian and the international market in selling commemorative coins is 85-90% to 15-10%.
Hence, new commemorative coins find their way openly from the Central Bank (at selling price + 18% VAT) to the credit institute and from there (at retail price + 18% VAT) to the buyer until they disappear in a collection or on the black market where they are traded without VAT. Because of the tax there is no official resale market for commemorative coins except for bullion coins that some banks acquire. Some coin houses and the numismatic departments of many bookstores take coins and medals of all kinds – including old and even ancient coins – on commission only.

Auction houses, too, transact business on a commission basis. Some big and well-known auction houses are located in Moscow, like “Moneti i medali“ (Coins and Medals, www.numizmat.ru), “Gelos“ (www.gelos.ru) and “Ekaterina”. Others that are of interest to the numismatists are the internet auction www.auction.spb.ru, the auction house “Alexander” (www.adacoins.ru), “Russian Coins“ (www.ruscoins.ru) and quite a number of internet shops. In May, a gold 5 Rouble from 1762 was auctioned off (for USD 86,000) as well as 1 Rouble from 1730 (for 15 million Roubles equating roughly half a million USD) and a brooch of Catherine II (for USD 1.5 million).

There are no coin fairs or shows in Russia – in the current legal situation any such event is nearly impossible to stage.

Any quantification of coin collectors is difficult since there is neither record nor statistic. As for modern coins, it is possible to make an educated guess from the mintage of commemorative coins: the total mintage of the most popular silver coins (1/2 Ounce and 1 Ounce) is approximately 200,000. Each year up to 30 variations are issued with their individual edition ranging between 3,000 and 10,000, sometimes up to 12,500 pieces.

Apart from the commemorative coins of the Russian Central Bank, since 2002 some other big credit institutes like Sberbank and VTB Bank tender modern foreign coins – silver ones for the most part – to their customers. Last year, Sberbank imported more than 700,000 foreign coins.

In Russia, several numismatic journals are published, like “Numismat“ in Moscow and “Wodjanoj snak“ (Watermark) in Sankt Petersburg (info@watermark.ru); and there are the collected volumes of the Historical Institute and the Hermitage, any amount of internet portals and some smaller local editions in the big cities.

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