Dr. Sol Taylor

Visiting the Indian Government Mint

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, February 14, 2009

n 1974 I led a tour group of American tourists to India. We hit the usual tourist spots — the Red Fort in Delhi, the Taj Mahal, Benares on the Ganges, and Bombay (today called Mumbai).
    While at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay, I got a phone call from the director of the I.G. Mint in Bombay, B.M. Mistry. From a story in Coin World, he knew I was coming to Bombay and wanted to show me the I.G. Mint. It was a short distance from our hotel (which made news earlier this year when it was attacked by terrorists.)
    The Mint is one of the oldest operating government mints in the world, with equipment dating back to Queen Victoria, steam presses and leather conveyor belts in evidence. The interior of the coining rooms were dimly lit, and in general the place was rather dingy — even dirty.
    I was surprised to see most workers wearing sandals — even those hauling heavy loads of equipment and blank coin planchets. Apparently, safety requirements were not a high priority. In fact, the elevator operator had no toes; apparently he was once a floor worker and dropped something that amputated his toes.
    The press room was filled with noisy machinery cranking out millions of coins per day in all denominations, ranging from the small aluminum one-paisa coin (1/100 of a rupee) to the 2 paisa, 3 paisa, 5 paisa, 10 paisa, 20 paisa, half rupee (50P), and one-rupee coins.
    At the end of each conveyor belt, workers with wicker baskets would shuffle the newly minted coins in the air like tossing grain, and deftly remove what they called "wasters" — coins that were imperfectly struck. The wasters were tossed into a large bin to be remelted and used for new coinage.
    Some of the wasters included off center coins and so-called "bottle caps" where two or more planchets were squished together into a single mass resembling a soda bottle cap.
    I asked if I could buy these wasters. Mr. Mistry politely said it was not the policy to send wasters out to the public; they would reflect poorly on the Mint's quality and wind up in antique shops, bazaars and even cash boxes.
    The highlight was our visit to the exclusive and well-guarded gold room. Here, gold scrap was melted and poured into molds for ingots.
    Since India did not make gold coins in 1974, the ingots were a part of the national treasury. Only when needed for making medals or special commemorative coins would the ingots be melted into planchets.
    One worker proudly showed us an ingot that probably weighed 30 pounds and commented how heavy it was, even though it was quite a bit smaller than a brick. He was wearing steel-tipped sandals — a smart move, since dropping such an ingot could destroy one's toes.
    The gold furnace was searing hot, and although it was December, the room was quite hot and humid. The furnace also included worker's used aprons, sandals and clothing, since they contained small amounts of gold dust.
    The exhibit room featured coins made at the I.G. Mint over the previous 130 years or so. It was an impressive display. None of the older coins was for sale, although recently issued commemorative sets such as the Gandhi two-coin set were still available at face value. I bought several.
    I also bought a bag of 500 of the Nehru 50-Paisa coins, as they were quite attractive — and only 7 cents each. I knew I could sell them at a coin show for more than double that.
    Finally, Mr. Mistry presented our group with medals — one each for the 12 members of the group and inscribed on the reverse, "Chapman College Visit, December 16, 1974," along with the name of each member of our tour group. I had provided that information when I arrived at the Mint a few hours earlier. Each medal came in a plush box with the IG Mint seal on the outside.
    Mr. Mistry hosted a tea in his office for my group, and he had copies of modern coin catalogs, Coin World, and other numismatic references on his shelves. He expressed his pleasure at having our group visit his facility — which was usually only accorded to high-ranking foreign officials.
    Upon leaving, Mr. Mistry told us to visit one of the city's best known antique shops, Phillips Antiques near the Prince Albert Museum. We were driven there in cars provided by the Mint.
    In the shop, I managed to located a few trays of U.S. coins, and I culled a few high-end Buffalo nickels for less than $1 each and also a few dozen silver tankas (Tibetan silver coins of the 17th and 18th centuries) for less than $1. Some of the others in my group bought antiques.
    We had plenty to talk about once we returned to the hotel. I sent Coin World a summary of the trip to the Mint.
    It was a few hours out of our day, but a full and exciting tour, not one the average tourist could encounter. I kept in touch with Mr. Mistry for several years.
    Upon my return to my post at Chapman College, I presented college president, Donald Kleckner, with one of the visitor medals I had the mint engrave with his name. A photo of Dr. Kleckner and me appeared in the college paper (as well as Coin World) with the presentation of the medal.