SCOTT SEMANS WORLD COINS


AFRICAN TRADITIONAL MONIES: MARKET REPORT     (025)




Note: This was written in 2001, so not fully up to date. Opitz page references are to the 2nd edition, not to Ethnographic Study (3rd ed.).

   Just as the regrettable war in Vietnam brought a tremendous amount of Thai, Burmese, and Vietnamese "odd & curious" monies on to the market, the disruptions in Nigeria, Zaire and elsewhere in Africa may be behind the outflow of previously unseen items. Another factor is the "Africa Traders" This is the term everyone uses for the families of (usually) Nigerian or Maliense importers who are based in the West African community around Westwood Blvd. in Hollywood, CA.and scattered around the US and Europe. They make periodic trips to Africa to buy beads, wood items such as masks, modern wicker and "gift" items, and lately, old metal objects including many traditional currency, prestige, and religious objects. These are piled in their vans, and they run up the west coast, setting up shop in motel rooms along the way, selling to import, bead, and antique store buyers and the occasional collector. Generally I have found them honest and pleasant to deal with, eager to hunt out items their customers want. Some are knowledgeable in the origins, age, and uses of various objects; others are not, but rarely will they lie to make a sale. Their experience is mainly with "art" buyers, so pretty things will cost more than ugly, but important things. Typically they will have objects from one region for several months or years, they will sell excess quantities of items at ridiculously low prices just to clear them out, and then you will not see material from that region again. Buy from one, and soon you will get calls from others when they are in town.
   New material tends to go to Europe before similar objects are offered in America. This is why the two books by Roberto Ballarini, a gallery owner in Milano, are so important, along with Quiggin and Opitz. Here's a quick rundown (as of 2001) on some of the items I've been getting since my 1995 List 59x, which concentrated on bracelet monies and manillas.

BRACELETS AND MANILLAS

   I've managed to get some heavy copper "King" manillas from Zaire as well as somewhat lighter, but fancier brass "Queen" manillas. The few pieces that came up for auction in the 1980s-90s brought $300-$500 but they are more reasonable now. Of course, these are primarily ritual pieces and store-of-wealth, not circulating money like the small "Birmingham" and French (Popo) types. I finally got a big lot of several hundred "Birmingham" types and have sorted them by type. Also some larger pieces of the same shape that I suspect are Portuguese, Dutch, or earlier English types.
   A series of Zaire brass legband-armband-bracelet monies, the konga of the Mongo people, and related items (Ballarini p.116) has been on the market lately. They are generally not very pretty, nor have I been able to find much on them in the literature. These heavy pieces cost the African traders a lot to ship, and I think they have stopped bringing them because they do poorly in an art market - a shame, as this is terra nova for odd & curious collectors.
   Two other types of Zaire legband-related currencies have been turning up, both attractive enough to snare art buyers. Only one dealer has offered what I call "Ngelima Crescents" (Ballarini #75). Though plain looking in a photo, these are impressively heavy pieces and I do not think they will get much cheaper. On the other hand, the hollow, rounded copper anklets of the Jonga and Mbole (Ballarini #73) are truly beautiful and are "too cheap" now as the traders have brought more than the market can absorb. Even a set of two or three sizes is affordable now.

ROD & WIRE MONIES

   Less glamorous but probably of equal importance as money are the "coils" or rod & wire currencies. Quiggin (p.93) speculates that metal rod currencies may have been the standard in XVIIIth dynasty Egypt. In any case, from antiquity, drawn copper rods, both Arab-import and of Congolese copper, were the basic money from the Sahara to the Congo, later supplemented by copper or brass rod from seafaring Europeans (Herbert P.195-200). Various lengths and gauges of wire were standard in a given place and time, and the wire was often coiled into simple bracelets. Narrow-gauge wire used in Nigeria is usually called Calabar rod (Johansson p.43), while in the Congo the term Mitako served for a variety of local rods and coils used as currency (Quiggin pl. 2 #1-3, Opitz "Calabar rod" & "Mitako"). Probably the most exotic of these monies are the Ngelima "snake" coils (Ballarini #76) and the Boloko, a big croquet-wicket with feet. I have a good range of these wire-based pieces from both west Africa and Zaire.

ZAIRE COPPER BULLION ITEMS

   The best-known of these, of course, are the Katanga crosses which served as currency items in their own right and are pictured on the coinage of Katanga. The familiar "Handa" cross has come out in huge quantities, my guess being that they are pieces from the late 19th-early 20th century. The smaller "H" crosses and the tiny Sanga crosses have not been coming out at all. Other monies in this category are less well-known, and I've had to simply make up my own names for them: copper dowels with swollen middles, copper and brass wire-gauge pieces bent into figure-8's, and heavy, plain, ugly raw-copper bracelets of variable weight. The former two are obviously unit-values, while the bracelets clearly traded by weight - but what more can be said about them. Please request photos of these things, and if you have seen them published or in exhibits, tell me!

NIGERIAN IRON MONIES

   Kissi pennies have always been around, but around 1996 a hoard of larger iron types that have never been on the market before came up: Dubil, Tajere, Pur Pur, and the "Dutsi spike." The Dubil and Tajere, in addition to being the "Dollar" of the Kissi-penny series, must also have served as an iron source for smaller currencies, just as the Katanga cross was an ingot as well as a money item itself. See Quiggin p.52 on the importance of iron as money in Africa. The Pur Pur is clearly derived from a small hoe, but the several published varieties of "Dutsi Spike" - I have no idea why this shape was chosen, though the long handle and triangular "top" suggest a portable shrine.

HOE AND SCYTHE MONIES

   Quiggin is succinct, if dismissive: "In an area of hoe-culture such as West Africa, hoes themselves, iron for making into hoes, and inchoate forms in between may all be used instead of money, varying in name, shape, and value from district to district, playing an important part in marriage palaver, but presenting no specially interesting features." (p.74). Johanssen mentions other uses for hoe monies, and I can't help wondering whether their ubiquity in brideprice is not a survival of an earlier, more general currency use. Certainly the parallel with the tool-derived knife and spade coins of Chou China is intriguing and the central American hoe monies come to mind as another illustration of the utility = value principle.
   Every agricultural area in Africa has tool-derived monies, by far the most common being hoes, but nowhere is the more variety in these than in northern Nigeria. The foldout in Johanssen showing a dozen distinct types is testimony both to their variety and their rarity, as he has no photos, only line drawings. Eyo pictures six different types and mentions ten distinct types from one State alone. Paul Dillingham offered a few pieces of iron hoe over the years, but none of the Nigerian types. Apparently by 1998, however, the Africa Traders began getting into this region and found informants who insisted that what appeared to be unused, though rusted, tools were money. European gallery dealers such as Ballarini confirmed this status, and the traders have been bringing out whatever they can find. So far I have been able to purchase four different types of tang-handled pieces, two unpublished types with socketed handles at an angle to the blade, and one broad-blade with ringed handle at an angle. There are others about, as shown in Ballarini's 1998 work, and at http://www.myplanet.net /cansls308/jbh-art/, and I am confident that at least some of these types will come my way.
   Along with the hoe monies, my suppliers have been offering three types of an item almost certainly derived from a scythe. a tool for harvesting grain or cutting grasses and brush. The blade is very much like the "Austrian" scythe sold in U.S. hardware stores which I use regularly for clearing northwest trails in the springtime. The socketed handle further confirms their derivation from a tool rather than, say, a throwing knife. Ballarini (1998, p.9) attributes one type to the Kirdi of Cameroun. He calls it a "ascia rituale" though I tend to believe my suppliers whose informants label it as money, just like the hoes. Besides the twisted bodies, reminiscent of "Dutsi spikes" and kissi pennies, these are far too plain and ugly to be status objects in a culturally advanced area.
   Clearly ax-derived items are another matter. Throughout Africa these are status objects, usually quite fancy. Although wealth and status are inextricably linked in any culture, we should expect the less fancy types, if any, to have served as money in some sense. This will not dissuade the primitive money collector from seeking out the fanciest Zap-o-Zap he can find, however! In the end, most of us will collect what we like, using money as a unifying theme rather than a strict criterion.

IRON KNIFE AND SPEAR MONIES OF ZAIRE

   While cowries, lengths of copper and brass wire in various shapes, manillas, and other objects served as general-purpose currencies, iron knife and spear monies were associated with a specific transaction: dowry payment (see Quiggin p68-70). No doubt many types were used for other transactions, particularly between tribes, though "anthropological accident" may determine which are recorded; Quiggin's Plate 1 specimens probably reflect this. Opitz's next edition will illustrate at least 50 different types. These objects had other functions as well. The throwing knives, and some of the dowry knives, are functional weapons. All knives (all metal objects, in fact) had magical properties and may have seen ceremonial use; may were insignia of rank and served as a store-of-wealth for those whose status entitled ownership. Basic shape, handle, markings, and type of center seam (blood channel) are important for attribution I would suggest that any rounded collection of African monies, or functionally-derived monies should include a Zaire knife, but it is still a field dominated by weapons collectors. You don't have to pay William Fagan-level prices any more, though. I am able to sell commoner, plainer types around $65-75, up to $125 or so for rarer or fancier ones. The throwing knives start about $125, but I don't have fancy zap-o-zap or Pinga-shape (Opitz p.84,111) pieces in nice condition (these go to the galleries, think $400 up), nor true knife-derived currencies such as oshele or bubu (I'm trying!).
   Another function-derived iron currency is the gong and bell money of the Nkutshu and Jonga. I have both the lovely, waisted gongs (Ballarini #70) and double gongs (#71) and smaller pieces.

MAINLY METAL

   But don't overlook Kuba cloth, the nicely patterned grass-mat money of Zaire. It has never been cheaper, and it can double as a wall-hanging or mat beneath your metal pieces. Your wife can probably think of uses for it too! "Togo" stone money is once again available after many years. And then there are the old glass trade beads, mainly from Venice. I have yet to prepare photos of this vast series, but for a typical string (12" doubled) of old beads you will pay from $20 to over $200 depending on type. This is a staple item with the Africa Traders and the better beads have been going up at least 10% annually, as this hobby (margaretology) is growing faster than coin collecting.

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AFRICAN TRADITIONAL MONEY FOR SALE