As It Happens

Rare Indian coin spotted on vintage charm bracelet fetches $500K at Ottawa auction

An Ottawa auction assessor spotted something unusual on a charm bracelet and wound up netting his lucky client a little history lesson and $500,000 to boot.

'If the coin could tell a story, I'd wonder how it got onto that charm bracelet,' says assessor Ian Byfield

One side of the $500,000 coin features two Hindu deities, left, and the other side features Arabic writing, right. (Walkers Auctions)


To the untrained eye it was just another trinket — a charm bracelet that had strung together a little bowling pin, an itsy-bitsy Eiffel tower, and a curious coin.

But something about that coin caught Ian Byfield's eye. And now, thanks to his detective work, the bracelet's owner is half a million dollars richer.

"If the coin could tell a story, I'd wonder how it got onto that charm bracelet," Byfield, an assessment specialist at Walker's Auction House in Ottawa, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Last month, the gold coin from that vintage charm bracelet sold at auction for $504,000. The story was first reported by the Ottawa Citizen.

The coin's value and history may never have been known had the owner not brought it to Byfield.

"It was previously appraised by somebody else and they didn't catch this coin," Byfield said. "So when this person brought the piece in, they weren't really expecting anything."

At first glance, Byfield says he wasn't expecting much either. But after looking over the bracelet again, he recognized the coin was unlike all the other charms.

"It has these dots around the edges and it also had the Islamic writing on the backside," Byfield said. "I thought that it's possible that this could have been a coin — or it could have been a pendant of some sort, for prayer or something else."

Recognizing the client might have something special, Byfield suggested they hold off selling the bracelet until more research was done.

Byfield says the Hindu deities on the coin are Rama and Sita. (Walkers Auctions)

Byfield eventually learned the coin was made in 1605 in India, during the Mughal Empire and reign of Muhammad Akbar. One side of the coin features Arabic writing, but the peculiar detail is that the other side features the Hindu deities Rama and Sita.

"It's the only time that an Islamic ruler has put deities of another religion on their coin. So that was one of the major steps forward back then for this leader to try to do," Byfield said.

"Back then, this type of a coin would have been really against their religion to produce because it has two other religious deities on the coinage."

Akbar was known for trying to bridge the divide between the two faiths. Despite his intentions to create peace between the Islamic faith and Hinduism, Byfield says the coin would have been very controversial.

"After Akbar passed away, a lot of these coins were destroyed," Byfield said. "Maybe the only reason this coin survived was because somebody had converted it into a piece of jewellery."

Byfield also points out that the coin is worn down on the side with the two Hindu deities, which makes him think that the owner deliberately wore the bracelet to conceal that detail.

"It was my belief that that was the side that was rubbing against the person's clothing so they only were able to see the Islamic writing on the backside," Byfield said.

Byfield says 'it's the only time that an Islamic ruler has put deities of another religion on their coin.' (Walkers Auctions)

Given how few of the coins were made, Byfield says he could only find one other example of another one being sold at auction. In 2010, a silver version of the coin sold for $140,000 US ($182,904 Cdn.) he said. 

This time around, Byfield says the bidding started at $150,000 Cdn. After "a fierce battle," Byfield says an anonymous buyer was thrilled to add the piece to their private collection for $504,000. The bracelet sold separately for approximately $8,000.

"I knew that we were going to have something special on our hands that night," Byfield said. "It was just a matter of seeing how high it could go."

Written John McGill and Kevin Robertson. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson.


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