The Road Less Travelled – Playing “Good Cop, Bad Cop” in Old Havana

In the first four segments of these “memoirs”, I detailed my rather profound transition from keen collector to apprentice of Paul Davis, and full-time dealer of coins. In these next couple chapters, I will choose to pause the overall progression of time and instead share with readers a few of my favourite anecdotes and experiences from the earlier years of my apprenticeship.

The first involves a rather memorable visit Paul and I took to Cuba  in late 1994.  This was an interesting time for Cuba, both in terms of politics and numismatics, with relations between the country and the United States frozen solidly in time. Trade of virtually any kind was forbidden between the two, and United States citizens were not permitted to visit Cuba.  At the same time, however, the state of the modern Cuban numismatic industry was remarkably advanced.  Not only were they proliferous producers of domestic commemorative coinage in both base and precious-metals (i.e. Silver and Gold), they were also the key minters of collector coinage to many other “veiled” socialist countries including the Congo (People’s Republic), Laos, Vietnam and Kampuchea. Add to this the fact that the United States was perhaps the world’s largest market for such coins – made acutely challenging by an absolute prohibition of importing these issues into the country – and a clear opportunity became apparent for any Canadian coin dealer willing to explore the development of a relationship with the Cubans. And yes, Paul was quick to recognize the potential of such trade, perhaps after having chatted with a represent of the Cuban Mint who would, on rare occasions, quietly visit the Toronto coin show scene in the late 1980s in order to try and promote their wares.

Thus, we began to import fairly copious quantities of the inexpensive Cuban 1 Peso commemorative coins in cupro-nickel, which featured a fantastic variety of themes ranging from mosquitos to ships to fish and fauna (together with, of course, the multitude of issues honoring the “fathers of the revolution”).  All of which, of course, had to be paid for in United States Dollars that could not pass through the U.S. banking system, in accordance with the strict sanctions of the day.

These sold quite well for us, and Paul soon decided that it was time to take our trading relationship to a new level. To Havana we would go, and press the Cubans on whatever more enticing numismatic goodies they might have stashed away.

Thus we set off on a chartered Air Transat flight from Ottawa – a plane that not only had a “non-smoking” section that ended one row behind us, but which also seemed to be okay with people actually standing in the aisle chatting while we were literally taking off.  Eventually we landed in Fidel’s Cuba, and after a bit of initial sight-seeing around Old Havana, I believe it was on the second day that we attended our appointment at the Cuban Mint.

Recalling this experience after 25 years, I do not recollect many elements of our overall visit to the country, yet my impressions of the resilience and self-sufficiency of the Cuban Mint remain sharp.  In spite of having been completely cut off from much of the western world for most of a generation, and the much earlier loss of their Soviet supporters to their obvious economic detriment, their Minting operations were remarkable. From the production of their own planchets, to the design, striking, packaging and shipping of a multitude of well-executive coins – both business-strikes and non-circulating commemoratives – and even to the manufacture and repair of their own minting equipment, the overall quality and volume of their output was (again) remarkable. Perhaps my most vivid memory was looking in on a laboratory-like room of ladies, all sitting at desks while hand-enameling the often stunning coloured Cuban coin issues (usually higher-denomination issues in pure Silver).

Eventually, after our full tour, Paul and I were led to a meeting room where we were to meet and negotiate with Mint senior management. I should note at this point that I spoke not a word of Spanish, and none of the Mint officials could speak a word of English. Paul, in his ongoing quest to better his grasp of foreign language skills (usually inspired by interest in a woman, in must be duly noted), had developed a functional understanding of Spanish, and was to be our facilitator. This I had understood from the outset. What I had not anticipated, however, was his unspoken plan for us to adopt a modified “good-cop, bad-cop” approach to the discussions, with myself as the decision-making chairman of the company, and he the negotiating underling.

Thus began a protracted and somewhat bizarre discussion where, periodically, they would pause while Paul gave me bits and pieces of their conversation, and then ask for my “approval” – at which point I would feign stern contemplation – and then respond. Looking back on the meeting after all these years, I sometimes wonder if I was actually a patsy, with their actual discussions having nothing to actually do with me. Who really knows!

What did come out of the negotiations, however, was very much a landmark numismatic agreement, for it had come to light that the Mint had built four “archival” collections containing one each of every modern Cuban coin struck in the building since the 1970s. These ranged from the hundreds of base-metal, Peso commemoratives referenced earlier, to rare and fabulous multi-ounce commemoratives and piedforts in both pure Silver and Gold, including patterns and test-strikings. One of the collections was mandated to be held by the Cuban government in perpetuity, and a further two sets were previously sold to the State Museums of other South American countries.  The fourth and remaining intact collection was now on the table.

The ultimate prize, however? The fabled “Lenin” 100 Pesos, a pure gold issue struck in 1977 with a total mintage of just 10 pieces. Certainly among the world’s most valuable modern issues at the time, with an envisioned retail value of  U.S. $10,000. An example of the coin hadn’t entered the market in more than a decade, and here was the only known potentially-available specimen put forward in offer to us , with one minor stipulation – it would only be available as part of a “package deal”, together with the other thousand or so coins making up this remarkable archival collection. We concluded our memorable “Bueno-cop, grumpy-cop” performance with a hand-shake agreement, and spent our remaining days in Havana sightseeing before leaving for Varadero, our ultimate departure point.

Sitting in the airport awaiting our flight, a lovely incident of happenstance occurred as I looked up and saw Canadian Senator Jacques Hebert strolling through the small terminal. The late Senator will perhaps be best remembered for his founding of the Katimavik youth program, which later spawned the much larger CIDA-sponsored Canadian World Youth program. It was the CWY program that had taken me to Nanaimo and Indonesia several years earlier, and I had long wished to shake his hand and thank him for the transformational experience – without which, I would not have met my wife Nana.  We spoke for a few moments, I at last shook his hand, and a bit of positive good karma came full-circle at that particular moment and place.

Back in Ottawa in the ensuing weeks, we prepared to welcome the Cuban Archival Numismatic  collection to its new home, after completing some complex payment arrangements for the six-figure purchase price.  The collection eventually arrived, and was fabulous. We produced inhouse a bound catalogue “Cuban Commemorative Coins” that immediately became the definitive reference on all modern issues of the Havana Mint, and which included a remarkable 44 coins that were entirely unknown to the collecting world prior to publication. The Gold Lenin immediately found a quiet home with Canada’s foremost collector of Cuban coinage, and the next few weeks and months saw an eager feeding frenzy among hungry collectors on both sides of the border.   I have never made it back to Cuba in the ensuring decades, and wonder how the time-capsule of “Old Havana”, together with their remarkable and historic Mint, may now change in this bold new era of Cold War dissolution.

Sean Isaacs

Next Time: “Right place, wrong time” – intercepting Canada’s most valuable stolen stamp collection

The Road Less Travelled – My own meandering path from collector to Numismatist

Scarcely a day goes by when I am not asked about my own foray into the coin business – was I always interested in coins, and what lead me to choose coin-dealing as a career? I am always happy to briefly share my story with those that are interested, but must confess it never really occurred to me to put pen to paper on the subject – at least not until I was able to enjoy my “freedom 85” retirement projects. Recently, however, I was inspired by my good southern colleague Warren Mills, of Rare Coins of New Hampshire, who has recently shared his own story with followers of their newsletter. In reading of his experiences, I suddenly realized “hey” – some of our experiences are quite similar, while others have been markedly different. The common thread we do share is that we have both chosen to pursue very specialized and arguably unusual careers in our love of coins, and after 27 years in the field, I realize that perhaps it is indeed time to reflect on my own numismatic life’s journey.

The “formative” years

Yes, I have always been interested in coins, at least from the age of 5 or so, which is about the earliest memories I have. My parents had done some traveling, and my collection was started with a small handful of coins that introduced me – at a basic visual level – to the wonders and diversity of the larger world. On my sixth birthday, my mother and I left Toronto for Cobourg, Ontario, where my collecting passion really developed. There were no coin shops, of course, but young and enthusiastic collectors tend to attract the support and kindness of friends and family around them, especially in a small-town setting. A wonderful elderly lady that used to mind me – essentially, my surrogate grandmother – managed the part-time Cobourg office for the Peterborough Examiner newspaper, affording me the occasional privilege of sorting through the mounds of collection box coinage, looking for something special. Like every other collector, I began to work on date-sets of Nickels and Pennies, but also had a growing special fondness for the coinage of other countries and of other generations.

Perhaps my kindest benefactor at the time was a delightful former London vaudeville dancer named Bill; then in his eighties, no visit to his home would end without the requisite show-tune performance, as he danced around his living-room with the energy and vitality of someone half his age (accompanied by ditty lyrics I would only later come to recognize as being semi-risqué). Bill had sent an early 1833 Five Pound promissory note to Spink of London for an evaluation, and when they returned it with their always-formal letter explaining it had limited value due to condition, he very kindly gave the note to me. I still own and treasure the piece, together with an 1867 Silver Franc – from Bill’s youth in the family pub – which was my first introduction to the stately bearded portrait of Napoleon III.

Thus, my collection continued to slowly grow and diversify, and with it my interest in history and geography rather than the simple aesthetics of shape and design (ironically, the latter subject of geography would prove to be among my worst as I later progressed through elementary and high school, although I attribute this to the great emphasis then placed on geology and topography, rather than people and places!). Raised as a single child (my two sisters were considerably older and off on their own), I was somewhat introverted and quite dedicated to my hobbies.

After a few formative years in Cobourg, we embarked on several further moves, eventually taking us back to the edge of Toronto’s orbit. My mother had become a professional Irish folk musician, and tours with her on the road (or alternatively, waiting for her to return from gigs) instilled in me both patience and the ability to entertain myself. Coins were the perfect companion.

Somewhere in this period I had graduated from the age-old storage system of envelopes and tobacco tins, and been introduced to the “2×2” packaging system. Thus, my collection became organized, and I remember many a trip with my entire treasured collection housed in a couple plain black binders, zipped safely within a white vinyl travel bag hung over my shoulder. I looked over my coins whenever I could, began to equip myself with some rudimentary grading skills by simply looking at and comparing as many examples as possible, and began to contemplate my two ideal future occupational choices – forest ranger or detective. Yes, coins were a smoldering passion, but I had no concept that their study or trade could actually constitute a career choice.

My first hands-on exposure to a true numismatic “collection” came at the rural Cobourg home of my mother’s beau at the time. An engineer by trade, he had inherited a world collection from his father in 20 or so binders. To a 12-year-old collector, being invited to review it was like being handed the keys to the Smithsonian. Old and new, Silver and Gold, circulated and mint. Many days were spent going through the beautifully-organized pages, comparing and contrasting grades, etc. Perhaps the most spectacular item of all was my first encounter with the fabulous 1971 Gold & Silver Proof Set of Iran, struck to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire. I simply did not have the market knowledge to provide an accurate evaluation on the collection for the owner (who, sadly, did not share his father’s interest in coins), however it was certainly in the many thousands of dollars. I do not know what ever became of the collection as a whole, though in a remarkable twist of fate, that very same Iranian Proof set would come into my Kanata home office 20 years later, with the former owner’s daughter and I not even recognizing each other until the set’s origins came up in parting comments.

Thus was the nature of my collecting path in those pre-teen years: independent, frugal, and worldly in scope. Not till early 1980, and a watershed decision on my mother’s part, did a first glint of my numismatic destiny appear on the horizon.

Sean Isaacs

Next Month: My move to Ottawa, and the discovery of a Numismatic Fraternity.