Monday, December 31, 2007


SHORT VERSON: I probably got had by a dodgy looking dude in Luxor's souk.

LONG VERSION: My tolerance for the hassle-happy, obnoxious high pressure Egyptian sales people in Luxor's souk (market) was, for whatever reason, remarkably high this afternoon. I had successfully negotiated a couple of cheap cab fares and was feeling high and mighty in my newfound bargaining skills.

But I didn't go looking for the usual pile of fake papyrus, cheap alabaster, raffish glitzy waterpipes, and other kitschy garbage the Egyptians dump on hapless tourists by the truckload. I entered one shop that looked to be selling (what appeared to me anyway) genuine antiques. I asked the guy where I could find some old or ancient Egyptian coins. He took me a couple blocks down where streed vendors peddled some of the tackiest junk and introduced me to a dodgy looking old fellow with a toothless grin, a knarly, dread-locked beard and a cigarette dangling out of his mouth.

I told him I was looking for old coins. He immediately looked around like I'd just asked for 3 kilos of cocaine or Israeli sub-machine guns by the truckload. He then fished out some grimy silver coins with Arabic written on them. He asked if I wanted to see more. I said yes and he swore me to secrecy before leaving his pile of wooden cats and showed me to his apartment. He was obviously putting on a show, but whatever.

If I thought this man was suspect before, his 'apartment' did nothing to put my mind at ease. His only furniture consisted of an old stained matress I wouldn't let a dog sleep on. Nothing else but dirt, trash, and thousands of cigarette butts in the corners decorated his floor. I supressed my gag reflex long enough for him to fish out three plastic bags full of coins in random order.

The only ones I knew anything about were several old Indian Rupees and three Eisenhower dollars. He looked to have dozens of coins from British Egypt before World War Two. I was certain they weren't worth much though, and he was asking for some pretty ludicrous prices for them. He also had a bunch of what he said were Saudi coins. But most of his collection appeared to be fairly recent American coins, euros, and some of the former European currencies. The ones I could identify seemed to mostly date from the 1960's and 1970's.

He did show me an old silver coin that he said was from Saudi Arabia. I liked it and made the biggest mistake in the book while coin collecting: I bought something without knowing anything about it. Sadly, I still can't read most of the Arabic numerals. But I strongly suspected it was at least 50-60 years old. It is fairly large, and I could tell that it WAS silver. The coin also has a VERY ornate Arabic Calligraphy inscription on one side. I liked it.

I asked him for a price and he said 1600 Egyptian pounds (almost 300 US dollars). I smiled, but silently balked. I threw out 150 Egyptian pounds (about 25-30 dollars). He went on and on in his raspy chainsmoking voice about how poor he was, how I was so privileged to see his secret collections, how I was insulting him and breaking the rules by not compromising and lecturing me on how to bargain. I responded with two hundred Egyptian pounds and silently groaned inside. He started all over again with the same nonsense.

I got up and said "Thank you for showing me everything, but I don't have that much money with me and I have to go." Then he got all upset and threw all sorts of protestations and offered me a "special goodwill discount" as long as I promised to return and do business with him and to refer friends and family to him. The special discount was 1300 pounds. I got up to leave again and suddenly the price goes down to 600 pounds. Now I knew he was full of hot air (or cigarette smoke in his case).

In the end, he sold me the coin for 200 Egyptian pounds, which is way more than I had ever planned to spend. Without knowing anything more than a novice American coin collector, I would say I certainly overpaid. I'm going to take it to Mr. Said in the UAS business office or an old souk somewhere in Kuwait to see if they'll identify it for me and tell me more.

The character was certainly a master at bargaining, but it was immediately obvious he knew next to nothing about coins. He could speak and communicate in a broken English, but he obviously had trouble following some more sophisticated questions about the coin. He couldn't read the European coins, mostly old Francs and Italian Liras, and frequently got them confused (something to which I did not draw his attention). So all I really had to go on was my own estimation of the coin and its value.

But here in the Arab world, I'm totally in the dark about coin values. I know when something is silver or gold, and have got a good feel for "size," but I'm not an expert. And who knows what this coin might fetch in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Egypt. Clearly, I need to do my homework when I decide to drop 30, 40 bucks or more.

Thinking back, I think I shouldn't have bought the coin at all, or AT LEAST read a guide of some sort on Arab coins. With American coins, I've got a pretty rough idea what the more popular coins are worth. If it is American, chances are I have an example of it, or have seen examples of it. I could identify almost ANY coin minted in America and probably tell you a little something about it. I'm weaker and less knowledgeable when it comes to grading coins and their conditions. But this is only because I don't buy the exotic rarities where the tiniest microscopic flaw could mean a difference in price of hundreds of dollars. I've never spent more than 90 dollars on a coin or bought something that was in mint state. I've also got the knowledge to navigate the Japanese coin market, although I'm no expert.

I don't think I was completely HAD by this guy though. It's about the size of the old, silver half dollars and its in pretty good shape. Any of the American Walking Liberty Half Dollars or Franklin Half Dollars would fetch in the range I paid for, so I don't think I overpaid too much (if I did in fact overpay). What bothers me is that I have no idea.

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