Old coins and paper money are not just an antiquarian interest; they are also big business. Priyanka Joshi meets the Todywallas, who run India’s first licensed numismatics auction house.
The 103-year-old Todywalla House in Mumbai’s bustling Khetwadi locality may look uninviting, but it is the address of India’s first licensed numismatics auction house, and perhaps the only one owned by an individual to hold regular sales.
How Farokh Todywalla gave up his coveted bank job in the 1970s and set up the auction house is a story that everyone in the Todywalla mansion knows well and loves to narrate. “My grandmother refused to let him pursue his hobby as a full-time business, saying it was absurd to quit a bank job,” begins Malcolm Todywalla, Farokh’s younger son who is studying to become a certified numismatist. Farokh, now 62, quit his job anyway in 1974. “It all began when I sold off a few historical coins that I had inherited from my grandfather,” is Farokh’s version. “It made me realise that trading rare coins and currencies was more than just a hobby. I taught myself the nitty-gritty of the trade and so began Todywalla Auction .” It was not easy — it took six years of struggle, visiting government offices time and again, before Todywalla Auction got a licence, in 2004, to become the only certified numismatic auctioneer in the country.
Malcolm, 25, claims he grew up unaware of his father’s dealings with coins and their history. “But I guess it is in the blood. I began with stamps that were easy to collect with the pocket money I got as a child,” he recalls. In college, he worked as an intern with Todywalla Auctions, “handling all odd jobs at the office”. Soon the coins and the history in old currency notes got to him. So despite graduating in mass media, Malcolm is now doing a post-graduation in numismatics from the University of Mumbai. Sounding just like his father, Malcolm says, “The value of a coin depends on demand, supply, the mint that issued it, its condition, metal content, rarity and so forth. Coins containing gold and silver have greater market value but on occasion a very rare copper coin can be worth more than a gold or silver one.
Recently, Todywalla House organised its 19th exhibition in Mumbai, which included the rare gold and silver Hoan (coins) struck on the occasion of Shivaji’s coronation. “This exclusive exhibit was org anised to celebrate Maharashtra’s completing 50 years,” informs Malcolm. Over 1,250 numismatic (coins and banknotes) and philatelic (stamps) items were bought by passionate collectors. “We saw a lot of interest in Emperor Skandagupta’s gold coins. They are very rare and their calligraphic style makes them one of the most beautiful coins in Indian numismatics. Another star of the auction was a 1,000-rupee banknote from the 1920s; notes of such high denominations used to be printed in small quantities and are a rarity today. Also included were specimen banknotes of 100-, 10- and 5-rupee denomination issued by the Reserve Bank of India,” he elaborates. The youngest Todywalla’s favourite at the auction, however, was the tiger-slayer gold coins minted around 1,700 years ago during the reign of Emperor Chandragupta. “When the coins are in your possession, it is simply magic. But then you know they have to be auctioned off,” rues Malcolm. ” No wonder he feels that one of the most important pieces of business advice his father gave him was to “never get so passionate about the coins that you cannot sell them”.
Todywalla House members maintain they can spend hours deliberating the value of coins from the Sultanate era such as Razia Sultana’s Billion or Shah Jahan’s silver rupee. “Every coin speaks its history. The moment we hold it in our hand, we can tell if it’s a fake.”
Every member of Todywalla House is now involved in the family business, says Malcolm. His elder son Kaizad handles the family’s trade in antiques, his aunt Jeroo handles the administrative functions of the business while his mother manages the auctions, catalogue printing and liaises with customers. “I got married last year and persuaded my wife to give up her job and join as an intern — a position I began from,” Malcolm chuckles.
With the second generation at the helm, Todywalla Auctions is beginning to change too. It has a new website, managed by Kaizad, to spread awareness and the business. “While antiques over a hundred years old cannot be taken out of India without the permission of the Archaeological Survey of India, through our website we want connoisseurs to be aware of their market value. This way no fly-by-night operator can fool them.” Malcolm and Kaizad are also keen to launch an antiques auction this year that would offer authentic historical carpets, rare Tanjore paintings and collectibles such as tribal statues. “We have put together a catalogue with the history of the items and hope to make this a regular auction just like the coins and stamp auctions we conduct,” says Malcolm.
Auctions of rare coins and other currency are held twice a year.