Ronald Cristal: The Jewish money man of Siam

A Brooklyn-born lawyer’s passion for coin collecting has made him the world’s leading expert on exotic currencies in premodern Thailand.

 Ronald Cristal, a Brooklyn-born Jewish lawyer at his office in Bangkok, shows a ‘buffalo dropping’ token from the city of Luang Prabang, in today’s Laos. (photo credit: TIBOR KRAUSZ)
Ronald Cristal, a Brooklyn-born Jewish lawyer at his office in Bangkok, shows a ‘buffalo dropping’ token from the city of Luang Prabang, in today’s Laos.
(photo credit: TIBOR KRAUSZ)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

As a general rule, buffalo droppings aren’t worth all that much, but the one Ronald Cristal is holding in his hands at his Bangkok office cost the Brooklyn-born Jewish lawyer a pretty penny when he acquired it at a sprawling weekend market in the Thai capital.

Should he choose to resell it, he could do so for around 100,000 baht, or $3,000.

There is a good reason for what may seem like a rather steep price for the black, badly pockmarked object that resembles a large, chunky beer coaster with a mangled rim. Despite its name, the “buffalo dropping” in Cristal’s hands has nothing to do with the bowel movements of water buffalo, those lumbering beasts of burden ubiquitous in parts of rural Southeast Asia.

To be sure, the 772-gram piece does bear more than a passing resemblance to meadow muffins deposited underfoot by incontinent ungulates, but it is a type of money that was in use in the 17th and 18th centuries in Luang Prabang, a quaint town in the mountains of northern Laos, which was then the capital of a small kingdom. This antique currency is made of pure copper, but what makes it valuable for Cristal, an avid numismatist, is its rarity.

“You very rarely see them,” says Cristal, 80, a naturalized citizen of Thailand who also goes by Ronachai Krisadaolarn, his adopted moniker that means “Victorious Warrior [with] Majestic Power” in Thai and carries an echo of his original name. “I have seen only two: mine, and another that is not as nice.”

 These coins with the Star of David symbol were probably made by Jewish merchants in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in Siam. (credit: TIBOR KRAUSZ) These coins with the Star of David symbol were probably made by Jewish merchants in the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in Siam. (credit: TIBOR KRAUSZ)

A reserved but amiable man whose graying hair is slicked back from a domed forehead, and whose inscrutable features befit a legal practitioner, Cristal appears studiously impassive much of the time and you’ll rarely see him smile.

But ask him about old currencies once in circulation in Siam and its environs and he’ll perk up, reeling off — in staccato bursts — pertinent details of this or that piece among the 3,000 prized items he has amassed over half a century.

“If you buy one old coin a week, in 50 years you get a big collection,” he observes apropos of that collection, which he continues to expand any chance he gets. “If there’s something I don’t have, I’ll buy it, but these days it’s very hard to find something I don’t already have.”

Cristal is managing director of Bangkok International Associates, a firm specializing in corporate and commercial law, where his desk is cluttered with prints of antique coins shuffled among files on legal cases. One minute you’ll find him scrolling through his computer with meticulously cataloged photos of peculiarly shaped tokens, ingots and coins. The next he’ll dash out from a room, only to return with an item he has just retrieved from a hefty safe to show you.

The minute after that, he’ll fetch his authoritative reference guide on indigenous Thai “primitive money” – titled somewhat abstrusely to the uninitiated as Siamese Coins: From Funan to the Fifth Reign – and flip open its glossy pages here or there to yet more photographs. His magnum opus follows his two earlier books, The Centenary of Thai Banknotes and The Coins and Medals of the Rattanakosin Era (the royal dynasty from 1782 to date), both of which are standard volumes of Siamese numismatics published respectively by the Bank of Thailand and the Thai Treasury Department.

These seminal works have bolstered Cristal’s claim to be the world’s leading expert on premodern forms of money from Siam, which even in the esoteric world of numismatics makes for an exotic field. “Thailand is unique in the history of coinage because no other place on Earth has had such a diversity in coins,” Cristal explains.

Coming by his knowledge of the country’s coinage in all its varieties has entailed a lifelong pursuit, for his main interest lies in mediums of exchange from preliterate societies without written records, and so plenty of guesswork is often involved about rare finds regarding their provenance, use and value. In discussing these unknowns, Cristal invariably hedges his pronouncements with “probably,” “could have” and other qualifiers.

A case in point: elongated silver bars rounded at both ends with a groove down the middle, and along both their sides, little lumps looking like pressed grains of barley. Called “tiger-tongue money,” these ingots came in various weights and probably first came into use in the 16th century in the Kingdom of Lan Xang, in what is now Laos and northern Thailand.

How the characteristic lumps were produced on the ingots remains a mystery and so does how much they were individually worth. “But you didn’t go to the market to buy a chicken with a tiger tongue,” Cristal says. They were valuable, in other words.

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The Kingdom of Siam’s very first steam-powered mint machine – a gift from Queen Victoria – began churning out standardized flat coins in 1860 on the grounds of Bangkok’s Grand Palace during the reign of King Mongkut, the fourth monarch in the current Chakri dynasty known in the West from the 1956 Hollywood musical The King and I. For hundreds of years prior, people who had inhabited the more than half-a-million square kilometers that is now Thailand, as well as lands on its peripheries, had created a unique array of objects made of gold, silver and bronze for periodic use in largely barter-based local economies.

It is these idiosyncratic mediums of exchange – from before newly minted Western-style coins came to dominate during the reign of King Chulalongkorn, Mongkut’s successor, in the late 19th century – that has captivated Cristal for the past half century. “I’m not interested in mass-produced coins,” he says. “I go for handmade tokens and coins with real historical value.”

To illustrate his point, Cristal retrieves another piece from his safe with its contents of rare coins. Like the “buffalo dropping,” it is an object shaped and sized like a coaster with a jagged rim, but this one is made of high-grade silver. One of its sides is badly disfigured by pits and hollows like the surface of the Moon, but covering the other are etched whirls and curlicues resembling sprays of coriander petals and sunbursts of globular rose blooms.

“Flower money” like this was once in circulation in the Lanna Kingdom of northern Thailand, which lasted from 1239 to 1564 and whose name translated as “The Realm of a Million Rice Fields.” Unlike modern mass-produced coins, each flower money piece was painstakingly handmade so that no two coins were exactly alike. “An artisan would make this by pouring liquid silver into a mold and then blowing onto it through a straw. If the silver was good, flowers would appear on the surface,” the numismatist explains.

People in this medieval dominion also conducted trade by exchanging golf ball-size silver bubbles, which are another highlight of Cristal’s collection and are now dubbed “pig-mouth money” because their bottoms resemble a pig’s gaping mouth (minus the teeth). Locals used several types of cowrie shells from the Mekong River and the Indian Ocean in their day-to-day dealings, but the wealthier of them employed pig-mouth money and other silver currencies for larger transactions, like purchasing homesteads and parcels of land.

Crude as pig-mouths may look to the untrained eye, these antique items remain stubbornly resistant to counterfeiting. The primitive techniques for producing them have long been lost, and with them disappeared certain telltale marks left on the objects by the simple tools with which they were manufactured. Authentic chisel cuts, or lack thereof, left by an artisan are dead giveaways to experts like Cristal.

“Have a look at this,” he invites. Pinched between his thumb and forefinger is a pair of horseshoe-shaped silver pieces conjoined like Siamese twins. Chiang money, as it is called, was another common currency in the Lanna Kingdom, which occupied a mountainous region around the city of Chiang Mai, where each locality issued its own version imprinted with its weight and place of origin next to the royal seal.

“The workmanship is fine, but not the material — silver-plated copper,” Cristal explains. “It’s flaking here.” He is holding a centuries-old fake coin, which is one of his prized items because surviving antique counterfeits are far rarer than authentic specimens.

Spotting fakes has been part of Cristal’s métier as a numismatist bringing his keen eye to the laborious task of identifying skillfully made modern counterfeits of old tokens and coins. Forgers, he laments, are getting better at fooling even some experts. “It’s getting harder and harder to tell some fake and real coins apart.”

Cristal shows me a page from an auction catalog displaying a commemorative one baht coin from 1897, its face stained by patina. Only 100 of these coins were ever minted, and one was recently sold for 1.5 million baht ($45,000) at auction. Another one of the rare coins up for auction, though, was a forgery. “After it was slabbed” – authenticated and encased in a plastic holder – “the coin was sent to me by the auctioneers and I saw it was a fake. The inscription on it was slightly wrong,” Cristal says. “Their experts never saw the originals, but I have three of them.”

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In the same way you can chart the history of coinage in Siam by browsing Cristal’s collection, you can chart his family history, at least in its outlines, by taking a look at some of the shelves in his office. On them are faded black-and-white photographs in gilded frames showing an Eastern European Jewish family dressed in Orthodox garb.

One old photo, taken in 1890 in a town near Lviv, now in Ukraine, shows Cristal’s great-grandfather, Shmuel, a bushy-bearded man in the company of his wife and three children, one of them a young boy in a black coat and a black hat. The boy’s name was Rachmiel, and he would emigrate to the US in 1906 and become Cristal’s grandfather. Shmuel raised geese, made slivovitz (plum brandy), and “lived to 108,” Cristal says. Rachmiel was a successful furrier in New York, but he made it only to 50. “He was walking on the beach with my grandmother when he collapsed and died.”

It was his grandmother Leah, a photograph of whom shows her as a matronly, rosy-cheeked woman in middle age, who introduced Cristal to the magic of coins with her jar of “nickels, dimes, and Indian-head pennies.” A Polish immigrant to the New World, she taught him the value of every last penny, and “let me go through her jar” in search of special finds.

Some other framed photos are of Cristal himself. In one he is a handsome young lad at his bar mitzvah with a tallit wrapped around his neck. In another, taken a lifetime later, the numismatist is now an elderly man with the arm of the chief rabbi of Bangkok, a Chabad Hassid, wrapped around his shoulders. In a third photo, Cristal is on bended knee before the late King Bhumibol, on the occasion of presenting the monarch with copies of his books on Siamese coinage.

Cristal, treasurer of the Jewish Association of Thailand, first landed in the country in 1969 during the Vietnam War, as a military judge advocate tasked with handling local settlement claims against the US Air Force in Thailand, where the Americans used several airbases. “Say one of our B-52 bombers crashed into a tapioca field,” he remembers. “I’d have to pay for the damaged crops, and for chickens that the locals insisted also got killed, and for traumatized pigs that wouldn’t eat, and for some enraged ghosts that had to be placated by expensive offerings.”

Then one day he wandered into a small shop peddling saddle-shaped silver sycee ingots from Yunan province in southern China. He bought the entire collection on sight. “I would start collecting a little bit here, a little bit there,” he recalls.

This was when he also clapped his eyes on centuries-old Siamese silver “bullet coins” and became captivated by them. These cowrie shell imitations (small silver ingots folded back at both ends into a ball shape) were common currency from the birth of the Siamese civilization in the northern Kingdom of Sukhothai from the 13th century through the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767) up until the mid-19th century, when Mexican silver dollars (the most widely valued currency of the time owing to their high silver content) were counter-stamped with the Siamese king’s royal imprint. Bullet coins ranged in size from mustard seed to orange, and Cristal would set about collecting them all.

The same went for antique opium weights shaped like animals (chickens, ducks, monkeys, lions, elephants), which were once used as balance-scale weights at marketplaces in Thailand, Burma and other Southeast Asia nations. In short order, Cristal acquired a large collection of them and earned the epithet “the King of Opium Weights” from some of his fellow numismatists. At a trade fair in Basel in 1973, he stood out with his oriental fare. “Almost everyone else was selling old Swiss coins and the like so I was very popular,” he says.

After several years abroad, he returned to Thailand in 1978 to settle down and practice law. He also began to frequent antique shops, street markets and numismatist gatherings with an eye out for newly unearthed finds. Often literally “unearthed.” Back in the day, in a world without banks, one of the safest methods for well-off people to store their savings in the form of coins, tokens and ingots was to bury them underground in jars, some of which were left there permanently for one reason or other, only to be dug up centuries later during construction projects, farm work and the renovation of old Buddhist temples.

“Coins turn up in the strangest of places,” Cristal observes. One such place was a junk shop in Chiang Mai, where he alighted on a “cow coin” of pure silver, so-called because its imprint features a cow with her calf. The coin dates from around the seventh century, when a Mon kingdom thrived in the region of central Thailand. “It’s an extremely rare find,” he notes. “You have to wait years, if not decades, to locate one.

“Here’s another prized piece,” Cristal says holding out his palm, where lies a movable pinky-size silver lingam (the male reproductive organ in Hinduism representing the god Shiva) enfolded in a shell-shape yoni (female reproductive organ). Such items, made of copper, zinc and lead, were probably used as dowry during marriage ceremonies.

Cristal has another surprise in store. From his safe he retrieves a tray on which are nickel-sized objects featuring the Star of David symbol inside a dotted circle, in a design that resembles a wheel with hexagram-shaped spokes. The tokens hail from the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok, whose cosmopolitan, religiously tolerant milieu appealed to the Jewish merchants who began visiting and settling there as early as the 17th century.

Were these coins made and used by the Jewish residents of the Siamese city? “There was a Jewish presence in Ayutthaya and there’s a whole box of these coins. Presumably the Jewish merchants made them.” Beyond that, nothing much is known about them.

Although these objects of probable Jewish provenance have been tangential in his collection, his unflagging interest in rare Siamese coins has made him a member of an illustrious Jewish club in his field. “Many of the major coin dealers in the world have been Jewish – Jacob Schulman, Harvey Stack, Ira and Larry Goldberg,” prominent rare coin traders and auctioneers who set up successful family firms that continue doing business.

Now and again, as Cristal conjures yet more old coins and ingots from his safe, an assistant drops in with legal documents for him to sign. Despite being well into retirement age, Cristal carries on working at his law firm while attending to his collection. In certain ways, however, it’s the latter pursuit that has been more rewarding for him.

“I don’t think I would have become the best-known lawyer in the world,” he observes, “but in one specific field, I’ve made my mark.”  ■