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The Flipside with Robert R. Van Ryzin

Drinking and Coin Cleaning a Deadly Mix
September 12, 2007



Don't drink and clean your coins! Actually, it's best not to clean coins in the first place. It's too easy to damage the coin, resulting in an unnatural color or miniscule scratches that can be seen under magnification and lower the coin's value.

However, coin cleaning has not always been taboo. And in one case it led to the death of a prominent 20th-century numismatist.

It all happened on June 24, 1922. World-renowned numismatist J. Sanford Saltus was discovered in his room at London's Hotel Metropole, lying on the floor, fully dressed. He was dead at age 69, but not from natural causes.

A coroner's jury labeled Saltus's passing as "death by misadventure," according to an account in the August 1922 issue of the American Numismatic Association's publication, The Numismatist.

The day prior to his death, Saltus purchased a small quantity of potassium cyanide for use in cleaning silver coins he had just purchased. The Numismatist noted, "Potassium cyanide, although one of the most deadly poisons, is frequently used by collectors in cleaning coins..."

Unfortunately, at some point after Saltus retired to his room, on the 24th, he ordered a bottle of ginger ale. "A glass containing the poison and another glass containing ginger ale were found side by side on the dressing table," The Numismatist reported, "and it is believed that while interested in cleaning the coins he took a drink of the poison in mistake for the ginger ale." Ouch!

At the time, Saltus, who hailed from the United States, was president of the British Numismatic Society as well as one of the major benefactors of the American Numismatic Society. A prestigious award for medallic art is still presented each year in his honor by the ANS.

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About the Author
Robert R. Van Ryzin has been a coin collector for 30 years. He has served as editor of Krause Publications Coins and Coin Prices magazines since 1994. He joined the firm in 1986 after obtaining a master of fine arts degree in history from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Prior to becoming a magazine editor, he worked on World Coin News as a staff member and later served as managing editor of Numismatic News. Van Ryzin, whose specialty is U.S. coinage history, is also the award-winning author of the book Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (Krause Publications, 2001), as well as two earlier titles, Twisted Tails: Sifted Fact, Fantasy and Fiction from U.S. Coin History (Krause Publications, 1995) and Striking Impressions: A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S. Coins (Krause Publications, 1992).

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