On Stephen King Rarities #4 (with Epilogue)

Oh, you thought I was done? Psych!

It never really ends, you guys.

Actually, it has ended, for now. But not without a denouement of sorts, involving suspense, trepidation, and finally, joy.

So remember I talked about this publishing house called Dragon Unbound, which did these funky cast iron and asbestos covered rebindings of first edition Stephen King books? The owner is a gentleman named Paul Suntup, a collector and entrepreneur, who apparently had bigger ideas. One of these ideas was a different publishing house, one dedicated to producing the highest quality handcrafted items possible. I know, it’s sort of a vague commitment –– how exactly does one even measure that kind of quality anyway? The mission statement of the company is simple and profound.

(Our) books (are) created with care and grace by craftspeople such as letterpress printers, hand bookbinders, paper makers, typographers and artists, using some of the finest bookmaking materials…they are handbound, one at time, and we go to great expense to utilize only the finest materials available. Most of our editions are printed letterpress, which is the printing method perfected by Gutenberg, who used it to produce the first book printed from moveable type in the West, the now-famous Gutenberg Bible.

Suntup Editions began in 2017 by publishing an art portfolio of David Paladini’s illustrations to Eyes of the Dragon, a book written (obviously) by Stephen King and one that would have fallen squarely into the young adult category, had that term existed in 1984. It was written by King for children, his and his pal Peter Straub’s kids, to be precise. Paladini’s illustrations graced the mass-market paperback, and this was the first time they got their due. Suntup would go on to publish The Covers Collection, a set of high-quality prints of Stephen King book covers, done with the original artists’ blessing. That project is still ongoing.

But in the beginning of 2018, a video on the Suntup Editions website announced that they were going to release their first specialty book. The promise was bold –– 200 signed copies, out of which 185 would be for sale at $525 each, plus 26 lettered copies at a staggering $3950, and a small number of unsigned “gift” edition copies for a mere $110. Renowned artists Rick Berry and Dave Christensen were picked to contribute artwork –– Berry produced 8 paintings, and Christensen, known for the original 70s covers to Salem’s Lot and The Shining, did a set of black-and-white illustrations. The descriptions of the books bordered on pornographic.

The Limited Edition is a smyth-sewn quarter leather binding, with Japanese cloth front and back boards and a gold stamped spine. The edition is printed letterpress on Cranes Lettra Pearl White cotton paper, and housed in a custom clamshell box with a leather spine label.

The Lettered edition is limited to 26 copies for sale lettered A-Z, and is signed by Stephen King, Rick Berry and Dave Christensen. It is printed letterpress on moldmade Arches wove paper with a deckled fore edge, and handbound in full crimson goatskin leather. Endpapers are marbled, and made exclusively for this edition. The binding is sewn and rounded with a hollow back designed to prevent sagging fo the page block.
The title is made using six original Royal glass typewriter keys which are inset into the cover, and the letter designation is a Royal key inset into the lower back cover.
The book is housed in a custom walnut wood box designed to resemble an original royal Model 10 packing crate, and features a black velvet-lined book bed. The box is laser engraved and handcrafted by Dick Olson at his workshop in Farmington, new Mexico.

The book that Suntup chose to inaugurate this ambitious project was, in a word, perfect. After all, what Number One Fan can resist the siren song of Misery?

Annie Wilkes by Rick Berry

Collector forums went haywire. I was following the Dark Tower boards, and there was no doubt that people were about to throw the contents of their wallets at the altar of Suntup. I was one of them, obviously. Except I had a sinking feeling that I would be severely disappointed by the proceedings. Years of experience dealing with Mondo poster drops had deadened me to the devastating pain of adding an item to a shopping cart and clicking on check-out, only to see the message “the item is no longer available”. Add to it the fact that not all the limiteds were going to be on sale, a chunk of them were made available to customers who had bought the portfolio and prints from Suntup before. The lettered editions were already snapped up. Things were looking bleak, but I was going to try, no question about it.

I woke early the day of the drop. Did everything with an eye on the clock –– I have had experiences when I missed a drop because I was distracted at the last minute. Created my account, logged in to said account, made sure I was logged into Paypal. Alarms were set to 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and 30 seconds to the release time. The sale was to go live at 8 AM on a Monday morning, and the next few minutes would decide if my week would be in tatters, or if I would be walking on air the next few days.

As soon as the buttons became active, my fingers flew on the keyboard. My stomach fluttered. There was a roar in my ears. Even as I clicked “add to cart”, I hit refresh on the backup laptop to make sure at least one of the orders would go through. Browser pages faded to white and status bars inched to completion. Teeth gritted, fingers clenched, I waited for a server crash, or a browser freeze. When “Order complete” message came up, the part of me still hopped up on adrenaline refused to believe in reality. I held my breath and waited for the actual email confirmation to come in. On the second laptop, I hit refresh on the main product screen. It was three minutes past eight, and the limited edition was sold out.

The email came in. I sighed. I remember laughing, and feeling light-headed and jelly-kneed. That whole week, I made for delightful company at work and beyond. It felt like a good start to 2018, a happy foundation for the whole year ahead. Reading the comments on the DT forum after the sale was over also made me realize just how lucky I had been.

Exactly six months later, on August 13, the package landed. Between February and then, I saw one copy of the limited edition (not the lettered) sell for $4000 via public auction, sight unseen. Since I was in Los Angeles, and the company is located in Irvine, I was one of the first recipients of the packages. It’s probably the only item for which I have created an unboxing video. Some day, when I am ready, the video will be put up online. Call me stupid, but holding that book in my hands felt like a quasi-religious experience. It was the first Stephen King book I bought via the primary market. That had to mean something, right?

The Fourth Book

Misery, Suntup Editions


Where do we go from here, how do we carry on

Will I continue to buy more of the King collectibles? Honestly, I do not know. Sometimes I feel like there is a part of me that wants to say “enough”. Comic art takes a lot out of me, and a huge part of my interaction with my primary hobby is to draw imaginary lines in the sand that dictate what I will go after next. It’s easy to give in to the frisson of excitement that follows a ninja purchase, but that is not what I crave any more. I have a handle on the art collecting bug, for sure. But there are enough Stephen King limited editions that make my palms itch, still. The limited edition of The Stand, for example, is bound in goatskin and comes in a wooden “coffin” box, wrapped in glassine paper. The Cycle of the Werewolf comes with a pencil sketch by Bernie Wrightson. And of course, finding a matching set of the Dark Tower Signed Limited books requires a matchless combination of single-minded determination, deep pockets, luck, and the right connections.

My absolute favorite King collectible is for a book that I never even finished reading, and one that does not figure on a top 20-list of his titles. It’s the lettered edition of The Regulators. Here’s the description (emphasis mine):

Hand sewn, hand bound in brown Morocco leather and Winchester 30 caliber bullets. The spine has the title and author’s name blind stamped wet to look like it was branded. The end leaves are of hand made and colored paste paper. The book is housed in a hand made faux-ammunition box covered in wood veneer with gold stamping on the side.

Yeah, the book has real fucking bullets embedded into the cover. But even more interesting are the signatures. Regulators is written by Richard Bachman, King’s pseudonym, and is a “dead man”. So to keep the story straight, the book came with dummy checks signed by the writer, which meant Stephen King signed as Bachman. Each check was made out to familiar names –– #A was to Carrie White ($125, prom dress), #I was to Roland ($50, a six-shooter), and #Q was to Pennywise Party Entertainment($100, balloons). A delightfully kooky presentation, and I have only seen it come for sale once in the last three years.

Books, Myself

On Stephen King Rarities #3

I know, I know, a third post on the same topic seems like a momentous occasion. My previous attempts to serialize any thematic content have crashed and flamed –– search for ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’, as an example. But this will be the last post on Stephen King collectibles, I swear. At least for now.

The Third Book

The Shining, Subterranean Press

Illustration by Vincent Cheong

I believe I have talked about The Shining and all that it led to at least seven times on the blog, so no more of that. Once I began my journey into SK collectible territory, there was no doubt this book had to be part of the collection. But this is where reality and the intricacies of the market come into play.

The limited signed edition was published by Subterranean Press, a Michigan-based specialty press that I have talked about in the past. This edition came with a bit of controversy before and during its publication. The original illustrator (Gabriel Rodriguez, of Locke and Key fame) was replaced by Vincent Chong. Early copies shipped out to buyers had significant issues such as rubbing, spotting, and color transfer problems. The publisher had to issue a dust jacket and send it out to buyers, along with a gift card for a future purchase and replacement tray-cases for copies that had the color transfer issue. (Details here)

The Subterranean limited release has 750 copies, signed by King and Chong. The book and the tray-case are beautiful, high-quality deckle-edged paper and print quality. The cover is minimalist, with beautiful patterns on a background of blue. Chong’s illustrations pop out on the color pages, and there was even an accompanying sketchbook that contained preliminary pencil pieces.

But the lack of any extra material is a disappointment. No preface, no afterword, no essay, or deleted material. What really got my goat is that as part of the Doubleday Years reprints that a different publishing house, Cemetery Dance was bringing out, this book got a different, unsigned deluxe release, one that was more desirable than the SubPress version. Why? An email from CD explains:

We have some AMAZING news to share. As you know, Stephen King has graciously allowed us to restore his long lost, 40 page prologue called “Before the Play” to the beginning of the book. It has never appeared in any edition of THE SHINING anywhere in the world and may never be reprinted again.
In the weeks since the book sold out, something even more incredible has happened. A collector named Jon Page contacted us because he had something very special in his collection: an earlier draft of the manuscript, when it was still called THE SHINE, which had been sent around to Hollywood production studios to sell the movie rights before the book was published.
This manuscript includes HUNDREDS of sentences, paragraphs, and even scenes not included in the final book we all know and love. Of particular interest is a four page section toward the end known as “After the Play,” which even Stephen King believed had been lost forever because he didn’t have a copy in his archives.
Thanks to Jon’s amazing discovery, and Steve’s generous permission, all of this Deleted Material will now be included as Bonus Section in our special edition of THE SHINING, which you already have on order. You do not need to do anything to confirm you are receiving this material, it will be in every copy of our edition.
Adding this material will take about two weeks of additional production time, but it means this version of the book will be as definitive as possible, which should make it an even bigger hit with collectors for years to come. A HUGE “thank you” goes out to Jon and Steve for making this addition to the book possible.

This was in addition to a foreword by King, and an afterword by Mick Garris, the director of the TV adaptation of the book. The TV miniseries, by the way, was King’s attempt to outdo Kubrick’s version, which he hated. The Cemetery Dance edition was also illustrated by Don Maitz and Glenn Chadbourne, and all in all, looked just as fancy as the SubPress edition. Except, like I said, it was unsigned. Well, there was an ‘Artist Edition’ signed by the illustrators, but no King signature.

So this is where one needs to make hard choices –– what truly is a ‘definitive’ version? Is it the author’s endorsement? Or is it something that contains all paraphernalia associated with a work? The heart says the former, the head the latter. I did end up buying the Subterranean Press version on eBay. Even got a limited UK edition of Doctor Sleep to go with it, signed by Stephen King with only 200 copies published. But oft in the gentle night, ere slumber’s chains have bound me, I find myself looking at Cemetery Dance listings on eBay. To sum it all up in a thousand words:

Umm yeah.

On Stephen King Rarities #1

I have been a Stephen King fan since a memorable train ride . My teenage years were spent writhing and giggling to his stories, until one fine day, I blinked, and realized that that crusty, fireside voice of his seemed a little too familiar, a tad too self-absorbed by the idea of the legions of Constant Readers hanging on to his every word. His writings seemed to have taken on a rambling, don’t-give-a-fuck quality that did not sit well with my tastes at the time. Like he was dusting off unedited, half-written manuscripts from his early years and hurling them at his editors. Specifically, his brush with death made it feel like he wanted all the unwritten material that bubbled in him—good, bad and ugly—to spout a spray of pages, taking his self-proclaimed ‘diarrhea of the word processor’ to its logical extreme. There were books that I did not finish because they were too self-indulgent. CellDreamcatcher, From a Buick 8.

But times changed, and I read Joe Hill, who reminded me how good his dad had been. Once I took a hit of King Sr’s newer stuff, it was hard to ignore the fact that the guy still had it. The Bill Hodges trilogy was fantastic, as was Revival. I began to keep track of Stephen King releases all over again, and began a reread of the older books. Turns out they still held up, yay.

And one fine day—because Marie Kondo or not, I am still a covetous creature at heart—I found myself wondering about how fruitful it would be to own signed copies the King books that I loved.

Background: Finding Signed Stephen King Novels

It’s easy to find signed Stephen King books for sale. If you want, I could give you two that I have lying around, or fourteen, if you give me a minute with that pen. What I mean is that it is illogical to buy a book that says “signed by Stephen King” unless you are very sure of the provenance. Counterfeit signatures abound so much that California recently passed a law to discourage fakes. This happens to be a terrible piece of legislation that, though well-intended, threatens small booksellers, some of whom are taking legal action against it. The only way of legitimately getting an authentic signed book is to attend a King talk or signing; but that depends on how lucky you are—a limited number of books are randomly signed by the author and then distributed with the tickets. Add to it the fact that he does not really travel to California, limiting himself to his Maine/East Coast haunts.

It therefore did not make sense to run after any signed book, then – the only alternative for me was an “official” limited edition. Most authors with dedicated fan followings are courted by small presses, like Subterranean Press, Cemetery Dance, Centipede Press, to name a few. These books are solicited in limited numbers, with lettered editions (usually 26 copies only, numbered from A-Z, and sometimes AA-ZZ, with a total of 52 copies) being the creme de la creme of the lot. Numbered signed editions come next, with print runs of a few hundred. Then come the “trade” or “gift” editions, which are usually unsigned. These books have small runs, have high-quality paper and binding, come in slipcases that prevent shelf-wear, and are often illustrated by big-name illustrators. They also feature additional material, if the publishing house is working in collaboration with the writer, and the signatures come on pages that are part of the binding.

Once I dipped my toe into the high-end collectible market, what began as a regardez-touche pas strategy online became a mad carousel of heady information:

  • Who knew that the Doubleday printings of the early King novels were so reviled? Badly printed with cheap glue binding, that’s why. Though first printings command high prices on the market, they were not aesthetically appealing, and King collectors hate them. Cemetery Dance actually republished the first six King books in limited collectible editions recently.
  • I had no idea that King himself owned a publishing house called Philtrum Press based in Bangor, Maine, where he oversaw the printing of several limited edition signed and numbered books. Philtrum’s output included The Plant, an episodic novel that was meant to be a Christmas gift to close King friends, and were later released as a pay-as-you-like e-book in an experiment to test the online market—that didn’t work out, and King hasn’t finished the book yet. The same press also released the limited edition of Eyes of The Dragon.
  • A company called Dragon Rebound is releasing its custom rebound editions of Stephen King’s books. Here’s the concept — they take first edition copies of a King book and bind it afresh, and that feels like an understatement after I have typed it out. Their Firestarter release, for example, have covers made of real sycamore wood that has been scorched by fire. Their copy of It comes in a fucking cast iron case, one that resembles a sewer grate. While these books are not signed by the writer, they are seriously limited. The first three books in the series have 26 copies each, while the fourth has 52. There apparently is a wait-list of 250 people waiting to jump in.

However, getting hold of those signed limited editions involves either crouching like a tiger and not draggin’ your hide when the books come up on eBay—sorry, couldn’t resist—or waiting for the next King book to be solicited by any of those publishers. The latest one to get the deluxe treatment was Sleeping Beauties, from Cemetery Dance. I was this close to ordering the limited edition for myself but the $475 retail price stopped me at the last minute. Also does not help that the book, solicited in 2016, still hasn’t been published. That hasn’t prevented the secondary market asking price of about $600-750, depending on who you ask.

With King collectibles, in order not to lose focus, I set three major goals for myself. Three of my favorite books and specific editions, and happily, I managed to hit all three of them. Let me talk about the first one, then.

The First Book: IT 25th Anniversary Signed and Limited Edition

The first time I saw this book was in a movie called Stuck in Love. It’s a funny, heartwarming movie, where three of the protagonists—father, daughter and son—are writers at different stages of their lives. Long story short, there is a Stephen King cameo (just not the way you think) and the limited edition of the book makes an appearance. I was struck by the cover art, the hefty size and of course, because of the fact that this was It, goddammit (um, what?). The book that King refers to as his ‘final exam on Famous Monsters’, and writes about thus in his afterword to this edition of the book.

The central conceit of the book came to me one day when I was walking across a wooden bridge over a dry stream. The hollow thud of my bootheels made me remember a story from my childhood: “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” There was a troll in the story, hiding under a bridge very much like the one I was crossing.

“Who is that trip-trapping on my bridge?” the troll would ask, a question that struck me—even as a child—as innocent on top, but very sinister beneath. As my bootheels clomped, I began thinking about the differences between our childhood fears—monsters, abandonment, monsters, mistreatment, monsters, bullies, monsters—and our more mundane adult fears, like whether or not our job’s insurance program covers dental. It seemed to me that we forgot the vividness of those childhood fears as we grew to adults, which might make us uniquely vulnerable to them if they ever came back…not as the shadows of tree-limbs on the wall or an imagined movie-poster monster in the closet, but as real things.

I began to see a structure where I could alternate children battling real monsters with the adults they became twenty-five years later. The monster would be a kind of psychic projector, which would allow me to use all the monsters that frightened me at the Saturday matinees of my youth: the mummy, the Crawling Eye, the werewolf, even that uniquely wonderful Japanese monster, Rodan. That idea delighted me. All the monsters! All the fucking monsters! And what would the central monster be? The one hiding behind all the masks and mirrors? It turned out to be a vast spider (think Tarantula!), but I didn’t know that when I started, and it didn’t matter to me. I understood it would really be the troll. The one hiding under all the bridges we cross on the chancy (but wonderful) journey from childhood to adulthood. The one that finally reaches up and pulls all of us under, which we call “dying.”

Let me point out though, that the gift edition appears in the movie, and this version comes in a slipcase and is unsigned. The limited edition comes in a faux leather tray-case, and is signed by both King and the three(!!) artists: Glen Orbik, Alan Wells and Erin Clark. There are 2750 copies of the gift edition, but only 750 of the signed version.

I had been tracking the availability of this book online since I saw it in Stuck in Love, and saw the asking price increase steadily over the years even as copies seemed to become scarcer. Thankfully, my timing was just right — a month or so after I bought my copy, prices started going haywire because of the buzz on the movie. Right now, copies are around the $2800 mark. I paid less than half of that for mine. Pictures below are from an un-numbered PC (Publisher’s Copy) sold at auction. Mine is numbered.

Needless to say, the book looks and feels incredible. The silver embossing on the leather tray-case, hell, the tray-case itself begs to be caressed. The pages have a red color on the edge, like blood seeping into the writing. Seeing the signature on the book (this was the first signed King book I bought) gave me butterflies in my tummy. I will be honest: unlike Frank Darabont, who claims to treat his copies of collectible books as if they were reading copies, I do not have it in me to flip through this book to read it. Which is a contradiction of sorts, I know, but I do most of my reading on the Kindle anyway. I like having this copy on my shelf, as a memory of how far I have come from my teenage days of reading Stephen King via half-torn library paperbacks. Every now and then, I pull it out, read a few pages, and marvel at the turn of events that led me to own a piece of King memorabilia.

Comic Art

A Good Art Year

2010  has been a good year for art.

I refer to ‘comic art’ by the way, not art as in music or drama or art art, if you know what I mean. To be even more specific, I refer to my small collection of comic art,  something which has taken up quite a bit of my daily life. Hello, I am a Comic Art Addict and proud of it.

At the beginning of last year, I was fairly convinced that there was one great piece that I would buy. It was a page that I saw when I was in LA towards the end of 2009, in a friend’s collection. I was at his place, and he had just finished showing me the pieces on his wall, and then remembered a bunch of stuff that had just been framed but were not up on the wall yet. It was a page from one of my favorite comics, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

A brief word on the art of Sandman – in course of its 75 issues, the series had a tremendous line-up of artists, some extraordinary. most of them good, a few pretty middling. In most cases, the bad printing process on the series – remember that this was the late 80s/early 90s, where comics were just beginning to get used to computer coloring, and the quality of the paper, while not the cheap newsprint quality ‘mondo’ format from the 60s and 70s, was still far from the glossy format you young punks are familiar with today. So some of the printed art came out muddy and ugly, which ruined some of the artwork. Especially the work of Mike Dringenberg. Dringenberg was co-creator of the Gaiman run on Sandman, he inked Sam Kieth’s work in the early issues, and when Kieth moved on by the end of the first arc, Dringenberg took over the pencilling duties, along with inker Malcolm Jones III. Because of the aforementioned quality issues, I never really appreciated Dringenberg’s work all that much – and was glad when Kelley Jones, who was to become one of the all-time great Batman artists by the early 90s, took over the acclaimed Season of Mists arc. Dringenberg pencilled the first and last issues of Season of Mists, and that’s it. He moved on from comics work, apparently, going on to illustrate children’s books and album covers.

The first chapter of Season of Mists, issue 21, was the first in which six of the seven Endless make their appearance. So far, readers had seen Dream and his sister Death, and there were hints dropped by the writer about the fact that those two might have other siblings. The introductory sequence in that chapter had an interlude of sorts, where Gaiman wrote brief essays about the six Endless, choosing to omit the Prodigal (we are to find out later that it’s Destruction, who abdicates his position). Desire and Despair on one page, then Destiny and Delirium, and finally Dream and Death.

This last ‘interlude’ page was the one my friend owned.

I had to sit down. Because the art was so brilliant, so delicate and otherworldly that it made my knees weak. The expression on Death’s face, the bubbly water-color shadow that Dream cast behind him (later, when I held the page in my hands, free from the framing glass, I saw that Dringenberg had used glossier paper pasted on the bristol board – probably to enhance the watercolor effect), and the overall  My friend had asked me a few weeks ago about which page from his collection I liked the most, and I had, without hesitation, mentioned one that had struck my fancy. At the moment I saw the Sandman #21 page, I changed my mind, and I told him so. He smiled, and said that if he was ever going to sell this page, I could buy it from him at the price he had originally bought it for. Which was a lot, obviously. But yup, if there was ever a gotta-get-this-or-I-shall-regret-this-forever moment for me, it was when I saw this page. So I agreed.

A lot of collectors do not like artwork that has been personalized to other people. This page has both Gaiman and Dringenberg addressing someone named ‘Jordan’. Gaiman has the words ‘First you dream, then you die’ scrawled before his signature, while the artist just let his art do the talking, and says ‘For Jordan’. I do not mind. Jordan, whoever you are, thank you for keeping this page in  your collection and selling it to the right person who sold it to another right person.

Because 12 months later, I am the owner of the page.

It took some careful budget management, and much brain-ache. In the meantime, I prepared myself mentally – I know it sounds pompous saying it aloud ( hah! Like the rest of the post doesn’t) but really, wrapping my head around the idea of owning it needed a bit of …self-conditioning. Reread Sandman again, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Read Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion, which gave me much deeper insight into the series, as I discovered things about it that I had not realized, or aspects of the story that I had overlooked. (I heartily recommend that you read The Sandman Companion, if you are a fan) And yes, I felt really bad for Mike Dringenberg, because his artwork, even in the Sandman Absolute Edition had taken a beating thanks to the limitations of printing technology. Or probably because the printer was high – the printed page made the blacks of the original pink – PINK! – because the text had to be given prominence.

Obviously that was not the only page I got this year. I mean, I do have self-control and all, but  the best-laid plans of mice and men….

But that, as they say, is another story altogether.


Collecting origins

Once upon a time, I was a coin collector.

It started with a small cloth bag that belonged to my mother. It was fascinating to me as a child because it was covered with brownish stains – sealing wax, but we thought they were the wrong kind of brownish stains – and that’s how she would discourage us kids from handling it during those occasions when she took the bag out. There was a tiger claw inside, and a bit of a rhinoceros horn, some odd-looking heirlooms and, as I found out one day, coins. Old coins, of different sizes, shapes and colours – and one even with a hole in it. There was a small one paisa coin that boggled my mind – “When I was in school, we would get two chocolates for a paisa”, she explained.  There was a yellow 20-paise coin from 1948, the year MK Gandhi died, with a lotus on one side and his face on the other. Brass, not gold – she said, before I could ask. The oldest coins were from the forties – the hole-in-the-centre was one pice, from 1944, when they were trying to save metal because of the War. There were interesting inscriptions all throughout, and inscribed heads of various Georges and Edwards.

Ma saw my curiosity and, I really don’t know why, told me to keep them. “Start a collection”, she said, probably thinking I would lose interest and misplace them soon enough. I was eleven years old.

What happened was quite the opposite. I was enthused enough to look up coin collecting in the Britannica set at the local library, and found out that numismatics had a long and detailed description. When I look back, the fascination was probably because of repeated readings of Treasure Island – old coins tinkling in your hand is the closest a boy can get to becoming Jim Hawkins. My collection, therefore, was in equal measure a role-play and a serious pursuit. Over the weeks, I grew more and more fascinated with coins. My small collection expanded via contributions from my relatives and neighbours – strangely enough, everybody had a coin or two stored away, either old or from another country, a relic of the past or a souvenir from a family trip, that they would willingly give away, seeing my eyes light up when I held them. One of the good parts of staying in the North East was being surrounded by so many nearby countries – very soon, I owned coins from Bhutan ( which were very, very easily available), some from Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh and Myanmar ( Burma then) and even a few from China, which was a little tougher to get. My father made a few trips to Delhi every year, and he would buy a few every time – I got a few Pakistani coins, a few Russian roubles and more examples from the British era. My collection was an equal focus of foreign coins – the plan was obviously to own a coin from every country – and old Indian coins.

Initially my coins, all ten or fifteen of them, would fit into a small container my mother gave me. But very soon the number increased to a quantity where I had to hijack my geometry box – which we had to take to school only once a week, on Friday – and used it to store my collection. And one day, I decided to carry the coin-filled geometry box to school, after which things got very interesting. Mild digression – our school had a mixture of Assamese, Bengali and Marwari students. One of the good things that came out of this was that we spoke in English to each other, because the Assamese students were wary of their poor Hindi – even though we could watch Hindi films and TV serials, there was a major complex about actually speaking in the language, probably because our accents were bad enough to evoke laughter among the Hindi speakers. The same thing held good for the Marwari kids – their attempts at broken Axomiya made us giggle. The Bengali kids somehow managed to speak in three languages, but out of an unspoken contract, we would speak in English most of them time, to avoid possible violence and “miss-he-laughed-at-me”-type complaints.

Coming back to the topic at hand – the first day I took my coins to school, I discovered two things – one, there were a lot of my classmates who had coins at home – “my father has been to Somalia, I think there are some coins lying around”, or “My grandfather gave me a few old coins, you can have them if you want”. So in a very short time, a lot of those stray pieces made their way inside my geometry box. The second thing was that some of them, mostly the Marwari students, already had coin collections of their own, and over the weeks that followed, they let out that they were interested in trading. Or “exchanging”, as we called it.

The weird thing – well, weird at that time, but natural now that I look back at it – was that within a few weeks, the number of coin collectors in the school increased radically. I am not taking credit for that, mind you, probably there was already a network in place and I was made part of it the day I brought my coin-box to school. But the strange thing was that classmates who were becoming my ‘sources’, who had brought me coins from their elder brothers or parents or relatives, either stopped or in some extreme cases asked me to return the coins they had given me – because they were starting collections of their own. Dang and blast! Coin collecting became a school fad, much like quizzing after Siddharth Basu’s India Quiz or exotic weapons after Amitabh Bachchan in Toofan ( to which I contributed as well).

And with open season came Fucked-uppery of the highest order. “I have some coins for exchanging”, someone would say, looking disinterestedly at my collection. “Do you want?” “I will see”, I would reply and proceed to feign disdain at the ones he was offering. This was probably my first exposure to the cut-throat world of collector politics, and I can’t even begin to imagine how much this prepared me for my future life. Things got more complicated. Exchanges would have to be conducted in secrecy, because rival collectors were always waiting to offer bigger and better deals to the unsuspecting newbie who has been convinced that a 1970 US dime is very rare, much rarer than the Italian coin his father gave him. Exchange deals were also marred by the crowd-swipe, which goes like this – some guy comes with bunch of friends and says he wants to see your collection. Everybody surrounds you, and as you show the coins one by one, somebody palms something. It needed eagle eyes and steel nerves to maintain one’s collecting enthusiasm in the face of such strong competition. On top of it, most of the well-to-do children were taking to buying coins – apparently, in a corner in Fancy Bazaar, the commercial centre of Guwahati, there was a shop called Bargola, whose owner sold coins at high prices, and quite a few of my fellow collectors sourced stuff from there. I was in no position to put any money into my hobby; finances were tightly controlled by my parents until quite a few years later and they would probably just take away collecting privileges if I insisted on pumping their hard-earned money into it. I had to figure out creative ideas to expand my collection.

My inspiration, at that time, was Tom Sawyer. Taking a cue from the book, and Tom’s entrepreneurial abilities, I had a bright idea. On a rainy weekend, I took about 10 Bhutanese copper coins, a hammer and a metal block. At a safe distance away from my usually-sensitive-to-sonic-bedlam parents, I proceeded to pound the coins until they became uniformly flat, with a few grooves remaining here and there. I then kept them buried for a few days, which took the sheen off. In school, a grand story was woven. “We had water in the house because of the rain, the other day”, I said. “And when the water was gone, I found a pot full of old coins just near the verandah. It was probably buried at the back and the water uncovered it.” School-children are a gullible lot ( heck, I was gullible enough to believe a lot of weird things – remind me to tell you about them someday) and by the time I repeated the story to a couple of people, the buzz was strongly positive. On top of this brazen yarn-spinning, I also kept my escape options ready. The collectors in the senior class, and the more retribution-prone among my classmates were told that my parents had strictly prohibited me from displaying or exchanging any of those artifacts. Some of the easily convinced classmates were promised that they would get preference for the eventual trade, if and when that happened. When I finally got two of the mutilated ex-Bhutanese coins, demand was sky-high. I remember getting an 1837 East India company coin, with “Victoria Regina” inscribed on it ( the later coins I had, from 1891, had something else inscribed on it, I forget the exact words) in exchange for one of them. The classmate I got it from asked me once, after many many years, the real story behind the treasure trove, and I finally confessed to the con. He shook his head sadly. I think he hates me now.

There are seven shades of love, the Sufis say – and my love for coin collecting crossed the first four – Hub (attraction), Uns (infatuation), Ishq (love), and Adiqat (reverence) – with a small hop and a skip, deftly sidestepped the fifth – Ibadat (worship) – and landed squarely into Junoon (obesession). Unknown ( or probably not) to those who knew me, I became possessed of a Gollum-like lust for my preciouses. The geometry box, once brought surreptiously on random days, to avoid confiscation was now always in my school bag. The teachers were aware of the rampant trading going on during school hours, and though they did not discourage the hobby, they kept any non-educational contraband in the school cupboard until you went and grovelled and apologized and shed a tear or two – but I brazenly brought the box everyday. Everyone knew about it. Geometry boxes have loose hinges, and occasionally a coin or two would slip through them and land in my bag. When I would search for particular high-point of my collection and discover it was not there, my heart would leap to my mouth, and I would frantically search the bag and heave a sigh of relief when I would find it, stuck between the pages of a notebook. I cannot give you any logical reason behind why I did all this – maybe it was the carelessness of boyhood, the ingrained belief that nothing bad will really happen to you until it actually happens.

The seventh stage – Maut (death) – was bound to come, and it did soon enough. One day the school bell rang, and all of ran for the school bus – a hasty boarding entitled you to better seats. School would be over at 3:00 PM, and the bus would start at 3:10. At 3:09, I remembered, with a sinking feeling in my heart, that I had taken my coin collection out of my bag and had kept it inside the desk, because the teacher in the last class had the tendency to randomly check bags. I stayed a very long distance away from school, no direct city buses – and my sister had seen me in the bus, so I could not even claim there was some after-school activity involved. I took a deep breath and made the worst possible decision of my life. “I am sure the box will still be there tomorrow”, I told myself. “Who on earth could possibly take it?”

The next morning, as you must have guessed already, the box was not there.

I cried a little, picked fights with a couple of collectors who others claimed had some of my coins mysteriously appear in their trades. Nothing much came out of it. It could have been anyone who took the box of coins and I had no proof anyway. The teachers clucked and made sympathetic noises and came up with the obvious question – “why did you have to bring it to school?” I had two choices – to start all over again, or to give up and pretend it did not really matter. I chose the latter, obviously.

There is a semi-happy ending to this, though. Two semi-happy endings, actually. My father and I went to Nepal in 1996, just after my board exams were over. He has an elder sister there, whose husband was ( he’s not alive anymore) a renowned editorial cartoonist and had great taste in literature – I did not meet him for too long, but I enjoyed every minute that we spent together. Anyway, so I was walking around Kathmandu with the pater, when we saw an old man with a bunch of coins on the pavement, and stopped to look at what he had. Strangely, the man was selling a lot of newer Indian coins – my father picked up a five-rupee coin, issued in 1984 with Indira Gandhi’s face on it, and asked him how much he was selling it for. “200 Rs”, he said. Both of us were amazed – we used to come across those coins very frequently, and well, they generally were used for their face value. There were other commemorative Indian coins there – the highest was a 100 Rs coin which had some insane price tag, but most of the rest were all fairly common coins, some we hadn’t seen in use at all. We looked around a bit, and realized that the high prices were fairly standard there – and quite a few of them got sold too. My father, after we came back to Guwahati, started a coin collection of his own, focusing on Indian commemorative coins post-1947. He continues to this day, and I remember to keep newly-issued coins aside for him when I come across any.

The other semi-happy ending is that because I had to fill the void left behind by my missing coins, I began to collect comics, which I had treated as very disposable reading material so far. And this time I was careful – no publicity, not much fuss, no evident enthusiasm when some classmate brought bound volumes of Dell comics of the 60s. That collection, obviously, continues to this day. Ain’t life grand?