Beware the Turkey Coin Con
Turkey’s bazaars are famous for gold. You can buy gold rings, bracelets, earrings, necklaces and even gold coins for a reasonable price. But beware of anyone trying to sell you Ottoman coins—you might be the target of the Turkey coin con!
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In Istanbul, you simply can’t escape the allure of gold. Entering the Grand Bazaar through the main gate, you stumble into Aladdin’s cave: the street of the jewellers. Shop upon shop, stall upon stall spill over with the most gorgeous rings, bracelets, necklaces and coins. And each and every one of the shopkeepers jumps out at you, praising his wares as the best and cheapest, trying to entice you to enter and to spend a good chunk of your holiday money.
You hear it often: Gold is cheap in Turkey. This statement needs modification. Much of the best jewelry in Turkey is made of 22 carat gold. The pieces are sold by weight with a certain amount added on for the work and for the jeweller’s profit. The price for the gold as such is linked to the dollar and therefore is the same as everywhere else.
However, labour costs in Turkey are cheaper, and that’s what makes a lovely and valuable piece of jewelry more affordable in Turkey than in other countries. The more elaborate the necklace or bracelet, the higher the price related to the work. This is where the bargaining comes in. If you are interested in a particular piece, you sit down in the jewelry shop, drink many glasses of tea hospitably offered by the owner, and barter to your heart’s content. Don’t be afraid to leave and do the same next door. It’s fun, it’s traditional and is an experience all by itself.
The best value for money lies in gold coins. There is next to no work in them and you mostly pay for the weight plus a little profit for the jeweller. Gold coins are a traditional gift in Turkey for weddings, births, circumcisions and other family occasions, which is why every jeweller carries a huge selection of gold coins in all sizes.
While you are looking at the coins on offer, the jeweller might delve into a drawer and pull out a big gold coin—describing it as a collector’s item—and offer to sell it to you. This is the “Ottoman coin.” These coins are heavy, big, beautiful—and they are often the centre piece of a con game.
Ottoman coins are antique coins and the experts distinguish between Hamids (which are older) and Reshads (which are more common). Each coin contains 22 carat gold and must weigh exactly 36 grams. Original coins are very rare and difficult to come by—and even if you do actually come across one, you may not be able to take it out of the country.
The Ottoman Empire ended on November 1, 1922, and it is strictly forbidden to export anything from Turkey that is older than 100 years, including coins. A jeweller might try to sell you a coin dated, say, 1734, but this date refers to the Arabic calendar, not the one we use today. But even if the coin actually did date from 1734, you could not take it home with you.
The truth is, many so-called Ottoman coins are brand new, although they might look antique. They are simply replicas and not worth more than the gold content. Worse, there are countless forgeries around, made in other countries and illegally smuggled into Turkey with the result that the coins have a lesser gold content or weigh less than 36 grams. Even experts have difficulties discerning them. So pass up on the Ottoman coins and buy modern ones instead, which bear the portrait of Atatürk. The biggest weighs 36 grams and contains 22 carat gold.
If you opt for a piece of jewelry, you should know that you can export precious stones or metal up to a value of $15,000, an amount that buys you a lot of bling in Turkey.