The concept of what constitutes money has spread over time and across cultures, as evidenced by the coins from the Charles Opitz collection offered at the Stephen Album Rare Coins auction from 16-19 September, the company’s 41st sale.
One such shocking example of those coins that fall into the category of “ethnographic currency,” objects that often had symbolic and sometimes real monetary value, is the Tibetan prayer beads made from human bones.
The 108-bead strand of human bone is 63 centimeters (24.8 inches) long and fetched $660, including 20% acquisition costs, from an estimate of $250 to $350.
The bead chain (which probably dates from the 19th century or earlier) is encrusted with brass, turquoise, carnelian, coral and other semi-precious stones, also attached with two silver bead chains ending by a miniature bell (shang), altogether weighing 135 grams (almost 4 ounces).
Tibetan prayer beads (mala) usually have 108 beads, a number with theological significance in Buddhism. Beads made from human bones are quite rare and used for wrathful deity rituals.
The piece is cataloged by Opitz on page 61 of An ethnographic study of traditional moneyhis magnum opus.
For more on the subject, Opitz’s book is available online for free at www.traditionalmoney.com.