Man's bizarre business turns this trash into treasure
HOW much is a dollar worth?
If it falls between the car seat cushions, or it gets lost in the washing machine, it's worth big bucks to Ronnie Shahar.
Every year, countries all over the world ship millions of tonnes of scrap metal to processing plants in China, India and South-East Asia, the remains of old cars, vehicles, washing machines and vending machines.
The scrap metal is laden with old coins in every conceivable currency - chipped, bent, burnt, fused or otherwise severely mutilated - which have to be extracted by hand.
The problem is, no bank will take them. It's currency only a mother could love.
That's where Mr Shahar comes in. For more than 20 years, the 47-year-old Australian-born entrepreneur has been travelling across Asia buying damaged coins and banknotes in bulk, which he then ships back to the mint or central bank where they were born. The coins or notes are then redeemed for a lump sum, usually the majority of their face value.
It all started in 1989, when as a 19-year-old student he was travelling through Thailand. During a tour of a temple, he saw tourists flipping coins into a wishing well.
The temple caretaker took him into a back room where he revealed bags of coins retrieved from the wishing well, sorted by country. "They said, we can't use these coins, the bank won't take them. Where are you travelling to next?"
When Mr Shahar said he was headed to the UK, they struck up a deal: if he took the coins with him to London and brought the changed money on his way back, they would pay for his airfare, worth about £900.
"I took the coins, about six or seven thousand one-pound coins, went to London, changed them at the bank," he said. "On my way back about a month later I paid them. I thought, this was pretty good. I can fund my travels like this."
Mr Shahar, who now lives in Israel with his wife and three children, spends about 80 per cent of his time travelling around Asia.
He buys damaged coins and banknotes from temples, charities, second-hand stores, scrap metal recyclers and currency exchanges in more than 25 countries, typically paying 20 to 30 per cent of face value for coins and 90 per cent for banknotes.
He then repatriates the damaged currency in bulk to more than 70 countries around the world. "In Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, all these countries people keep a lot of Australian currency as a means of savings," he said.
"They don't trust their currencies, especially after the Asian financial crisis. But when they keep it, it gets damaged. They claim polymer notes are long-lasting, but when they're kept in hot, humid conditions they shrivel."
After being redeemed, mutilated coins are shipped from around the world to places like South Korea, where Seoul-based Poongsan Corp., the world's largest supplier of blank coins, melts them down into a coinage strip from which blanks are punched before being shipped back to local mints to be "topped and tailed". Banknotes are similarly recycled.
"It's a niche market," Mr Shahar admits. But one that has proved extremely lucrative. In the US alone, the Mint has paid out more than $US100 million since 2009 under its Mutilated Coin Redemption Program, until it was shut down in 2015amid concerns some of Mr Shahar's competitors were sneaking fakes through.
"I've made money and I've lost money," he said. "Governments over the last few years are becoming dishonest, they don't want to pay. America is one example. What they put me through is unbelievable."
Mr Shahar and his Portland-based partner last year filed a lawsuit against the US government after US authorities seized an estimated $US664,000 worth of coins as part of the shutdown. Mr Shahar expects to reach a settlement in that case shortly - and now has his sights set on the Australian government.
That's because according to Australian authorities, a dollar isn't worth a dollar - if your name is Ronnie Shahar, it's worth about four cents. "They've declared war on me," he said.
In Australia, the Mint and the Reserve Bank are responsible for redeeming mutilated coins and banknotes, respectively. After two decades and tens of millions of dollars redeemed, Mr Shahar says both organisations have stopped paying him for his business.