Archive | February, 2016

Legendary Legends

23 Feb

Without looking at your pocket change, can you recite the words on the obverse and reverse of your coins? It’s pretty much the same for each denomination, by the way. Time’s up! Obverse reads “In God We Trust” and “Liberty.” Reverse reads “United States of America,” “E Pluribus Unum,” and the denomination spelled out (like “Five Cents”). The new-fangled quarters have mixed things up a bit but those legends are featured on one side or the other. These are words our founding fathers felt crystallized the sentiment of the inhabitants of a new nation. Can you capsulize feelings about something in a few words? It’s tough.

U.S. coins obverse and reverse

Things were a little different in colonial Spanish America because a king (and queen, in name only, at the outset) was in charge and could call the shots. How do you express in a few words the way in which your new overseas possession should be represented? And what resonance would these words have in 16th century Spain?

A Spanish royal decree dated May 11, 1535, established some basic designs that coins from the first mint in the New World, in Mexico City, would contain. The legends  would read the words “Carolus et Joana” (for Charles and Joanna) and “Reges Hispanie et Indiarum” (Regents of Spain and the Indies) or “what can be included of this.”  An interior inscription would read “Plus Ultra,” (More Beyond, and often expressed as simply Plus) which was “the device of the Emperor, my lord.” While the names of the rulers would change, the words “Hispanie et Indiarum” and “Reges,” (or Rex in the singular)  lasted for centuries.

8 Reales

Lot 404, Sedwick Treasure Auction #14, November 2014, First Dollar of the New World

How powerful an expression something like “ruler(s) of Spain and the Indies” must have been to those who could read. And “More Beyond” linked with the Pillars of Hercules was another striking image of Spain’s rising superiority overseas. How does this compare with “Liberty” or “E Pluribus Unum”or “In God We Trust”? And how true are these words today? Certainly Spain is no longer the ruler of the Indies and there is no “more beyond” unless you count outer space.


Lot 713, TA# 18, October 2015, 1691 8R Royal

Lot 713, Sedwick Treasure Auction #18, October 2015, 1691 VR 8 reales Royal


An Object Lesson for Collectors

10 Feb

When you spend a lifetime collecting coins or artifacts (or both) that bring a smile to your face every time you look at them, why do you drop the ball when deciding what happens to them when you’re no longer around? Why do you spend so much time poring over auction catalogs, visiting shows, and reading references but don’t keep updated lists of what you have and who should have them when you’re gone? I guess it’s in our nature to covet things and fulfill our desire of having them without performing the mundane task of cataloging them and deciding what to do with them once we’re gone. And public storage companies are glad of it!

A recent report from Tom Vanderbilt at notes that “according to the Self Storage Association, a trade group charged with monitoring such things, the country now possesses some 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage. All this space is contained in nearly 40,000 facilities owned and operated by more than 2,000 entrepreneurs, including a handful of publicly traded giants like Public Storage, Storage USA, and Shurgard.” Storage Facility logoGranted that there are many reasons for the 75% increase in storage facility use since 1995, but one is that when we clean out the house of a deceased relative, the last thing we want to do is inventory his or her possessions and figure out who gets what.  So we load up the UHaul, sign a rental agreement, and put them in a locked facility until such time (if ever) we want to deal with them.

Coins may not fall into this category as much as artifacts because they are much smaller and more portable, but they definitely find their way to oblivion when no one (but you, the deceased!) knows what they’re worth or who should dispose of them.

Giant Clam ShellArtifacts can be small or quite large. I have a beautiful whole giant clam shell that my father bought many years ago and displayed at my parents’ beach house. I had to arm wrestle my siblings for it, but what if no one wanted it? What would have become of that gorgeous, albeit very heavy, specimen created by Mother Nature?

Recently I was asked to investigate the whereabouts of some shipwreck artifacts that were housed at a local landmark hotel, called the Langford, which was sold around 2000 and razed to make way for….nothing. Well, the developers did manage to build a high-rise condo on part of the site. Then they skipped town without ever fulfilling the other part of their promise to the city, to build a luxury hotel on the rest of the property. I think they got both their money and some priceless artifacts out of the project.

Langford Hotel Marquee

Here’s the story:

Since it was built in 1956, the Langford Hotel was frequented by loyal locals and students at Rollins College, which was only a couple of blocks away, who lounged by its enormous pool, one of the largest (if not the largest) in the area. Sometime after the discovery of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet in 1964, the owner and builder of the hotel, Mr. Bob Langford, became smitten with the idea of shipwrecks and shipwreck material. According to an article written several years later by Edward L. Prizer in a local paper, Mr. Langford began collecting “cannonballs, doubloons, nuggets and Spanish weapons” to be housed in one of his dining rooms and elsewhere around the hotel. The dining room name was even changed to the Anchor Room to commemorate a shell-encrusted anchor from the fleet’s flagship which sat outside the room.1715 Fleet Anchor and Cannon

Mr. Langford went on to buy and display many other artifacts that pertained to the Spanish colonial period in Florida’s early history. New dining rooms alongside the Anchor Room were created and named the Treasure Room and the Galleon Room. At some point, the crest of arms for the hotel displayed the iconic “castles and lions” emblematic of the early days of Spain’s occupation and plunder of the New World.

Times changed and the hotel lost its luster, as did its flamboyant owner, and he and his children decided to sell. What they didn’t anticipate, however, is what should become of some of those large, old artifacts. Maybe Mr. Langford didn’t care anymore or maybe he wasn’t competent enough to tell his children what should become of those priceless shipwreck pieces. The only disposition I could find was that the developers said they would “find a prominent place for the old cannons and anchors that frequent visitors will recall from the decor.” I guess if they stuck around and built the hotel instead of abandoning the project, that dream might have come true. The reality is that no one seems to know where anything is, and maybe they’re in some landfill instead of resting majestically in a museum. How much better it would have been had someone cared enough to make provisions for the future of this collection.





When Size Matters

2 Feb

In the world of numismatics, size (in this context, weight) matters. Heads have rolled and the guilty have been jailed or bankrupted for minting gold and silver coins that are a bit south of expected weight. Just ask the assayer and former mayor of Potosi.

Drawing of Potosi Mountain


It’s a very serious business, and it’s easy to see why. Without the vast stores of gold and silver transported from the New World, Spain never woulchest of gold and silver cobsd have become a European colonial superpower. Each quantity of silver or gold mined in the colonial mines around Mexico City, Potosi, Lima, etc. and sent to the mint for smelting and/or coining would have a tax, a fifth (or quinto), charged by the crown and hence referred to as the “king’s fifth.” It all adds up after a while, and the king didn’t appreciate being cheated out of any of his money.

When minting cobs, which are hand struck on planchets without collars, the task of making sure the weight was correct must have been onerous. Note that many cobs have trim marks to cut away some of the material. The weight didn’t have to be exact, but it sure had to be credible.

So, how much should a cob weigh? Of course, it depends on the denomination. The largest denomination was the 8 reales (silver) or 8 escudos (gold). Each was supposed to weigh about 27 grams, with a slight underweight tolerance of perhaps three-tenths of a gram. As for the other denominations, The Practical Book of Cobs tell us:

Practical Book of Cobs

Practical Book of Cobs, 4th edition

The denominations in gold are 1, 2, 4, and 8 escudos. There is no ½-escudo cob, although the ½ escudo did exist in the later milled coinage. The usual denominations in silver are ½, 1, 2, 4 and 8 reales. (A few ¼ reales were minted in the earliest periods but are generally rare and seldom seen.) Each lower denomination was supposed to weigh exactly one-half of the next larger denomination.

Given that formula, a 4 reales or escudos coin should weigh around 13.5 grams, a 2 reales or escudos coin around 6.75 grams, a 1 real or escudo coin around 3.375 grams, and a ½ real around 1.69 grams. There would be more leeway with silver than gold, which is more precious in any era.

One of the best and cheapest purchases you can make if you’re serious about collecting cobs is a scale, so you can weigh your coins. If you’re concerned about whether a coscalein you just bought is genuine, weight it! If it’s significantly underweight, then there’s your red flag. The BIG exception is shipwreck silver coins. Silver corrodes in salt water so many shipwreck cobs are underweight, sometimes significantly. This is not true of gold which comes out of the ocean as intact as the day it went down with the ship.

Of course, you should always deal with a reputable numismatist when buying or selling coins!

Long Beach Expo This Week!

If you’re in southern California, don’t miss an opportunity to meet Dan and Augi at the Expo. See them Wednesday through Friday. They will have inventory for sale and/or can take your consignment for our upcoming Treasure, World and US Coin Auction #19.


%d bloggers like this: