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    Description

    The Only Specimen Known

    Cartagena. Felipe III 1622 (1625) 1/2 Real, KM-unlisted, Restrepo M15 ("1 known", this coin). VF30 NGC. Obverse: shield of Castles and Lions, "R" over "N" (for NUEVO REINO) to the left, and assayer initial "A" to the right. "PHIL(LIPPVS III D.G)" to the right. Reverse: Pomegranate between crowned columns of Hercules with P(LVS) to the left and V(LTRA) to the right, with the "(RE)X. 1622" legend partially visible on the periphery, to the left of the coin. 4.72 grams, and a specific gravity of 9.00, thus clearly a very debased issue. Choice for the assigned grade, and very attractive. Currently unique, and of the utmost historical importance.

    This enigmatic coin has puzzled specialists since its appearance in an Aureo auction ten years ago (Aureo 3/2003, lot 87), and no definitive attribution of it has yet been made (although Herman Blanton has contributed very important facts on it: see http://www.numisane.org/Gaceta/GN166-167.pdf, / http://www.numisane.org/Gaceta/GN166-167.pdf). On the other hand, its extreme rarity has never been in doubt, being recognized as unique by all recent references including Restrepo. Having the coin in hand and after reviewing contemporary documentation (most of which published in Friede's work Documentos sobre la Fundación de la Casa de Moneda en Santa Fe de Bogotá (1614-1635), the cataloguer is able to give a few further thoughts on this most important piece among the early and fascinating Colombian cob issues. Firstly, it is useful to establish that the only periods to which this piece can be attributed are either the vellon rico (enriched billon) issues of 1622 - made either in Cartagena, or Santa Fe, as mentioned following - or the plata baja (debased silver) issues of 1625-1626. The key facts related to those issues can be summarized as follows.

     

    By Royal Ordinance of April 1 sup st /sup , 1620 King Philip III authorized a mint in Santa Fe. Acting Director of this Mint was Engineer Alonso Turrillo de Yebra, who had been proposing this project for a while (and he had even commissioned dies to be engraved in Spain as early as 1619, based on the few surviving coins that bear that date). Along with many of the usual denominations (from the 1/2 Real up to the 8 Reales in silver, and the 1 and 2 Escudos in gold) in accordance with the coinage regulations then in force, debased coins of 1/4 Real were to be struck as well. These coins of 1/4 Real would be of vellon enriquecido (enriched billon), consisting of a mix of 1 part silver - 4 parts copper (186.111 fine), with a weight of 2.301 grams, and their total authorized amount was of 300,000 ducados. Their design would show on the reverse a pomegranate (symbol of Nuevo Reino de Granada) between the two columns of Hercules, with these flanked by the letters P and V for PLVS VLTRA (this design obviously corresponds to the present specimen, and we will return to this fact later on). Note for the time being that this issue of billon cuartillas was of utmost importance for the royal approval of the venture, since its heavily debased nature would result in a net benefit of 40% of the total struck amount for the King himself. Turrillo had even invented a special ingenio (device or minting press) to strike these coins with more efficiency.

     

    Later on, by Royal Ordinance of June 10, 1620, a branch mint in Cartagena was given pending authorization, subject to the final approval from the authorities of Santa Fe after considering whatever antecedents could be forwarded by the local authorities of Cartagena. This branch mint would also be authorized to strike the debased cuartillas of enriched billon, to replace the then current raw silver (plata corriente) in circulation. On May 9, 1621, Turrillo finally arrived at Cartagena with mint equipment and officers (including assayer "A" whose identity is still unknown) and immediately sought to establish a mint in that city. On July of that year (with two successive orders on the 15 sup th /sup and 31 sup st /sup of that month) the Audiencia of Santa Fe finally authorized the mintage of 60,000 ducados in billon coins of ¼ Real in Cartagena. In practice, this was the formal authorization of that branch mint, but the authorities of Cartagena would resist this order, fearing the consequences of a debased issue.

     

    What happened later is still subject to some controversy, but the cataloger feels that Turrillo's later testimony (see document 51 in Friede) is mostly accurate: facing the disobedience of the Cartagena's authorities, he proceeded to transport the equipment and officers to Santa Fe where the first coins were finally struck, including some billon cuartillas which were apparently accepted into circulation. These first issues may well be the ones dated 1619-1622 which show an assayer initial "A", and the mintmark as S, SF, or NR. Whether these first issues were struck in Cartagena or Santa Fe (or at both locations) is irrelevant for the analysis of the coins themselves since the exact same dies would have been used in all the possible different minting locations. Between February and April of 1622, Turrillo then went back to Cartagena taking with him mint equipment and officers, and tried to again initiate (or reinitiate, according to some numismatic experts) the minting operations at that branch mint. Not much success was found, since he then left for Spain to personally complain to the King of the persisting hostility from the Cartagena's authorities towards his minting operations (he arrived at Havana of August 22 of 1622, according to his later testimony).  Evidently, not many billon ¼ Real coins were made between 1621 and 1622: Barriga Villalba quotes a figure of 5,409 pesos 3 Reales worth of these billon cuartillas issued during that period. No further coins were minted at either mint after Turrillo's departure and until his return to Cartagena in 1625. 

     

    With the lack of small denominations still a persisting burden, on March 10, 1625, a different debased issue of minor denominations was authorized for the Cartagena mint: this new issue consisted of coins of ¼, ½ and 1 Real, with slightly more silver than the previous enriched billon cuartillas: at 0.248 fineness, these would be called plata baja (debased silver) as opposed to the 0.2 fineness enriched billon. These were struck and circulated for roughly seventeen months prior to their recalling by decree of August 16 sup th /sup , 1626: a total amount of around 40,000 pesos was issued, since this was the figure mentioned when assigning funds for the recalling operation. From that date on, no further debased issues were authorized.

     

    Thus concludes our lengthy exposition of the contemporary documentation related to our present specimen. An initial conclusion can be immediately drawn: our coin can only have been struck in early 1622, or between March 1625 and August 1626. These are the two only periods during which either of the Cartagena or Santa Fe mints was active, and debased coinage was forbidden after that.  If the former possibility is accepted, then Turrillo struck a coin in 1622 which contradicted the regulations then in force since only debased ¼ Real coins were authorized: the cataloguer feels confident to dismiss this possibility as this hypothetical fact is never mentioned by the complaining Cartagena or Santa Fe authorities when arguing against the debased issues. The latter possibility implies that Turrillo employed back dated 1622 dies for this 1625-1626 plata baja issues. This can easily be accepted based on surviving specimens of other contemporary issues, such as the 1619 coins (which could not have been struck prior to 1621). Moreover, a key fact is that Turrillo complained and stated that these new plata baja coins (the new denominations of ½ and 1 Real) were thicker and would be much more difficult to strike than the ¼ Real coins using the same device that he had originally invented for the latter (see document 70 in Friede). If he used the same device for all plata baja denominations (implying dies of similar dimensions, but thicker planchets in proportion for the higher denominations), it also made sense to use the distinctive pillars and pomegranate reverse die that had been designed for the original debased issue of ¼ Real coins.

     

    This is indeed the case, as our present specimen and one of the specimens of the M11 ¼ Real plated by Restrepo share the same reverse die (Restrepo had noted the punch link for the pomegranate but the entire die is in fact the same!). Its weight, very close to double the theoretical weight of the debased ¼ Real coins (4.602 grams) is achieved through a very thick planchet while keeping the same dimensions of the ¼ Real coins.

     

    Thus, the cataloger feels confident to definitely attribute the present coin as being the sole example known of the "plata baja" ½ Real issued between 1625-1626. As such, its importance among the early cob issues of the Americas can hardly be overestimated: it is the rarest Colombian cob type, bar none!

     

    Another relevant related point is whether the three known debased cuartillas dated 1622 are from the 1620 issue or instead (as now thought by the cataloger) from the 1625-1626 issue (and thus also struck with back dated dies). Indeed, this might well be the case when comparing the respective mintage figures for both debased issues: around 5.405 pesos for the 1621-22 issue compared to 40,000 pesos for the 1625-26 issue as mentioned previously. A spectrographic analysis, establishing their fineness at 0.200 or 0.250 will debunk this mystery.

     

    The cataloger wishes to thank Herman Blanton and Jorge Proctor for their generous sharing and correspondence for the cataloging of this unique coin.





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