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A Potosi, Viceroyalty of El Perú, 8 reales cob of 1646, Assayer R: a tale of corruption, a trial and an execution


robinjojo

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Ever since I saw an 8 reales cob in 1980, a crude coin by any measure, with a counterstamp of some sort (probably revaluation) I became hooked on these coins of romance and lore.  I became a serious collector over the ensuing decades, amassing a collection of a fairly considerable size, before switching my collecting interests to ancient coins, something that resided in the background over this time, in 2018.  Still, although by Spanish colonial and mainland coin acquisitions have become very sparse for the past few years, I enjoy going through the coins of Potosi, Lima, Mexico, Cartagena and Bogota, as well as the Spanish mainland mints, from time to time.

Last night I pulled out a coin that came from a Spanish dealer many years ago.  It is an 8 reales cob produced at the Potosi mint in 1646, Assayer R (Felipe Ramirez de Arellano). 

By the mid 1640s the silver coinage of Potosi became significantly debased, undermining the integrity of Spanish trade coinage. This issue has always lurked in the background at the mint, going back into the 1630s, but the problem really did come to the fore throughout the decade of the 40s.  The cause of this problem was straightforward: corruption at the mint on the part of some of the assayers and other staff. The plan was also straightforward: reduce the fineness (debasement) of the silver in the flans used to produce coinage, and pocket the difference.  In 1648, an assay in Spain determined that some Potosí issues were more than half copper, The scandal reached its peak towards the end of that decade, leading to a trial, conviction and execution of Felipe Ramirez de Arellano in 1650 for fraud against the Crown and to serve as an example against further nefarious activities at the mint.  The system of justice back then certainly did not lean in the direction of compassion!

Because of the huge number of debased coins in circulation, from 1651-1652 the Spanish authorities decided, along with the melting of many coins produced 1640-1652, prior to the coinage reform of 1652, with the new pillars and waves design, to institute a series of counterstamps devaluing the coins of the mid 40s to early 50's (I think 1652 is the last date of devaluation stamping of shield coinage) to 71/2 reales.  Many examples of these counterstamped coins exist from the salvage operations of the Capitana and Maravillas, sunk in 1654 and 1656 respectively.  Many shield coins were melted by decree, including coins of assayer V and assayer R, according to some accounts, probably in an effort to erase the legacy of these assayers.

Now, about the coin:

Collecting Potosi hammered coinage of the 1640's can be a challenge, due the extremely crude dies, often obscuring essential data such as mint mark, assayer mark and date, often abetted by extremely poor strikes, often off center (intentional?), poor low-grade silver flans prone to splitting, and often ambiguous assayer marks. The super rare assayers for this period are V (Geronimo Velasquez), P (Luis de Peralta) and the aforementioned  R (Felipe Ramirez de Arellano).  A FR monogram assayer mark also exists for what is believed to be Felipe Ramirez de Arellano, but while very scarce, it is not nearly as rare as the single letter assayer mark R.

This coin exhibits all of the flaws of the period; a Syracusan tetradrachm it is not!  The coin is debased at 26.2 grams, but not as severely as other examples which sometimes plunge into the 25 grams range, even lower.  The strike is doubled and skewed to one side, creating a squished shield on the obverse..  The dies, even if the coin was perfectly struck, are very crude.  The overall color of the coin is a rather lighter gray than what one would expect of an 8 reales cob with regulation silver content.  In short, this is one ugly duckling!

But what an ugly duckling!  For all of its shortcomings, the assayer letter R, to the left of the shield, is clear.  As a bonus it was clearly punched over a P assayer mark, with the upper portion of the P clearly visible!  Both assayers P and R were in office during 1646, as was assayer V.  This overpunching of R over P makes this coin even rarer.  On the reverse (some would argue the obverse), cross side, the double striking is also readily apparent.  However, with close examination, as is often necessitated with coinage of this period, the date 1646, in small numerals and unevenly punched into the die, can be discerned running from about 10 o'clock to about 12 o'clock along the edge.  Some of the numeral offset alignment could be due to the double strike as well. Because of the muddled strike, the numerals are weak in spots, with the final 4 and 6 the boldest.

This is an extremely rare coin in all of its ugliness, truly a once in a lifetime acquisition, unless, of course a hoard of them surfaces from a land find or sea salvage, but given the history of this assayer,  I doubt that will happen. 

Potosi, Philip IV, 8 reales, 1646, Assayer R over P.

KM 19a

26.09 grams

2012352777_D-CameraPotosi8reales1646RoverPPhilipIVKM19a26.2grams12-18-22.jpg.59863a53ab6b2bbd6014d805dc0f91e3.jpg

 

I hope this thread has been useful in conveying the fascinating history of these historically significant coins, particularly pertaining to the Potosi mint scandal in the 1640s.  

Edited by robinjojo
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2 hours ago, robinjojo said:

hope this thread has been useful in conveying the fascinating history of these historically significant coins, particularly pertaining to the Potosi mint scandal in the 1640s.  

It sure has.  The writeup's very interesting and informative.  I rather like these cobs and a 2023 goal is to get one.

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Very interesting. If I remember rightly, the problem wasn't limited to the 1640s either.

I only have one 8 reales, and it's a bit later and even more battered.

Charles II of Spain Eight Reales, 1676
image.png.c810c9c04888ba8e05f3336a15e3f3e2.png
Potosí, Bolivia. Silver, 40mm, 17.93g. Pillars; mintmark P / 8 / assayer E (Antonio de Ergueta); PLV·SVL·TRA; POTOSI ANO, date, EL PERV (Potosí, Peru). Quarterly of lions and castles; P / 8 / E / date; CAROLUS·II·D·G·HISPAN· (S-P37b). Recovered from Consolación, sunk after striking a reef in 1681 off Santa Clara Island, Ecuador. A delay in receiving coins from the Potosi mint (which travelled by llama and mule) prevented her from sailing with the rest of the armada. When the lone ship, with a cargo of perhaps 100,000 Spanish dollars, heard pirates under the command of notorious buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp were in the area, the captain decided to ground on Santa Clara Island (‘Island of the Dead’), but struck a reef. The vessel was evacuated and intentionally set on fire to prevent it being plundered. From Daniel Sedwick.

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The problem of debasement at the Potosi mint goes back to the 1620's.  During that decade there was disruption of production in the mid 20s, when a dam that was used to powered the mill crushing ore from Cerro Rico, burst.  There was also social upheaval as well.  It seems that some coins were produced underweight by a significant degree, even allowing a tolerance of a gram or so.  This issue persisted through the 1630's and really took off in the 1640s. 

486700811_Potosiimage17thcentury12-18-22.jpg.4170ea1bca914b5dba7e0ae0e79acb2c.jpg

Potosi, 17th century print.

The weight and fineness of coinage from Mexico and Lima really weren't an issue. It seems that the isolation of Potosi, in its remote mountainous (4,000 meters elevation) location, might have been a factor in the persistence of debased coinage from that mint.    

For those interested in reading a political and economic take on Potosi and its legendary silver deposits, here's an article from the Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/mar/21/story-of-cities-6-potosi-bolivia-peru-inca-first-city-capitalism

 

Edited by robinjojo
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I have no old South American coins at all, but these are fascinating! From the days when I collected 16th & 17th Century miniature maps and prints -- I have had many different collections in my life! -- I do have an original hand-colored antique print of the Potosi silver mines, entitled "Montagne de Potosi," by the French cartographer Allain Manesson Mallet (1630–1706). It was published in 1683 as part of his 5-volume tome Description de L'Univers. I bought this print in 2007 from the (now-defunct) beachmaps.com website. The image is about 4" x 5.5".  Note the lines of people going up the mountain to the entrances:

image.jpeg.27da09d2d3995030ab06f454360b7b1e.jpeg

Edited by DonnaML
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Very nice!  I've seen images of this print. To have an original print is a true treasure!

This is another print that I've seen several times before.  I assume it is 17th century, although it could be late16th century.  Notice the head on what looks like a pike atop a building in the foreground.

A short story about Potosi, the largest South American silver mine, in the  Library's Collections (Part 2) | 4 Corners of the World: International  Collections and Studies at the Library of Congress

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  • 1 month later...
On 12/18/2022 at 7:41 PM, robinjojo said:

Ever since I saw an 8 reales cob in 1980, a crude coin by any measure, with a counterstamp of some sort (probably revaluation) I became hooked on these coins of romance and lore.  I became a serious collector over the ensuing decades, amassing a collection of a fairly considerable size, before switching my collecting interests to ancient coins, something that resided in the background over this time, in 2018.  Still, although by Spanish colonial and mainland coin acquisitions have become very sparse for the past few years, I enjoy going through the coins of Potosi, Lima, Mexico, Cartagena and Bogota, as well as the Spanish mainland mints, from time to time.

Last night I pulled out a coin that came from a Spanish dealer many years ago.  It is an 8 reales cob produced at the Potosi mint in 1646, Assayer R (Felipe Ramirez de Arellano). 

By the mid 1640s the silver coinage of Potosi became significantly debased, undermining the integrity of Spanish trade coinage. This issue has always lurked in the background at the mint, going back into the 1630s, but the problem really did come to the fore throughout the decade of the 40s.  The cause of this problem was straightforward: corruption at the mint on the part of some of the assayers and other staff. The plan was also straightforward: reduce the fineness (debasement) of the silver in the flans used to produce coinage, and pocket the difference.  In 1648, an assay in Spain determined that some Potosí issues were more than half copper, The scandal reached its peak towards the end of that decade, leading to a trial, conviction and execution of Felipe Ramirez de Arellano in 1650 for fraud against the Crown and to serve as an example against further nefarious activities at the mint.  The system of justice back then certainly did not lean in the direction of compassion!

Because of the huge number of debased coins in circulation, from 1651-1652 the Spanish authorities decided, along with the melting of many coins produced 1640-1652, prior to the coinage reform of 1652, with the new pillars and waves design, to institute a series of counterstamps devaluing the coins of the mid 40s to early 50's (I think 1652 is the last date of devaluation stamping of shield coinage) to 71/2 reales.  Many examples of these counterstamped coins exist from the salvage operations of the Capitana and Maravillas, sunk in 1654 and 1656 respectively.  Many shield coins were melted by decree, including coins of assayer V and assayer R, according to some accounts, probably in an effort to erase the legacy of these assayers.

Now, about the coin:

Collecting Potosi hammered coinage of the 1640's can be a challenge, due the extremely crude dies, often obscuring essential data such as mint mark, assayer mark and date, often abetted by extremely poor strikes, often off center (intentional?), poor low-grade silver flans prone to splitting, and often ambiguous assayer marks. The super rare assayers for this period are V (Geronimo Velasquez), P (Luis de Peralta) and the aforementioned  R (Felipe Ramirez de Arellano).  An FR monogram assayer mark also exists for what is believed to be Felipe Ramirez de Arellano, but while very scarce, it is not nearly as rare as the single letter assayer mark R.

This coin exhibits all of the flaws of the period; a Syracusan tetradrachm it is not!  The coin is debased at 26.2 grams, but not as severely as other examples which sometimes plunge into the 25 grams range, even lower.  The strike is doubled and skewed to one side, creating a squished shield on the obverse..  The dies, even if the coin was perfectly struck, are very crude.  The overall color of the coin is a rather lighter gray than what one would expect of an 8 reales cob with regulation silver content.  In short, this is one ugly duckling!

But what an ugly duckling!  For all of its shortcomings, the assayer letter R, to the left of the shield, is clear.  As a bonus it was clearly punched over a P assayer mark, with the upper portion of the P clearly visible!  Both assayers P and R were in office during 1646, as was assayer V.  This overpunching of R over P makes this coin even rarer.  On the reverse (some would argue the obverse), cross side, the double striking is also readily apparent.  However, with close examination, as is often necessitated with coinage of this period, the date 1646, in small numerals and unevenly punched into the die, can be discerned running from about 10 o'clock to about 12 o'clock along the edge.  Some of the numeral offset alignment could be due to the double strike as well. Because of the muddled strike, the numerals are weak in spots, with the final 4 and 6 the boldest.

This is an extremely rare coin in all of its ugliness, truly a once in a lifetime acquisition, unless, of course a hoard of them surfaces from a land find or sea salvage, but given the history of this assayer,  I doubt that will happen. 

Potosi, Philip IV, 8 reales, 1646, Assayer R over P.

KM 19a

26.09 grams

2012352777_D-CameraPotosi8reales1646RoverPPhilipIVKM19a26.2grams12-18-22.jpg.59863a53ab6b2bbd6014d805dc0f91e3.jpg

 

I hope this thread has been useful in conveying the fascinating history of these historically significant coins, particularly pertaining to the Potosi mint scandal in the 1640s.  

Very good article, I wrote the historic version here (Spanish)

https://www.academia.edu/48743020/El_fraude_en_la_Casa_de_Moneda_de_Potosí_Otro_episodio_de_la_lucha_entre_vicuñas_y_vascongados_por_la_preeminencia_local

 

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  • 9 months later...

I just picked up these two while in Bolivia.  These were the only cobs this guy had and he said he has had them for over fifty years.

I can not find anything specific to the exact words/letters/dates.  It seems like an in-between production or possibly from a series that was predominantly melted.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

https://clipchamp.com/watch/wEKSy5jvWbf

If this link does not work, I will delete it.

 

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On 11/18/2023 at 6:32 PM, RRH said:

I just picked up these two while in Bolivia.  These were the only cobs this guy had and he said he has had them for over fifty years.

I can not find anything specific to the exact words/letters/dates.  It seems like an in-between production or possibly from a series that was predominantly melted.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

https://clipchamp.com/watch/wEKSy5jvWbf

If this link does not work, I will delete it.

 

The link works.  Based on my experience collecting these coins, dated 1651, both appear to be fantasy coins.

First, here's a photo of a Potosi 8 reales from my collection,, dated 1652, a transitional design made during the transition by the mint from the shield to pillars and waves.  While this coin is not from 1651, the basic design elements, with the exception of the reverse, where my coin has a coat of arms design, while your coins have the adopted cross design.  This coin was salvaged from probably the Maravillas  (1656).

26.8 grams

D-CameraPotosi8realescob1652transitionalsheildreverse6-16-20.jpg.98c69a876ee875c54003e0b236915c01.jpg

 

Here are your coins:

Potosi8reales1651copies11-22-23.jpg.fa306fcef3229b268dfeec5b795d9801.jpg

The first, and most fundamental point is that the Potosi mint began minting 8 reales and other denomination silver coins with the pillars and waves design in 1652.  Prior to 1652 the obverse design have a shield coats of arms, a design that goes back to the coinage of Philip II.  Second, even if one does not know about the transition date, an examination of the two 1651 coins and the 1652 coin points to differences in the treatment of the pillars, the letters, crown above the pillars, etc. that are obvious. 

Also, the shapes of the two 1651 coins are quite regular compared to the 1652 coin, which is typical of the crude flans and hammer striking process.  The two 1651 coins were most likely made with a casting process.

Here's an example of the 1651 Potosi 8 reales, with a revaluation F counterstamp on the obverse, which reduced the coin's value to 7 1/2 reales.  The date, on the reverse appears from around 10 to 12 o'clock.  Due to a die shift strike the 1 just above the top of the cross.  This coin is also salvaged, probably either from the Capitana (1654) or the Maravillas (1656).

26.7 grams

D-CameraPotosi8reales1651Emodernstyle5counterstampF26.7gkmc19.3(cs)km19b(coin)7-31-22.jpg.ba95d992fe9706bd93d1189869475bb7.jpg

Edited by robinjojo
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Posted (edited)
On 2/27/2024 at 4:55 AM, Treasure311 said:

Hello, I like this period as well. I picked up this about 2 years ago from Netherlands, I believe it to be a 1646 T/V or T/R?  Very crude as well but full weight and rara as well, what do you think about this Cob? Thanks. Dave

295984394_420662030118479_899115576310696702_ncccc.png

s-l1600 (2)cdcc.jpg

cdcc.jpg

Hi Dave

I'm sorry that I haven't responded sooner.  I guess that I don't do a very good job following old threads.

I can say that your cob is from the mid-1640's based on the "furry" lions on the cross side.  The date is not visible, which is typical for this period of wretched strikes and poor, often debased flans.  

As for the assayer (the coin is definitely from Potosi), here we have typical muddle, perhaps intentional.  In addition to the rotated strike, the area with the mint and assayer marks is a mess.  After loading the image into Photoshop for enlargement, I think I see a very crude and muddled P and below that possibly a V, as you mentioned, possibly over an R.  You might send a photo of the coin to Dan Sedwick for his opinion.

His email address is:

office@sedwickcoins.com

Your coin is wonderfully crude and a perfect example of the coinage of this scandalous period!

 

Edited by robinjojo
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