A PRACTICAL INTRODUCTION TO THE COUNTERMARKED COB 8 AND 4 REALES OF POTOSI, BOLIVIA, 1649-52
(Published in Treasure Auction #6 Catalog by Daniel Frank Sedwick, LLC. Oct 15-16, 2009)
One of the most sordid episodes in numismatic history was the debasement scandal in Potosí in the mid-1600s. After complaints about the fineness of Potosí’s coins throughout the early 1600s, culminating in the 1640s, King Philip IV finally sent an investigator named Francisco Nestares Marín to the region and soon found out that the fraud permeated the whole silver operation in Potosí, all the way back to the mines. At the heart of the crime, as it turned out, were a rich merchant and former mayor named Francisco Gómez de la Rocha and his accomplice assayer at the mint, Juan Ramírez de Arellano. Both were summarily executed and the other assayers currently or formerly working at the mint (Tapia, Trevino, Velázquez and Zambrano) were either fined or simply discharged from duty.
Before the punishments were meted out, however, the most pressing issue was to install a new assayer. The man chosen for the job, beginning in 1649, was Juan Rodríguez de Roas, also known as Rodas or even Ruedas (which is why, rueda being Spanish for “wheel,” his coins show an assayer mark of a circle with a dot in the middle [we call it O] since he wished to avoid confusion with the R for Ramírez). The new coins from this assayer, as well as those made by his successor in 1651, Antonio de Ergueta, became known as “rodases,” and the older (presumably all debased) coins with the link to the corrupt ex-mayor (going back as far as the 1620s) were called “rochunas.” Unfortunately the silver used for the rodases was still a bit short in fineness, so even those coins could not circulate at full value, and other countries needed something manifest on the coins to show their lower intrinsic value.
Then began the daunting task to decide how to devalue the old coins (rochunas) and find a way to discriminate them from the new coins (rodases) until a totally new “pillars-and-waves” design could be put in place. The kneejerk reaction from the crown, by decree in late 1650 but not received in Peru until January of 1652 (presumably much earlier in Mexico, Panama and Colombia), was to lower the value of all the 8 reales coins down to 6 reales. While the other areas in the colonies, whose own coins were clearly different, simply melted the coins as they came in, with a few exceptions, in Peru that was not feasible, for their new coins were not so easily identifiable from the old ones, not to mention the effect that such a staggering loss in value (25%) would have on the local economy. Therefore the king gave discretion to the Viceroy of Peru, the Count of Salvatierra, to implement the mandate in whatever way he deemed most sensible. On January 31, 1652, after some deliberation, it was decided that ONLY the rochunas would be devalued to 6 reales and had to be submitted for melting within two months’ time, while the new rodases would be worth 7-1/2 reales, with the 4 reales at exactly half those numbers (3 reales and 3-3/4 reales respectively), leaving the lower denominations unchanged.
Anyone who is familiar with cobs knows that dates and even assayer marks are not always visible on shield-type cobs, so despite improvements in those areas, there was still a need to make it possible to tell the new coins (rodases) from the old coins (rochunas). That is where the countermarks come in. As part of the 1652 decision, the public had just eight months, or the estimated amount of time to get enough of the new pillars-and-waves coins into circulation, to bring their rodases in to various royal agencies known as “cajas reales” for countermarking to prove their higher value. Each caja real had its own mark, and in fact some of these marks had been used for many years on worked silver (platters and cups, etc.), but many new ones were probably instituted just for these coins. The study of these countermarks and attribution to specific cajas reales is ongoing, and for the first time in this auction we can link at least a couple of them to specific locales through matches on worked silver items.
As for what these countermarks look like, we can only give a rough guide in this short space, as there are literally scores of different ones. The great majority of the marks are circular and consist of a crown above a letter, the most common of which are F and L; others include A, C, G, O, P, S, T and Z. Whether or not the letters correspond to the names of the locations of the cajas reales or individual silversmiths at those places is still unknown. Most of the marks have a border of dots, and some have dots around an inner ring, but some have no border at all. Many countermarks have just a crown without a letter, and in fact one of the crown-alone marks is perhaps the most common of all, whereas the others are all rare. A few others, generally very rare, show dates (in pentagonal-shaped marks), monograms or some version of a coat of arms. Rarest of all are coins that show two or even three countermarks, proving that these coins were circulating in different regions, as the possessor of an already countermarked coin wanted to be sure it was approved for the higher value in whatever district he was in, and there is even evidence that a few of these marks were applied in areas outside of Peru, notably Santo Domingo and even possibly Buenos Aires.
The countermarking scheme still left the door open for corrupt officials to get their old rochunas countermarked anyway (thereby illegally making 6 reales coins worth 7-1/2 reales), and in fact such coins do exist today, but they are quite rare. Naturally this killed the value of the rodases and hastened their disuse as well. Indeed the countermarking scheme was a fragile system and was only a stopgap measure until the new coins of “pillars-and-waves” design with prominent and multiple dates and assayer marks (which went into production at the Potosí mint in March of 1652) could fill the void. Since those new coins were worth the full 8 reales, there was no more incentive to use the old coins, whether countermarked or not, which were generally cashed in and eventually eliminated from commerce. On several occasions the crown tried to force the eradication of the old coins, but it was not until 1657 that they were officially declared illegal for trade.
Today the short-lived countermarked coins of Potosí are scarce, and we are able to collect and study them only because of a series of shipwrecks salvaged in the 1970s-1990s that were carrying the bulk of these coins back to Spain, namely the Capitana shipwreck (sunk in 1654 off Ecuador) and the Maravillas wreck (sunk in the Bahamas in 1656). The documentation behind these coins is confusing (best analyzed in Arnaldo Cunietti-Ferrando’s Historia de la Real Casa de Moneda de Potosí durante la dominación hispánica, 1573-1825 [Buenos Aires, 1995]), and until a definitive photo guide is made, it will be difficult to accurately attribute all the marks (the most complete diagrammatical study so far being Louis Ullian’s article in the Ponterio auction catalog mentioned below). One thing is certain: As the shipwreck finds further disperse, these coins will become even scarcer and more valuable, and there will probably never be any other supply to study or collect.
We are honored and excited to offer here the Louis Hudson collection of countermarked Potosí 8 and 4 reales. An extremely knowledgeable and longtime dealer, Louis had the opportunity to acquire and study some of the rarest and most important coins found on the Capitana and offered at auction by Ponterio & Associates in 1999, augmented by private acquisitions of coins from the Maravillas wreck. As you peruse these offerings, keep in mind that it is a collection of rare and understudied marks and therefore lacks an accurate cross-section of the common marks. Also, the countermarks here were chosen by Louis for completeness of the countermarks themselves, so you are seeing some of the best examples of each mark and not a representation of what they normally look like. In general, the quality of the host coin is very much secondary in value to the countermark itself, a very important and almost counterintuitive concept when so many of the coins are corroded and worn from the sea.
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