Over the past year, I have shared with my readers a series of recollections on my earliest years as a coin dealer. I feel it is now time to perhaps “turn a page” so to speak, and dust off the Isaacs Cabinet to reveal some of the more interesting and unusual coins from my own personal collection, and the stories/memories they hold for me. I hope you enjoy!
It is easy to be enchanted by the Spanish Colonial 8 Reale coinage. Large, impressive coins the size of U.S. Silver Dollars, they not only hearken back to the age of Spanish Treasure Fleets, with their European-bound galleons loaded with silver mined in “the New World”, but also leave a profound influence on the history and nomenclature of the currencies we take for granted today. A “piece of eight” referred to the fractional pieces cut from an 8 Real for purposes of producing small change, and the general scholarly consensus holds that our Dollar sign (“$”) used today in the continent of North America evolved from the curled banner wrapped around the “Pillars of Hercules”, as depicted on the obverse of 8 Real coinage throughout the eighteenth century. Indeed, so critically important were these “Spanish-American Dollars” to our formative economy, that numerous banknotes – including a private 1830’s merchant issue of W&J Bell of Perth, Upper Canada – bore an image of a smaller 2 Real coin to visually depict the note’s value of ¼ Dollar (8 Reales being equivalent to One American Dollar).
Millions of 8 Real coins were struck in the Spanish colonies, not only in Mexico City, but also at mints in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Guatemala, among others. These provided a tremendous flow of Silver back to Spain, but also into the American Colonies as well as the Far East where they were also an integral part of trade. Countless millions were also lost to the depths in storms or other sea mishaps, if not to piracy and conquest.
I had been collecting for about 12 years by the time I was accepted into the Canada World Youth exchange program with Indonesia, at the age of 18. The first four months of the program found me in Nanaimo, British Columbia – itself, a land of wonder, as I had never prior been west of Ontario. Then, in the final few days of December, 1985, our team left for Indonesia, where we would spend the bulk of the next four months living and volunteering in a remote village in the province of Bengkulu, on the south-west coast of Sumatera. Somewhere into our second month, we came together with two other teams in neighbouring provinces for a “mid-project retreat”. This essentially meant touring around the Province in a banner-draped bus on a cultural feast, singing for our dinners and sleeping wherever there was a willing host. To this day I don’t have a clear recollection of what route we took, but a number of stops retain clear and pleasant memories for me. One of these involved a stop a the renowned community of Bukittinggi – as the translated name suggests (“Tall Mountain”, in Indonesian), a city located in the somewhat cooler highland region of West Sumatra, about 1 kilometer above sea level. The land of both active and inactive volcanoes, and inhabited by the renowned Minangkabau people, a rare matrilineal society. With its superb regional scenery as well as the imposing Dutch colonial “Fort de Kock”, Bukittinggi was a popular stop for both domestic and foreign adventuring tourists.
For reasons I can’t quite recall, I found myself wandering alone from my group through the winding streets of antique shops, warangs (restaurants) and art studios. I can taste like it was yesterday the trio of exquisite “Ice Juice Apokats” I enjoyed at a street-side eatery (thick avocado milkshakes with a shot of chocolate down the side), and still have some of the great one Dollar cassettes we all bought from shops in the market (the concept of “Pirated” music was fairly alien to us at the time). The neatest places to explore, however, were the multitude of silver jewellery and antique shops in the town, which offered everything from an endless variety of remnants from the Dutch colonial period, to wonderful wooden boxes and carvings, as well as local furniture and nick-knacks of every description.
Of primary interest to me, however, were – naturally – the coins to be found in these shops. After nearly 300 years of Dutch colonization, the majority of these coins were inevitably of Dutch origin. The included a multitude of the small copper “Duits” of the Dutch East Indies company, as well as the fairly common Silver Guilders and larger 2 ½ Guiders dating usually from the late 19th century to the waning years of the Dutch in the 1930’s. I liked the 2 ½ Guilders, being a large crown-sized coin comparable to our own Canadian Silver Dollars, and was able to purchase a couple examples during my time in Sumatera at quite low prices – which met favourably with our then-weekly pocket stipend of about seven Dollars or so. Counterfeits, although certainly in existence at the time, were only a minor concern compared to the mine-field of copious amounts of fakes that today’s collector must navigate.
Although I don’t recall the specific shop, I do remember my eyes being attracted to something large and Silver that was not Dutch. It was a Spanish-American 8 Reales, and although I was somewhat familiar with the issue, I did not have an example in my collection at the time. This was a piece dated 1776, with light even wear, and bore a unique characteristic that I hadn’t encountered in my previous collecting experience. Concentrated mainly over the obverse portrait of Spanish King Charles the Second were approximately 30 small “punches”, most consisting of single Chinese characters. These, I would come to learn, were Chinese “Chop-Marks”, applied by merchants mainly in the Orient (but also by Chinese business interests in American ports like San Franciso, etc.) as their personal attestation of the quality of the Silver contained in the piece. To some collectors an undesirable defacement of coinage, the chops to me added an appealing level of both aesthetic and historic character to such coins.
Only in later years did I recognize the Potosi mint-mark, confirming the Bolivian origins of the piece, and then begin to contemplate the rather remarkable journey this coin must have taken. Although it is possible the coin may have remained in Spanish America after minting to fuel commerce in the continent, I like to think that it returned to Spain on one of the later treasure fleets after its Bolivian inception, and then headed to trade in the Orient, before somehow making its way due-South to the fabled “Spice Islands” of the Indies. There it was discovered two centuries later in the highlands of Sumatera by a keen teenage Canadian collector trying to figure out his place in the world, and to this day it conjures up warm memories of youthful adventure as very few other coins in my diverse collection will do.