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A Scandal that Shook the World

By the middle of the 16th century, Spanish dreams of finding the mythical city of “El Dorado” were beginning to fade. The colonizers soon found a suitable alternative with Cerro Rico. Located deep within the Andes range, the unassuming peak, dubbed Cerro Rico (“Rich Mountain”), provided the Spanish with unimaginable quantities of silver, all extracted by indigenous slaves. While this silver was initially transported to Lima for coinage, the long and perilous route to the Viceregal capital proved untenable. Thus, the town of Potosi, placed at the very base of Cerro Rico, was born. By the time Philip III ascended to the Spanish throne in 1598, the Potosi mint’s vast output was almost single-handedly supplying the global economy with silver and making Spain’s empire fabulously rich in the process. So unparalleled was its production that the Crown shut down the Lima mint indefinitely as it could not keep up.

It did not take long for this trajectory to shatter. In the early 17th century, traders began to cast doubts on the fineness and weight of Potosi coinage. Once foreign governments stopped accepting silver Reales from Potosi at their nominal value, Spain was forced into action. In 1648, Philip IV sent the inquisitor Francisco de Nestares Marin to investigate. Within a year, Nestares Marin uncovered a vast web of corruption, with parties at all levels guilty of producing deliberately debased coinage and pocketing the difference. Over 100 implicated individuals received punishment, and several of the guiltiest were executed by strangulation, including the assayers Jeronimo Velasquez and Juan Rodriguez de la Rocha. Faulty coins were melted down and a new assayer took office, but these reforms were insufficient to restore global faith in Spanish silver. Furthermore, hoarding of the new specie created a disastrous shortage of circulating coinage. This crisis escalated to the point where the Viceroy of Peru, without the permission of the Crown, unilaterally reopened the Lima mint and produced the unique “Star of Lima” issues before the Spanish authorities shut down this illegal action just a year later.

Things finally settled down in 1652 when, after a series of short-lived prototype issues, a new coin design was settled upon that included the date and assayer’s name in at least three places. This bold new design ensured that the origins of faulty coins could be traced even in extremely crude examples. Sacrificing beauty for security, this type was in continuous production at Potosi until Cob coinage finally ceased more than a century later.

Our November 2022 Collectors Choice Online auction will feature Pat Johnson’s vast collection of Latin American issues, including a nearly complete date run of Cobs from Potosi and Lima. Among them are rare issues of the later-executed assayers Velasquez and de la Rocha, seldom-seen transitional and countermarked types from 1652, and a coveted one-year “Star of Lima” issue. Each stage of this pivotal period, from the initial fraud and the transitional types to the unauthorized Lima issues and final redesign, is offered through spectacular examples from the Pat Johnson Collection. Each coin in this extraordinary offering tells the story of Spain’s insatiable greed and the gradual development of the Latin American identity that it inadvertently initiated.

To view our upcoming auction schedule and future offerings, please visit StacksBowers.com where you may register and participate in this and other forthcoming sales.

We are always seeking coins, medals, and paper money for our future auctions, and are currently accepting submissions for our January 2023 Official Auction of the NYINC and our Spring 2023 Hong Kong auction. Additionally, we are accepting submissions for our Collectors Choice Online (CCO) auctions, the next for which we are accepting consignments will be held in February 2023. If you would like to learn more about consigning, whether a singular item or an entire collection, please contact one of our consignment directors today and we will assist you in achieving the best possible return on your material.

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