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The Numismatic Legacy of Mexico’s Struggle for Independence

The Stack’s Bowers Galleries November 2023 Collectors Choice Online Auction of World Coins will offer an impressive array of issues from the Mexican War of Independence, arguably the most complex and fascinating series in Latin American numismatics. Lots are available for viewing and pre-sale bidding at StacksBowers.com and live bidding will begin on October 31. Collectors are advised not to miss out on the many rarities and exceptional pieces contained in this special sale.

As the first region of the American mainland to undergo European colonization, Mexico (then called New Spain) grew to become one of Spain’s most profitable possessions. But the gradual formation of its national identity, a rich confluence of indigenous and European culture, made its yearning for sovereignty inevitable. Aside from the extraction of resources and denial of political representation that invariably burdened European colonies, Mexico suffered from a rigid racial caste system that privileged peninsular-born Spaniards above all others. Back in Spain, cracks in the central authority had begun to show by the early 19th century. A popular revolt in 1808 forced King Charles IV to abdicate in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII. Only months later, Napoleon Bonaparte, then at the height of his power, toppled Ferdinand’s rule and placed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne. This sparked the tumultuous Peninsular War and gave Mexico’s Criollos (Full-blooded Spaniards who were held back from political power due to having been born in the New World) the opportunity to free themselves of the Spanish imperial yoke.

The die was finally cast in 1810 when the freethinking Criollo priest, Miguel Hidalgo, gave his “Cry of Dolores,” a rousing speech that inspired the formation of a rag-tag army and marked a turning point in Mexican history. Hidalgo’s army marched south toward Mexico City, growing along the way with recruits from Indigenous and Mestizo (mixed-race) social classes. These insurgents paralyzed Mexico’s road network and made it unsafe for Imperial authorities in Mexico City to send silver coinage (a crucial necessity to fight the insurgency) to the colony’s peripheral cities. Civic authorities in various cities promptly began operating provisional mints to address the shortages. As production of coinage outside of the capital city was a complete novelty, these provisional issues vary wildly in quality and style. Perhaps no coin embodies this better than lot 70184, a silver 8 Reales from the town of Sombrerete. Delightfully rustic, it displays a wonderful array of royalist seals and stamps to indicate its validity. The chaos of Hidalgo’s insurgency led to a number of numismatic oddities, such as lot 70187, an 8 Reales piece from the city of Zacatecas. Featuring the iconic cross upon mountains design unique to the provisional issues of this city, this piece was actually struck during the period in which the rebels temporarily seized the city (indicated by the replacement of the lions on the royal arms with pomegranates).

Disorganized and without clear objectives, Hidalgo’s rebellion ended in failure only months after its start when the priest was betrayed and executed. But Mexican zeal for independence was far from extinguished. Better-prepared Mestizo leaders like Jose Maria Morelos and Vincente Guerrero rose to take Hidalgo’s place. Along with strategic advances and true military tactics, these new insurgents produced wholly original coin types. Lot 70222, a cast silver 8 Reales struck by the forces of Morelos, serves as an especially impressive example. Lot 70212, produced by the Suprema Junta Nacional, marks the first numismatic appearance of the eagle devouring a snake while sitting atop a cactus, a symbol that dates to Aztec times and endures to this day on the national flag.

Minting wholly original coins in the midst of an unpredictable war was usually cost prohibitive, so both sides often resorted to the simpler solution of counterstamping already-circulating specie. Bearing complex and often enigmatic symbols and monograms, these stamps served to validate potentially dubious coinage, provide assurance to commercial users, or simply assert a faction’s authority. Lot 70230 is a brilliant example: a Royalist-issued provisional crown from Durango bearing a bold insurgent countermark placed defiantly over the face of the Spanish king. Cities and regions changed hands rapidly due to the seesawing balance of power, meaning that many coins received two or three consecutive countermarks, as exemplified by lot 70259. Three successive countermarks appear on the obverse of a cast silver 8 Reales piece, suggesting continual use in commerce during a highly contentious period of the war. Lot 70264 is an interesting case, as the host coin, a struck silver 8 Reales issued by Morelos, is already elusive and desirable on its own. Over Morelos’ monogram, the coin was stamped with a duplicate of the same monogram. Morelos’ rather simplistic coinage was often counterfeited, so this stamp almost certainly was intended to revalidate the coin as a genuine issue.

 By 1816, the war had reached a stalemate. Vicente Guerrero’s insurgents employed guerrilla tactics against the royalists led by the conservative Criollo Agustin de Iturbide, but neither side was able to decisively defeat the other. The beginning of the end came in 1820 when an uprising in Spain forced King Ferdinand to reinstitute liberal reforms. These reforms threatened the wealthy Iturbide’s ambitions and threw into doubt his entire reason to side with the Spanish crown. He met with Guerrero and together they reached a compromise to form a new state that maintained privileges for full-blooded Europeans but promised citizenship for all races. Their allegiance effectively shattered the royalist faction and made Mexican independence, a cause for which hundreds of thousands had fought and died, the only possible outcome. While the newly founded state under Emperor Agustin I Iturbide would soon collapse, Mexican sovereignty would endure, even in the face of numerous foreign threats. While this bitterly-fought war has been transmuted by successive generations into modern Mexico’s foundational mythology, the coins left behind are tangible testaments to the very real passions, ambitions, and determination behind the story.   

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

We are always seeking coins, medals, and paper money for our auctions, and are currently accepting consignments for our January 2024 Official NYINC auction and for our spring 2024 Hong Kong auction. Additionally, we are accepting consignments for our Collectors Choice Online (CCO) auctions, the next of which will be in November, and the next for which we are accepting consignments scheduled for February 2024. 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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