Heritage Auction’s World and Ancient Coin Platinum Night at the August American Numismatic Association convention will feature “The First Dollar of the Americas,” a hammered Mexico City-minted Carlos and Joanna 8 reales of 1538.
It was only in 1947 that hard evidence was located showing the early Mexican Mint had struck dollar-sized silver 8-reales pieces two years after it began operation in 1536. The confirmation came in archival documents located by Dr. Alberto Pradeau.
These documents are transcripts of a 1545 investigation undertaken by Francisco Tello de Sandoval on the orders of the king. The enquiry concerned accusations of fraud made against Hernan Cortés, Spanish conqueror of Mexico. The transcripts provided eyewitness accounts from mint officials, including Francisco del Rincón, the mint’s first assayer. These make it clear that 8 reales were struck very briefly in 1538 but proved difficult to produce satisfactorily with the equipment available. In 1947, no example of any 1538 8 reales was known.
In the 1990s, a new Spanish shipwreck was located in the Caribbean, which sunk c. 1550. It yielded three specimens of the 1538 8 reales in a chest of some 2,000 silver coins struck in Mexico City.
The design of all three is typical of early issues of Carlos and Joanna produced in Mexico from 1536 to 1542. The obverse shows a simple crowned arms with lions and castles in the quadrants and a pomegranate at the bottom. These are flanked by oMo (Mexico City Mint) mintmarks.
The reverse shows the crowned Pillars of Hercules along with PLVS in a panel standing for PLVS VLTRA [further beyond] – the post-Columbus Spanish response to the expression “ne plvs vltra” [nothing further beyond] that formerly labeled the exit from the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar. The assayer’s letter “R” for Rincón is below the pillars. Above, a small Greek cross indicates the 8-reales denomination.
The legend reads: KAROLVS ET IOHANA D / HISPANIE ET INDIARVM RE [Carlos and Joanna, by the Grace of God, Monarchs of Spain and the Indies]. While some of the lettering is Gothic, including the mintmarks, most is in Latin characters that became the norm for the later series of these coins of 1542-1572.
Importantly, these 1538 8 reales are the very first dollar-sized coins struck in the Americas and hence the first Spanish 8 reales from the New World.
The 27.18 g example Heritage will offer had previously been sold by them for $373,750 in 2006. At the time, that was the highest auction price ever paid for any Latin American coin.
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More Collecting Resources
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1601-1700 is your guide to images, prices and information on coins from so long ago.
• Are you a U.S. coin collector? Check out the 2019 U.S. Coin Digest for the most recent coin prices.