One of the most fascinating areas of world coin collecting is that of Spanish colonials. These coins circulated freely during the colonial period of the New World, both North America and South America. You can find essentially the same coins minted in the Spanish colonies of Bolivia, Chile, Columbia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru, from the early 1600s to the early 1800s. They circulated as far north as Canada and as far east as Florida.
These coins look alike, with subtle differences in mint marks and other small details, so it takes detailed knowledge to tell them apart. This page discusses some these details and gives approximate values. But, this is only a web page. Coin catalogs and reference books have much more detail. For instance, Spanish colonies in Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Philippines produced small amounts of coinage, but they are not included here. There are also pre-1600 coins and small denominations not addressed. You can learn from this summary, but it is just a starting point.
It is important to know the kings of Spain during this period, as their names and portraits appear on many coins.
- Philip III, 1598-1621
- Philip IV, 1621-1665
- Charles II, 1665-1700
- Philip V, 1700-1746
- Luis I, 1724
- Fernando VI, 1746-1759
- Carlos III, 1759-1788
- Carlos IV, 1788-1808
- Jose Napoleon, 1808-1813
- Ferdinand VII, 1808-1833
Methods of manufacture - There are two major types of Spanish colonials, and several sub-types. At the highest level there are cob coins and there are milled coins. Both come in gold and silver.
The rich deposits of precious metal in the New World were too much for Spanish royalty to resist. They were therefore exploited and carried back to Spain. To hasten this process, bars of silver and gold were hacked into chunks of proper weight and struck with heavy hammers between crude, hard-metal dies. The strike imparted a Spanish pattern, or part of a Spanish pattern, into the coin. The Spanish word cabo (English cob) refers to the end of the bar. The size, shape and impression of these cobs was highly irregular. However, they were of proper weight, and that is what mattered to Spanish officials. If a cob was overweight, the minter simply clipped a piece off.
Eventually the crude manufacture of cob coins was replaced by more modern minting technology. Milled coins were made by rolling the silver and gold into sheets of uniform thickness and punching out coin blanks, or planchets, for striking in large screw presses. The presses did a much better job than the hammers used to produce cobs.
Denominations - There are two major denominations of Spanish colonials: reales for silver coins and escudos for gold coins. The denominations have associated numeric values, e.g., one-quarter, one-half, 1, 2, 4, and 8. You can often tell the denomination by 'R' and 'S' marking for reales and escudos. For example, R = 1/2 real, 1R = 1 real, 2R = 2 reales, 2S = 2 escudos, and 8S = 8 escudos. There are 16 reales in one escudo.
Perhaps you have heard American folk tales with mysterious references to gold doubloons and pieces of eight. The escudos are the doubloons, and the reales are the pieces. In fact, the US monetary system has roots in Spanish reales, with 8 reales equivalent to one dollar, 4 reales to 50 cents, 2 reales 25 cents (two bits), one real 10 cents, and half real 5 cents.
The graphic figure on the left shows some typical denominational markings. A stand-alone number, 1, 2, 4, or 8, with or without an R or S, indicates denomination. Of course the size and weight of the coin indicates denomination as well. Generally, 8 reales contain about 0.8 troy ounces of silver and 8 escudos contain about 0.8 troy ounces of gold.
Mint Marks - Mint marks are important because they indicate the country of origin. The table below summarizes a few of the major mint marks for New World Spanish colonials. Spain herself is not included.
Assayer Initials - In addition to mint marks, the collector should discern assayer initials. Assayers were people at the mints whose job it was to ensure proper weight and purity of the precious metal in the coin. Usually their initials appear as two or more letters prominently displayed on the coin, but sometimes a single letter appears. See the graphic at left for examples.
Summary - To completely identify a Spanish colonial coin, you need:
- The date, either explicitly on the coin or by Spanish ruler
- The method of manufacture, cob or milled
- The numeric denomination, e.g., 1 real, 2 escudos, 8 reales
- The country of origin, as coded by the mint mark
- The assayer initials