First Read, a CoinWeek continuing series of essays about classic and contemporary works of numismatic literature….
Essay by Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek….
Mexican Beauty: Un Peso Caballito by Allan Schein
With a history of coin production pre-dating our own national mint by more than two hundred and fifty years, Mexico can say without qualification that its money funded the development of not only the “New” World but of the “Old” as well.
For collectors of United States coins, it is a Mexican-made coin–the Spanish Milled Dollar–that holds the position of highest honor – that of being the first coin discussed in any detail in Whitman’s Red Book. That’s because coins from Mexican mints circulated alongside this country’s national coinage at a time when Philadelphia’s output was too paltry to grease the gears of American commerce.
In fact, Mexican coins and other foreign coins carried legal tender status in the United States for the first 81 years of our country’s existence.
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Were that the only point of interest, we suppose that Mexican coins would have developed a dedicated cult following of collectors north of the border. But the reality is that Mexican coinage is a fertile area of numismatic study, full of deep sociological meaning and complex political implications. Mexican coins are imbued with rich cultural significance for the Mexican people, while at the same time reflecting the relationships that Mexico has with its neighbors.
In his book Mexican Beauty: Un Peso Caballito, author Allan Schein illuminates this dichotomous relationship between symbols and politics, both internal and external.
A Very French, Very Mexican Coin
Schein makes no bones about it: the Caballito is by far his favorite coin. The design was born in Beaux-Arts-era France, surreptitiously “improved-upon” by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber, and struck during five of the most turbulent years in modern Mexican history – years that saw the overthrow of Mexican President Porfirio Díaz, a descent into revolutionary chaos, the assassination of Díaz’s rival and successor Francisco Madero and the infamous rise of El Chacal, Victoriano Huerta.
How does the Chinese curse go, “may you live in interesting times”?
The coin itself was adapted from a 50-Centavo pattern from 1907 designed on commission by French engraver Charles Pillet (1869-1960). It’s a striking design, evoking the spirit of national independence. The reverse (often confused for the obverse) features a partially-clothed female riding side-saddle (for the sake of modesty, we presume) atop a majestic horse, its hooves unshod, its disposition wild and bucking. In the figure’s right hand, according to Schein, is a forked branch from an Encino Oak. In her left hand a torch, held high. Behind the horse and its rider are the beaming rays of the sun (something French commander Charles de Lorencez probably wishes he saw more of before facing Ignacio Zaragoza at Puebla).
The obverse provokes discussion as well. A proud eagle sits atop a cactus, atop an earthen mound, a snake in the grip of its beak and talon. For generations, Schein says, numismatists have argued about the identity of the bird. Some suggest the bird is a Caracara – a slow-flying scavenger. For Schein, there’s little doubt that the bird is in fact a Golden Eagle. Readers of the book will enjoy the lengths that Schein goes to in order to buttress his position. One doesn’t need to be an ornithologist, however, to appreciate the sculptural beauty of the design.
Fans of the Beaux-Arts style of design and architecture will enjoy seeing the Cabalitto in the context of its designer’s larger body of work. The book is as much a “first course” in the study of the Mexican one-peso coin of 1910-1914 as it is a primer in the work of the man whose hands and chisel created it.
It’s a solid and worthwhile effort on a worthy topic, written in English with a side-by-side Spanish translation provided by Roberto del Bosque, a coin dealer from the firm Mexican Coins and More of Brownsville, Texas.
For a self-published work, interested readers will find no fault in the quality of the presentation. Coin photographs are clear and in full-color. Archival photographs of important historical figures and other key works of the engraver are presented, and sections devoted to variety attribution and grading effectively convey the intended information.
Mexican Beauty: Un Peso Caballito
239 pp. Self Published. Price: $40 (2014)
To purchase the book, please contact the author via email.
Mexican Silver Coins Currently Available on eBay