Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #359
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Gran Colombia was a formal confederation from 1819 to around 1830, though it existed in parts well before 1819. Beginners may enjoy collecting One Real and Two Reales Gran Colombia coins by design type. These coins are attractive, historically important and complicated enough to be fascinating while still understandable to beginners.
The Gran Colombia Quarter-Real and Half-Real types are a little more complex and harder to explain. Furthermore, Quarter-Real and Half-Real coins tend to be smaller than U.S. dimes. Other than those of the first type, Gran Colombia One Real coins are substantially larger than U.S. dimes.
At the moment, I do not recollect ever seeing a Four Reales coin of Gran Colombia. New discoveries, however, occur far more often in the realm of Latin American coins than in the field of post-1500 coins from the rest of the world.
Eight Reales coins of Gran Colombia were minted for just three years, 1819-21, and there is more than one design type. Coins of the rarer type tend to be very expensive. Coins of the least scarce type are the most common of all Gran Colombia coin types yet somewhat expensive. They are not excellent values. So for multiple reasons, Gran Colombia Eight Reales coins are not the best Gran Colombia coins for beginners.
Also, there are genuine 19th-century coins of all types with serious undisclosed problems. Regarding purchases of 19th-century silver coins for more than $250 each, it’s a good idea to consider only coins that have been certified by NGC or PCGS, and to discuss such coins with coin experts who have carefully studied the respective types being considered.
The Iberian peninsula, which includes Portugal and Spain, became dominated by the forces of Napoleon in the early 1800s. Most of the Spanish Empire then began to fall apart.
Between 1810 and 1822, independence for societies in Latin America came about via regional and local conflicts, which were affected by new, sometimes fluid alliances. Political arguments and civil wars between independence-seeking forces and pro-Spain royalists were common in North, Central and South America. Such conflicts often lasted for years.
Control of particular regions changed multiple times before the wars were finally resolved. It was not unusual for an area to have its own independent government for months or years before being conquered again by royalist factions, and then becoming independent again a few years later. Information is provided about pertinent events in Argentina in a recent discussion of the early silver coins of Argentina.
Even in the present, the national flags of Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela are very similar, all resembling the flag of Gran Colombia. This confederation had substantial borders on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Additionally, Gran Colombia included the region that is now the nation of Panama.
Most of Central America then was part of the Central American Republic (CAR), really a federation. Please refer to my articles on the gold and silver coins of the CAR, which include historical material.
Panama did not join Gran Colombia until after Panama became independent of Spain in 1821. Venezuela joined in 1821 as well.
Earlier, in 1811, a dissident government in Quito declared independence from Spain. Quito is a major city, which later became the capital of Ecuador. This small, short-lived regime in Quito was defeated by royalist forces in December 1812.
Even while civil war was raging in Ecuador, the government of Gran Colombia in Bogota considered all of the region that presently constitutes Ecuador to be part of Gran Colombia. The general concensus among historians is that Ecuador became entirely independent of Spain and a full member of Gran Colombia when independence forces defeated a pro-Spain royalist army in the Battle of Pichincha on May 24, 1822. The Pichincha volcano towers above the city of Quito.
Circa 1829, there were battles regarding the border of Gran Colombia and Peru. In addition to Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama, Gran (‘Great’) Colombia included parts of the regions that now constitute the nations of Peru, Brazil and Guyana.
Colombia was the political and economic center of Gran Colombia. Bogota was the capital of Gran Colombia and is the capital of the current nation of Colombia. The coins of Gran Colombia are representative of a federation that included multiple cultures and the coins are linked to important episodes in history.
Spanish Monetary Units
As noted in my articles about CAR silver and early silver coins of Argentina, newly independent societies in Latin America usually continued to employ either the monetary system of the Spanish Empire or an obvious variation on it. In Latin America, it was then economically efficient for there to be considerable continuity in monetary forms and systems. In the Americas south of the United States, the era from 1810 to 1850 was characterized by unstable political institutions and territorial disputes among societies.
For centuries, the Spanish Eight Reales denomination, also known as the “Spanish Milled Dollar”, was the leading monetary unit in the world. Coins of the Spanish Empire were widely used, and not just in South America and Central America but in North America, North Africa and the Orient as well. The Eight Reales coin of the Spanish Empire was the basis for the U.S. silver dollar and (later) the Japanese yen.
The Two Reales coin was roughly equivalent to the U.S. quarter dollar. A One Real coin, “one bit,” is a half-quarter. In the Spanish monetary system, the plural of ‘real’ is ‘reales.’ It is incorrect to refer to “reals” or to “a reale.” Eight Reales refers to a rather clearly defined denomination, not to eight One Real coins nor to four Two Reales coins.
During the first half of the 19th century, coins of the Spanish Empire and of independent Latin American nations circulated widely in the U.S. A major reason for the introduction of Three Cent Silvers in the U.S. during 1851 is that Quarter-Real coins had been fading from circulation in the U.S.
While a U.S. Three Cent Silver and a Spanish Quarter-Real were never exactly equivalent, they were close enough in size and silver content such that they were often used interchangeably.
Two Reales coins widely circulated in the U.S. as quarter dollars from the 1700s until the 1850s, and One Real coins did so at least until the early 1830s. Many goods and services in the U.S. at the time were priced as 12.5, 37.5 or 62.5 cents. Before 1820, there were a large number of items in the U.S. that were priced at 6.25 cents or 18.75 cents, and Half-Real coins from the Spanish Empire were often spent for them.
It is unlikely that many coins from Gran Colombia circulated in the U.S. There was a shortage of coins in Gran Colombia and sub-standard silver fineness would have made Gran Colombia silver coins unappealing to U.S. merchants.
The silver percentage (or fineness) of Gran Colombia silver coins tends to be lower than that of silver coins from most other Latin American societies. This makes them more interesting to collectors now.
After independence, silver coins of Gran Colombia were specified to be two-thirds (66.67%) silver. Pre-1819 coins struck in Bogota were specified to be 58.3% silver, according to standard Krause references. Spanish Empire coins apparently of the same denominations, which were struck during the same era, are nearly 90% silver. Except early Three Cent Silvers, all U.S. silver coins dating from some point in 1837 to 1964 were specified to be 90% silver, and earlier U.S. silver coins were nearly 90% silver.
The substantial copper content of Gran Colombia silver coins is fortunate for collectors who like coins with orange, green and apricot hues. Coins that are 50% to 80% silver, with the balance being copper, often naturally tone with rich orange and green patches.
Confusing Political Names on Coins
When reading the legends and other inscriptions on Colombian coins, the political content may be confusing. The name of the federation, Gran Colombia, never actually appears on any coins.
The name “Republica de Colombia” had different meanings in different contexts. It could refer to the Colombian part of Gran Colombia, all of Gran Colombia or the nation of Colombia after Gran Colombia was dissolved in 1830.
Even more confusing, New Granada (Nueva Granada) had multiple meanings as well. Authorities in Spain divided the Spanish Empire into sections for administrative purposes and they employed this name for a section in the northern part of South America. Among other meanings, Nueva Granada referred to Gran Colombia, the society of Colombia, or the combined entity of Colombia and Panama that continued as a political structure after 1830.
Cundinamarca is a major province or political entity within Colombia. Although Bogota is now a separate entity, as Washington, D.C. is politically separate from Maryland and Virginia. Bogota was part of Cundinamarca for many decades.
In sum, the coins of Gran Colombia never explicitly reveal that they are Gran Colombia coins. For political reasons, Republica de Colombia, Nueva Granada or Cundinamarca, or combinations of these names, appear on most of the coins of Gran Colombia. There are exceptions.
Groups in Colombia attempted to unilaterally remove themselves from Spanish rule before the whole state became independent in 1819. In 1810, residents of Cartagena refused to recognize Napoleon’s installment of his brother, Joseph, on the Spanish throne. The city of Cartagena declared independence in November 1811 and remained independent until 1815. Cartagena was re-taken by royalists in 1815, and was not clearly free until Colombia became independent in 1819.
The Half-Real and Two Reales coins issued in Cartagena by revolutionary forces were made of copper. Coins of Half-Real and Two Reales denominations are typically made of silver. ‘Siege coins’ are exceptions.
Coins made within a town, city or relatively small region that is “under continual attack”, or is being confronted by hostile forces on more than one front, are known as “siege coins“. In such situations, quantities of silver or gold are typically not available for minting coins. In many cases, societies producing siege coins were defending against an attempted occupation or temporary invasion.
Siege coins of silver denominations were often made of copper to facilitate commerce and trade. Even in societies accustomed to trading in silver or gold, copper coins were better than none at all, if the denominations were understandable and the coins were accepted in a predictable manner.
The province or state of Cundinamarca, including Bogota, declared independence in July 1813, three years after publicly refusing to recognize the regime change in Spain. From 1811 to 1815, before being retaken by royalist forces, coins were issued within Cundinamarca. These often are and should be classified as Gran Colombia coins.
Gran Colombia survived until Ecuador and Venezuela seceded in 1830. As a Quarter-Real design type and a One-Real design type that were introduced in the 1820s continued to be produced during the 1830s, without any change in design, all coins of these two types can logically be collected as Gran Colombia coins.
Coins of the Spanish Empire and directly related Latin American coins usually have an assayer’s mark and/or a separate mintmark. While assembling type sets, it is best to ignore assayer’s initials and mintmarks or avoid the coins with particular marks that command large premiums.
For coins of Gran Colombia, there weren’t that many assayers, anyway. Most of the coins of Gran Columbia were minted in Bogota or Papayan.
Types of Gran Colombia One Real Coins
1. Indian Head, Libertad/Cundinamarca (1813-16)
The obverse of this 1813 to ’16 type is just about the same as the obverse of the next (1819) type. The reverse is a little different as Cundinamarca appears in the legend and the denomination (‘1 R.’) is divided in reverse fields. A pomegranate is the reverse central device on many Colombian coins.
These are very rare. Although a choice uncirculated coin of this type would cost thousands, coins grading below EF-40 almost probably would sell for less than $1,000 each. Heavy worn pieces may probably be found for less than $250.
2. Indian Head, Libertad/Granada (1819)
On the second type of One Real coins, there is no mention of ‘Cundinamarca’ and the denomination (“1 R.”) is part of the legend rather than appearing at sides of the pomegranate. Unfortunately for budget-minded collectors, coins of this type are extremely rare.
For all One Real coins of Gran Colombia and the later Colombian nation, NGC has certified just 51 in total. A small percentage of that total are coins of this type.
The NGC-graded AU-53 Whittier Collection coin was auctioned for $2,760 in June 2006. It is almost certain, though, that a lower grade piece could be acquired for less than $1,000, maybe even for less than $500 by a collector who is willing to wait. For an extremely rare, one-year type, market levels are reasonable, from a logical perspective.
3. Indian Head, Republica/Cundinamarca (1821)
On the third type of One Real coins, rather than the motto Libertad Americana (“Liberty for the Americas”) on the obverse, the title “Republica de Colombia” (Republic of Colombia) is present. The reverse of the third type is very similar to that of the first type, though the words “Nueva Granada” (New Granada) are not present.
Although a one-year type from an early period, these are not that rare. A collector could find one without difficulty. Several have sold at auction or publicly on the Internet for less than $500 in recent times. In March 2016, an NGC-graded VG-08 coin went for $60.
4. Cornucopias/Wreath (1827-36)
The fourth design type is much different from the first three. There is no Indian head. Two cornucopias face each other with cultural symbols between them. “Republica de Colombia” is on the obverse and “Libertad” is on the reverse. These were minted in Bogota, with ‘B’ or ‘BA’ mintmarks, and in Popayan with a ‘PN’ mintmark.
Circulated examples of this type can easily be found for less than $50 each, possibly even for less than $10. Many of the survivors, though, would be likely to be judged to be non-gradable if submitted to NGC. Rare dates, such as the 1827-PN and the 1829, are worth much more than the least scarce dates. It is practical to complete sets of this type. Among the least scarce dates, a pleasing, definitely gradable VF-20 to -35 coin should retail for less than $110, some for much less.
Types of Gran Colombia Two Reales Coins
1. Cartagena – Copper (1811-14)
These are the already discussed siege coins that were struck in copper because silver was unavailable. In April 2016, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded AU-50 1813 for $646.25. In June 2015, an NGC-graded VF-25 coin of this issue brought $305.50. A problematic piece could be found for less than $200.
2. Indian Head, Libertad/Cundinamarca (1815-16)
Except that the denomination is different, this is the same design as the first type of One Real coins (1813-16). An NGC-graded EF-45 coin, from the famous Whittier Collection, was auctioned by Heritage in June 2006 for $1,495. In the same Long Beach auction, an apparently Good-04 grade 1815 went for just $80.50. A collector could probably find a pleasing, Good-06 to VF-20 grade coin for a price between $100 and $375.
3. Indian Head, Libertad/Granada (1819-20)
There are two noticeable subtypes relating to the reverse designs. In 1819 only, the denomination (“2 R.”) is in the legend. On the other subtype, which lasted for two years (1819-20), the denomination is in the fields near the pomegranate. One coin is enough for a type set.
In April 2010, Heritage auctioned an NGC-graded AU-58 1819 for $690. In 2006, the Whittier Collection, NGC-graded AU-58 1819 brought $1,725. Certainly, circulated pieces could be acquired for less than $350 each, though some time may be required to locate one. Most types of Gran Colombia coins are rare in absolute terms.
4. Indian head, Republica/Cundinamarca (1820-23)
Finding a circulated representative of this type, with pleasant natural toning should not be extremely difficult. In September 2016, Heritage sold an NGC-graded VF-35 1821 for $223.25. In January 2016, an NGC-graded AU-55 1821 was auctioned for $1,175. In June 2014, Heritage sold an NGC-graded VG-08 1821 for $80.
It would not be easy to complete an eight-piece type set of One Real and Two Reales Gran Colombia coins. A collector with such a goal may wish to collect other series at the same time. Among coins of independent Latin American societies during the first half of the 19th century, there are many attractive, very rare and fascinating issues that are available for low prices in comparison to U.S. coins of equivalent rarity.
Regarding coins of Gran Colombia and the post-1830 Republic of Colombia, NGC has certified just 75 Two Reales coins in total, for all dates and types, presumably including non-gradable coins in ‘details’ holders. Of course, most Gran Colombia Two Reales coins have never been submitted to NGC. The total number in existence, however, must be small.
Coins of Gran Colombia appear infrequently in public auctions. These represent an exciting new frontier for collectors of U.S., Brazilian, British, Canadian, or Mexican coins of the 19th century. They are also appealing to collectors who appreciate extremely rare items that are historically important. Absolute beginners with curiosity should consider these coins as well.
© 2016 Greg Reynolds
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 “Great Colombia” in English.
NGC-Certified Half Cents Currently Available on eBay