Jon H. writes: Dear Doc:
I am a real novice at numismatic matters and I need your expert assistance in providing general, reasonable retail price guidelines for Spanish treasure coins. Specifically, I have recently become interested in buying coins from the Atocha wreck. What would you consider to be reasonable retail prices for 2, 4, and 8 Reales from the Atocha (apparently these coins are graded from 1 to 4, with 1 being highest grade and 4 being lowest)? Also, do you know of a book or other publication providing guidance to pricing on such coins? Thanks for your help! I’ve bookmarked your site so I guarantee you I’ll be returning often!
The study of the coinage of Spain and The New World is a vast undertaking and takes up history, politics, technology, religion, sociology, language and even mythology. To try to give you a perspective in a few paragraphs, suffice to say that the manufacture of the crude cob coinage at the New World Mints of Peru, Mexico and Colombia were a frantic attempt to turn the bonanza of precious metals found in these locations into measurable weights later to be turned into acceptable coinage at the Mints of Spain. Spain had come to depend on these riches to finance the almost constant wars with England and France and to cement its stature as THE world power.
Had no calamity befallen any of the many ships traveling the Columbus route from the New World to Spain and back, the cob coinage produced in The New World would be rare indeed. Spain knew that the frail ships were no match for nature and knew that it would lose ships to storms, accidents or by attack from hostile nations.
Though many shipwrecks have been found and their contents recovered over the years, none has gotten has much publicity as the ship, Atocha. It’s a case of: If You Publicize It They Will Come. The saga of Mel Fisher and his search for this treasure stayed in the public press for years. When the ship was finally found it was rich indeed. Hundreds of thousands of coins, bars and other artifacts were found strewn on the ocean floor.
Remember that these coins were essentially weights or counters. The only quality control was the actual weight of silver guaranteed by the assayers initials. Many of the best material from the Atocha and her sister ship the Margarita were sold at auction in 1988. The remaining material varies greatly from jewelry quality to occasional finds of collector quality examples.
You are correct about the grading system. The coin are graded from I – IV. The grade is primarily assigned by the weight of the coin not the look or the amount of design detail remaining. After being under the ocean for almost four centuries, many of the coins weigh much less than when they left the mints. For example a 8 Reales that weighed 27 grams when it was minted might only weigh 14 grams today (Grade IV).
Prices of the Atocha coins varies greatly. For instance the jewelry industry uses many of the common undated pieces for framed creations that appear extensively in tourist areas of Florida and the Caribbean. The coin of choice for jewelry is the small 2 reales. The price of these has skyrocketed as the supply of this denomination is much smaller than the larger size 4 and 8 reales. Expect to pay $300 to $500 for decent Atocha 2 Reales.
In contrast the run-of-the-mill 8 and 4’s can be had for as little as $80 for a “one-sided” Grade IV with a certificate or if you have money to burn Mel will sell you the same piece for $650. but that’s Mel ringing up the cash register. Fancier pieces with dates and more weight left on the coins can bring up to $500 or so. The important word here is “certificate”. Without Mel Fisher’s famous cert, the coin is worth far less.
If you just want to own a bit of history and aren’t concerned with the collector aspect, stick to the less expensive examples. There are lots of these coins around.