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Greatest Collection of Costa Rican Coins
By Greg Reynolds

On Oct. 23 in New York City, the firm of Spink-Smythe auctioned the Frederick Mayer collection of Costa Rican coins. Please see part 1 for an overview of the event. Here in part 2, the focus is on silver coins of the 1840s. In part 3, choice and/or interesting silver coins dating from 1850 to 1889 will be covered. Mayer’s Costa Rican gold coins will be discussed in part 4. The fascinating Cost Rican coins of the Central American Republic (1823-40) are the subject of part 5. A primary purpose is to discuss the Mayer collection such that someone who knows nothing about Costa Rican coins can come to understand a good deal about them and may appreciate the greatness of Mayer’s collection.

Although the gold coins in the Mayer collection are much more highly demanded than the silver coins, I devote a lot of attention to silver coins because these are relatively inexpensive and are largely unrecognized by collectors outside of Central America.

Even especially choice and/or rare Costa Rican silver coins sell for only a fraction of the values of parallel U.S. coins. In general, Costa Rican silver coins are very inexpensive. They may appeal to collectors of 19th century U.S. coins, to collectors of various world coins, and to new collectors, as scarce or rare, attractive, interesting Costa Rican coins can be obtained for low prices.

Costa Rican silver coins of the 19th century are often confusing because the monetary system was changed four times. The first system stemmed from that of the Spanish Empire. Sixteen silver reales equaled one gold escudo. The Eight Reales silver coins, of the Spanish Empire, were the basis for U.S. silver dollars. The term ‘two bits’ refers to Two Reales coins which were about equivalent to U.S. quarters. From the 1790s to the 1830s, U.S. quarters were not often seen in circulation in the U.S., and Two Reales coins of the Spanish Empire served as quarters in the U.S. It was very common then for Two Reales coins to be given in change when purchases were made with U.S. half dollars or gold coins. Indeed, the silver coins of the Spanish Empire circulated widely in the U.S. at least until the 1860s, and circulated to some extent in the West until the 1880s.

In the 1840s, there were probably more Spanish Empire silver coins in circulation in the U.S. than there were U.S. Liberty Seated coins. One Real could be thought of as being worth around 12½ U.S. cents. A Four Reales coin thus paralleled a U.S. half dollar. Coins of the Spanish Empire and their direct descendants are very much a part of the monetary history of the United States.

By 1840, the Central American Republic (really a federation of which Costa Rica was a member) had dissolved. In 1842, Costa Rica issued Half-Real silver coins and one escudo gold coins. A variety of silver and gold denominations followed.

The Half-Real of the period had a little more silver than the contemporary U.S. half dime. A Quarter-Real was an even smaller silver coin, worth around 3.125 U.S. cents. As Walter Breen pointed out in his 1988 encyclopedia, a reason why the U.S. introduced Three Cent silver coins in 1851 was that Latin American Quarter-Real coins were fading from circulation in the U.S.

Quarter-Real coins were minted in Costa Rica only in 1845. These are rare prizes for collectors. Freeman Craig points out that many forgeries of Costa Rican Quarter-Real coins were produced during the period from 1965 to 1973 and “were widely distributed.” Additionally, it is puzzling that most genuine pieces have been holed.

The Mayer 1845 Quarter-Real is exceptional. It has soothing, attractive, nearly-flawless fields. It is very difficult to grade, though, as the lack of detail in the mountains on the obverse (front of the coin) seems to be due, at least in part, to weakness in the strike or incompleteness in the die rather than wear. There does seem to be some friction. Andy Lustig determines that it is “Very Choice AU” [Almost Uncirculated].

The Mayer 1845 Quarter-Real has really neat natural toning, with much brownish-russet and appealing shades of orange-russet and blue, plus some red and green hues. It has never been dipped or cleaned. Freeman Craig declares that this coin “is a jewel” that “brought a well deserved record price” of $2745. The Rubensteins were the successful bidder; they are a team of father and son. Reportedly, they bid on this coin and several others for a very accomplished collector of Latin American coins.

Freeman Craig knows the coin well as it was once in his father’s collection, and it is the finest 1845 Quarter-Real known to him. Craig is the leading expert in coins of the independent Latin American Republics. Many Latin American societies became independent during the quarter-century that followed the conquering of Spain in 1808 by the armies of Napoleon, then Emperor of France.

The Half Real silver coins and One Escudo gold coins of 1842 are very important in the history of Costa Rican coinage, and reflect the fact that 1842 was a pivotal year in the life of this young nation. The Mayer 1842 One Escudo gold coin (lot #1170) will be discussed in Part 3. An 1842 Half-Real is also called a “Medio Real.” Mayer had six 1842 Half-Real coins!

Mayer’s highest quality 1842 Half-Real, lot #1059, has minimal imperfections and neat color. The cataloguer, Matt Orsini, grades this Half-Real as being “Select Uncirculated.” Freeman states that it is “choice, unflawed and reasonably well struck” with “nearly full light luster,” and is “nearly Uncirculated.” It is probably one of the four finest known of this one-year type. It sold for $1680.

Mayer’s ‘EF’ grade 1842 Half-Real (lot #1060) sold for $540. The next lot contained four of them, three of which were holed. It brought $282. Does it make sense to figure that the VF grade, never holed 1842 Half-Real is worth around $147 and each of the holed ones are worth $45 each? These are not vast sums for pieces of history.

Though the 1842 Half-Real has great historical importance relating to the changing of regimes in 1842, I especially like the design of the One Real coins that were minted in 1849 and 1850. Although the One Real coins of 1847 are similar, the 1949-50 issues are even more appealing. Mayer had quantities of all three dates, the ‘Madonna’ issues, including several varieties.

Mayer’s collection contained thirty 1849 One Real coins. One in particular, sold as lot #1064, is amazing. Coins of this type are usually significantly worn and poorly struck, as Orsini points out. This is a fantastic coin with startling detail, great green toning and very few marks. Craig declares that it “is the finest of the Madonna issues,” which he has “ever seen or imagined”!

By the standards employed to grade similar U.S. coins, this 1849 One Real would probably grade MS-64. It is unusual for any Costa Rican One Real coin to grade as high as MS-61.

Andy Lustig bought this 1849 One Real (#1064) for $690. In contrast, a large lot of twenty-eight 1849 One Real coins (#1066) realized $720, about $26 each. A U.S. 1849-O dime of equivalent quality to Mayer’s best 1849 One Real would certainly be worth $8000, and a MS-64 grade 1843-O would be worth more than $25,000. Neither of these U.S. dimes is precisely analogous to an 1849 One Real. A point here is that the market values of Costa Rican coins are dramatically lower than the market values of parallel U.S. coins. This Mayer 1849 One Real (lot #1064) may be the finest known of an entire type, and it sold for $690!

There is only one Costa Rican issue of a Two Reales coin (Two Bits!) and that was in 1849. Mayer did not have one without a counterstamp. The ones with counterstamps are not extremely rare and circulated as quarter-peso coins in the 1850s. Please see part 3.

Counterstamped Mexican, Colombian, Guatemalan and Bolivian Two Reales coins circulated in Costa Rica in the 1840s. Counterstamped coins are a topic that is separate from coins that were actually minted in Costa Rica. A counterstamp from the Costa Rican Mint on a foreign coin meant that its weight and precious metal content qualified it to circulate in Costa Rica as if it was part of the Costa Rican monetary system. Mayer had a tremendous assemblage of coins with Costa Rican counterstamps.

While Mayer’s achievements in all categories of Costa Rican numismatics could not be easily matched, a formidable collection of Costa Rican silver coins from the 1840s could be built for less than $10,000. A really neat collection of such coins in Fine to Very Fine condition could probably be assembled for less than $1000, though patience and effort might be required. An interesting and historically significant collection may cost just a few hundred dollars, if that much.

There is no need to buy Costa Rican coins in order to enjoy learning about them. Almost all coin enthusiasts can appreciate the quality and depth of Mayer’s collection.


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