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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.