What’s among the rarest coins of the West Indies? That honor goes to a sizable gold piece issued by the Caribbean island of Curacao around 1800. This particular coin was originally minted as a 1781 Brazil 6,400 reis and later reissued with a variety of counterstamps from the government of Curacao. It’s one of only three single-island coins and one multiple-island coin from the tiny nation, a Dutch constituent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands located about 40 miles north of Venezuela. Today, the autonomous nation, which receives militaristic defense by and abides under foreign policy terms from the Kingdom of Netherlands, utilizes the Netherlands Antillean guilder, or Dutch guilder, as its monetary unit.
However, back in the early 19th century the financial status of the colony of Curacao was tumultuous, and a variety of foreign coins were used on the island. It was a situation not vastly unlike that of the United States during that same time, when the U.S. Mint could not keep coin production up with the commerce demands of a young, growing nation; thus, many foreign coins, including silver coinage from Spain and France, dominated America’s circulation channels.
In little Curacao during the early 1800s, the demand for authentic gold coinage was great, and it was a need met by, in some instances, officially repurposing gold coins from other nearby nations, including pieces of Portuguese origin. However, as was the case with many circulating gold coins, the edges of these foreign precious-metal pieces were often subject to clipping and shaving, and many of the coins in use did not meet the specifications or standards of the ruling Dutch government.
According to numismatic author C. Scholten, the Ca. 1800 6 Peso profiled here and other pieces like it were issued under the authority of Curacao Governor J.L. Lauffer, who oversaw the island from 1799 through 1803. However, there are no known government decrees or documents suggesting this coin was officially authorized or regulated by the government, thus it is generally regarded as a private issue. However, like many other rare private issues from the time period, this piece is of great significance to the numismatic narrative of the Americas.
This countermarked Brazilian 6,400 Reis was certified by PCGS as an AU53, crossing the coin up from a competitor’s slab in which it was graded as "EF Details." It’s a rarity among the many countermarked gold coins of the Caribbean, one of only two such Curacao coins with all six counterstamps, and the only such single-island issue on a genuine host coin – this one a Brazil Fr-107 minted from Rios dies. Curiously, this piece, measuring 28.7 millimeters in diameter and weighing 12.35 grams, is the heaviest of the three known examples of this coin, with the others weighing in with significantly lighter measures of 10.43 and 10.47 grams.
On this coin are a multitude of counterstamps originating from various metalsmiths who verified the purity and content of the coin. On its obverse is a "GI" in square cartouche at the top center in the 12 o’clock position, an inverted "B" in a radiant spray stamp at the 3 o’clock position near the center-right border, an "MH" in a shield cartouche at the 6 o’clock position just to the right of the "1781" date toward the bottom center by the border, an "L" in a circle-shaped indent on the left edge at the 9 o’clock position, a quatrefoil on Maria’s forehead, and a large "CM" monogram within a starburst counterstamp covering the faces of both Maria I and Pedro III. The significance of the letters within each obverse counterstamp is that these hallmarks represent the initials of the various individuals on the committee who examined and stamped these gold coins. Around the 10 o’clock position on the reverse of the coin is a letter "W" sitting within a single, large counterstamp, and this is theorized to represent Willemstad, a city established in 1634 that serves as the capital of Curacao.
The specimen is bright yellow gold in color with hints of luster and only faint hairlines. Overall the coin’s surfaces are quite remarkable, especially given not only its age but also the fact it was handled by multiple individuals who each counterstamped the coin. The surface evidences some light wear and there is a small, circular drill mark at the base of the shield on the reverse. However, as this is a unique rarity, the drill mark is of relatively little consequence to the coin’s numismatic value and overall desirability. In fact, one could argue the drill-bit indent helps illustrate the colorful story behind this coin, as drilling was among the many tests to which gold coins were subjected in the day to verify their precious metal content.
Despite much mystique surrounding the coin’s origins, numismatists know the specimen profiled here was the first such documented piece. It was originally plated by numismatic scholar F. Pridmore and is traced back to the cabinet of German numismatist Jules Fonrobert. It was sold in 1878 to Richard F. Peltzer, whose great collection was parceled out in 1927. From Peltzer, it entered the noted collection of John Clapp, and in 1942 his entire collection was purchased by Louis Eliasberg, a wealthy Baltimore financier and numismatist who built what was in the 20th century the most comprehensive collection of United States coins ever assembled. The coin previously sold in an April 2005 Spink’s auction for $85,000. A similar piece hosted on a 1776 Rio-minted specimen once resided in the Garrett Collection, originally built by family patriarch Thomas Harrison Garrett, a railroad icon who began building his legendary cabinet in the 1860s and was – like Eliasberg – also from Baltimore.
As evidenced by its time in the cabinets of great U.S. collectors such as Garrett and Eliasberg, this early 19th-century issue from Curacao and others like it are of great numismatic and symbolic significance to American numismatists. Not only are they terrific rarities in their own rights, but they also hearken to a lively period when the fledgling New World countries of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the United States, were building their respective domestic economies and setting their places at the expanding table of international trade.