Chasing down a pirate’s piece of eight
It’s no great secret that like probably the vast majority of silver coin collectors, pieces of eight are high on my list of desirable items.
And, let’s be honest, what I really would like to have in the collection is a genuine pirate coin.
A road well travelled
And that’s the nub of this post – authentication for the ordinary person which, since I lack easy access to XRF machines and electron probes, simply often comes down to trusting who I’m dealing with together with my own appreciation of the piece in question.
So I have proceeded along what must be a well worn path amongst coin collectors, trying to establish to my own satisfaction what type of coin realistically fits the bill of a ‘pirate piece of eight’.
Well, it’s been a journey of discovery and one where the overlap of reality and expectation turns out to be somewhat limited and although aesthetically disappointing in my case, does have a happy ending – I mean, overall, I’m pretty happy with what I’ve got!
Let me explain – in this sort of quest, the key to getting what you desire is provenance, that is the incontrevertible –
“record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.”
Straight out of the Oxord dictionary – you need to know, ideally, when and where the coin was made and what happened to it subsequently in order to be fully convinced without any shadow of doubt that it is in fact the genuine article.
I mean to claim that it’s a pirate’s piece of eight, you need to know for sure and, for better or for worse, there are no blockchains associated with these types of coin!
Anyway, when I first established the ‘true piratical piece of eight’ as my goal, I didn’t really know what I was seeking…my romantic notion of piracy in terms of coins was informed by Robert Louis Stevenson (I don’t think that I’m alone in that!)
Reality – early milled
But, you know, piracy as a thing was really restricted in time so that following some basic internet research, it’s pretty much a given that ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’ was 1650 – 1730 and within this period, it was at its height from 1716 – 1726.
And therein lies a little bit of a problem, at least for me, because I like milled coinage for its appearance, meaning coins produced by mechanical means, not hammered stuff or cob coins and it turns out that the technology didn’t really come into widespread use until after that date range, which means that it would not be common to have a Spanish Colonial milled silver coin (with a king’s bust) in this date range (Golden Age of Piracy) as such coins generally were produced after 1730.
On the other hand, a milled gold goin with a king’s bust was produced from 1700 to 1833…
Gold, well that’s another level altogether!
I’m a big silver buff so where does that leave me..?
As I said, a bit disappointed, but still not beyond the bounds of plausability – which really only means that you have to have absolutely rock solid provenance to hit that overlap that I really really want, ie an early milled silver piece of eight that belonged at one time to a genuine recognised pirate.
It was always going to be a tough ask, in the finish harder than I anticipated – still we proceed by degrees, and so when I was offered a 1737 piece of eight I was naturally interested…
It came with a COA – sounds nice.
It claimed by virtue of the COA to be a shipwreck coin. Okay, there’s a handle for more research.
Now a shipwreck coin, if genuine, is basically hitting the jackpot on provenance – verifiable documentation tying down time and space, a solid data point that this coin was at this location at this time and now has come down to us…
Additionally, coins recovered from shipwrecks (and subsequently conserved) can typically be in really good condition, once they’ve been separated from the mass that formed the contents of a, hopefully, piratical sea chest.
Having been sitting under the waves for centuries they were not subject to the rigours of circulation and consequently retained their initial condition – so if it had been recently struck before going down, the details ought to be nice and clear relative to another example that has also survived but spent years in circulation, subject to all that cumulative wear and tear.
In summary, shipwreck pieces can be top shelf examples of their type.
For a piece of eight, 1737’s a bit on the late side, still, it’s all about the coin in question and so when presented with this particular specimen, it seemed to pass…
Here is what the coin I have looks like:
It’s not better than EF, which is exactly what we would expect for a then recently made early milled coin – if it were in better grade that would be a red flag considering the technology available.
So we’re all go regarding the actual coin – the date is 1737 and the mintmark Mexico, the COA stating it came from the wreck of the VOC Rooswijk.
Ok, Google provides the information that there was a VOC Rooswijk, which went down with all hands in January 1740 (slightly later than the time stated on the COA, but..hmmm..?), and was carrying 36,000 pieces of eight on board officially, noted by https://www.dealpier.uk/rooswijk.html
A source for the 2005 salvage operation is https://www.maarer.com/rooswijk-p2.html and
https://www.newworldtreasures.com/rooswijk.htm has sold what appears to be an identical type of coin.
Without going into great detail, the salvage operations appear to have been above board and conducted with the consent of the relevant authorities, still not everyone was happy at the time, despite the involvement of respected operator Rex Cowan.
The wreck is the subject of an ongoing project.
[I have done my best to ensure all who deserve credit for dealing with the wreck have been acknowledged and apologise to any who have not been identified appropriately – frankly, shipwreck stuff is not my preferred source of coins, they come with provenance but there is an additional intangible cost…the kind that keeps me away from estate auctions.]
Further references include:
Ok, all great to this point.
However the COA itself is suspect.
The text content and format is right, it wasn’t easy to track down the (printed) signatures on the paper I have, but https://www.treasurenet.com/threads/voc-shipwreck-info-needed.305129/
seems to confirm that the names are genuine at least – it’s just the paper on what it’s printed is not right.
Here’s what I was given (bought?):
So the COA that came with this coin is not the original – uh oh… here we go, the COA is creating issues, exactly what it’s not supposed to do!
Yet the coin itself exhibits a patina that is not inconsistent with what those coins recovered in 2005 look like and this photo (linked) is at least attributed
So what have I got myself into here…a dodgy COA and a respectable looking coin…hmmm
On balance (in the legal sense) I have the real deal…
Is it a pirate coin… well no, (ok there’s some way to go on that and I need to overcome my prejudice against cob coins if I want to be certain)
Is it an early milled Mexican Spanish dollar…well yes – actually it’s a pillar dollar, no doubt about it…
Was it recovered from the VOC Rooswijk….well more than likely – but not definitively, and so it’s just as well that I’m not after a shipwreck coin per se, just a solid early milled variety and so it’s good enough for me – pride of the collection really!
You know, putting this post together really made me thing a bit more about the context of shipwreck coins, and the necesssary tragedy that is part and parcel of them means that I am not likely to seek them out specifically in the future (but that’s just me).