Review: Eight-Reales Cobs of Potosi

Emilio Paoletti. Eight-Reales Cobs of Potosi. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: n.p., 2006. Hb, 402 pp., with 453 individual coins listed and illustrated in the text, including numerous enlargements. ISBN 987-05-1267-4.

Much has been written of the massive coinage of Potosí, in what is now the province of that name in Bolivia, and deservedly so. The most important of the series, the Spanish colonial eight-reales denomination, made its mark in ways that scholars are still analyzing. This new reference book is unquestionably the premier study of the early “cob” issues—the very coins that tumbled their way into language, literature, folklore, and dreams of civilization—the renowned “pieces of eight,” the original “dollars” of the New World.

The famous “Red Mountain” of Potosí was surely the greatest discovery of silver in history. Accounts refer to raw ore so fine that it had to be alloyed to reduce it to the quality of money for imperial Spain. This stupendous find in 1544 was one of the many amazing circumstances of the conquistadors’ exploration and seizure of much of the Western Hemisphere and one of the leading causes of economic, social, and political change giving birth to the modern age. Located at 4,090 meters above sea level, the city of Potosí, founded at the foot of the Cerro Rico (“rich mountain”) in 1545, is said to be the world’s highest. It quickly grew from nothing to become the largest in the New World and, with a population reaching nearly 200,000, one of the largest cities on the planet. While Paoletti has made a review of the early mint’s production accessible to us today, going to Potosí in the sixteenth century must have been, for Europeans of the time, something like a trip to outer space. Difficult, dangerous, costly, time-consuming, and strange—full of the unknown. Situated on the Andean altiplano of the old Viceroyalty of el Perú, the mining town became a magnet for treasure seekers of every stripe. Among these were the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church of Spain, looking to convert and catechize the native peoples whose labor scraped the riches from the mountain and to look after the souls of the multitude of sinners who exploited these workers. By the 1570s, there were some eighty-six churches in the sprawling new metropolis. In just thirty years, the boomtown had grown from a nascent mining camp to an almost unrivaled commercial and cultural center that soon possessed the largest minting operation anywhere.

Silver extracted from the mines was refined nearby, then shipped—first in heavy bars or ingots—by llama. A mint was decreed for Lima, on the other side of the Andean cordillera, in 1565, and production began in 1568. Another ephemeral mint was established at La Plata (literally, “the silver”), closer to the actual mines, in 1573 and was moved to Potosí itself to begin production in 1574. All of these coins bore the mintmark “P,” indicating “Peru.” The wealth of the city became proverbial. The first known medals referring to the New World, made for King Philip II of Spain by Giampaolo Poggini in Madrid in 1562, depict llamas transporting silver bars as part of their design. Although quantities of large ingot bars continued to be fabricated in Potosí for years after, once minting commenced, presumably coins were produced at a rate as quickly and abundantly as could be sustained and transported to the rest of the world in the same manner.

Paoletti’s treatment of the coin descriptions is admirable. He shows a seasoned collector’s appreciation for organizing the material, with all pieces assigned consecutive numbers and arranged under pertinent categories and subheadings. The coin photographs illustrating each entry are excellent, and include many enlargements of details mentioned in the discussion of the dies. While not attempting to be a complete corpus (surely an unattainable prospect for such an enormous series) or a technical die study, Eight-Reales Cobs clearly delineates all known salient features and characteristics of the recorded varieties for every year of issue, with a detailed discussion of the progressions of stylistic changes and assayers’ tenures. That this book is based upon the author’s own personal collection is phenomenal. Incidentally, many of the images in this book were used in Sewall Menzel’s Cobs, Pieces of Eight, and Treasure Coins: The Early Spanish-American Mints and Their Coinages, published by the ANS.

The first edition of Paoletti’s work, written in Spanish, was immediately welcomed by all students and aficionados of the classic Potosí macuquinas, the Spanish name for all the rough and irregular hand-struck coins—often curiously called “cobs” in English—minted from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century). The second edition will be even more widely celebrated. It has been given updated and more comprehensive information and is entirely translated into English, with an equivalent Spanish text (pp. 267- 402). Between the English and Spanish sections are a bibliography that includes twenty-three titles and thirteen auction catalogs, a list of other numismatic “consultants” (the ANS, for one), six more complete reference citations to be related to some of the coins, and a concordance table for the numbering systems used in the first and second editions of the book. The bibliographical apparatus is rudimentary.

Unlike Menzel’s work, which synthesizes a systematic classification system for mintages organized by categories, Paoletti’s, which is also organized by the same basic structure of monarch, assayer (ensayador), and date, proceeds intensively through analysis of the variations of the 8-reales on a year-by-year basis, following the productions of successive assayers. As an example, for instance, under the Philip IV heading for assayer “T” (determined to be Juan Ximénez de Tapia), during his second period of work (following the interlude of his rival “P”—Martín de Palencia), we learn about a man who was to figure largely in the mint history of the period. Tapia’s first tenure had started in 1618 (under Philip III), with his assayer’s mark (ensayo) cut on an obverse die over the PARL mark of his predecessor (provisionally believed to have been one García Paredes Ulloa). This began a series of alternating, competing assayers’ tenures, culminating in the great mint scandal of 1647-1649. Tapia’s second tenure began in 1627 and ended in 1639; he held office again for a third period in 1644-1648.

Focusing on the standard “cobs,” Paoletti has not dwelt upon the well-made round coins (often referred to as the “royals”) minted at Potosí contemporaneously with the macuquinas, except in instances where they help elucidate his organization. An example is his inclusion of a “royal” of 1639, probably the last year of Tapia’s second tenure but a date represented by no surviving “cob” coin.

Paoletti has effectively achieved his goal “not simply to describe each coin, but rather to place a given piece within its historic period and to offer a comprehensive analysis that connects the cob to the larger socioeconomic and political framework of the times” (p. 9). His work will be of use to everyone who is interested in the prolific early Potosí coinages: collectors and dealers, students and scholars, treasure hunters and salvers, and anyone who enjoys contemplation of the wealth made famous by the fleets of heavily laden Spanish galleons and the pirates who preyed upon them. In their very crudeness and naïveté, their appearance has a charm with which to conjure.

—Robert W. Hoge