A Coin Collector in Guatemala
I’m a coin collector, you’re a coin collector. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re all coin collectors. Is there one among us, who upon receiving something different in change, doesn’t toss it in a dresser drawer for keeps?
Guatemala is paradise for coin collectors and Banco Industrial has opened a gate to this paradise through a small but well-curated coin museum just steps from Central Park in La Antigua Guatemala.
Coins from the smallest denominations right up to the eight real cartwheel that was the precursor to the American silver dollar (said to have been named itself after the silver thaler minted in Empress Maria Theresa’s Austria) were stamped out by the millions and served as a medium of exchange throughout the world. Reciprocally, coins from other countries, chiefly Mexico, Chile and the Philippines, circulated here, the U.S. frontier and elsewhere around the world, even in China.
As the value of silver and countries’ prospects ebbed and flowed, the coins were frequently “clipped” and smaller pieces circulated. The famous pirate or parrot squawk “pieces of eight, pieces of eight” in fact refers to smaller pieces of eight real or other silver coins: likewise, the American slang for a quarter, “two bits.”
Guatemala stayed with silver-based coinage until the 1960s when the dollar was unpegged from gold, and hence silver, and hundreds of tons of the 72 percent silver coins then circulating, were withdrawn from circulation and melted down. Since most of the denominations were identical in design to their nickel replacements, it’s not unheard of to find a silver coin still in circulation today.
Rolex watches or coins — fakes abound. After a little experimenting, the tourist or collector can distinguish the real McCoy from the modern counterfeit. A true silver coin dropped on a solid surface “rings;” a fake does not. Prevailing counterfeits usually have small bubbles or pebbling on their surfaces — a sure sign that they were not struck as in a real mint, but poured unto a mold. Beware!
“You load 16 tons,
And what do you get?
Another day older,
And deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t call me,
Cuz I can’t go,
I owe my soul
To the company store.”
These are words to a mid-20th century popular song with echoes from Guatemala’s 19th century. Farm owners commonly created private tokens, now called finca tokens, to pay the staff when funds were short or even when the government ran out of money. Bearing the farm’s name and a denomination, they were originally exchangeable at the farm’s company store. Eventually, they gave rise to a uniquely Guatemalan subspecialty of “coin” collecting.
You are unlikely to find either colonial-era coins or finca tokens in circulation today. You are likely to find them in the so-called pasaje, a rabbit warren of shops directly across Constitution Square in front of the country’s green national palace in Guatemala City.
You can also occasionally find bits of old coins or whole ones in traditional necklaces (chachales). The latter have been perforated and sadly have lost much of their value for collectors but are still a reminder of the breadth of Guatemala’s proud coinage heritage.
Now … go check your pocket change.
REVUE magazine article by Carlisle Johnson.
Emisoras Unidas (ABC Radio affiliate), Canal Antigua TV, VOA (radio and TV), BBC4, El Periódico, Cincinnati Enquirer, Guatemala Post, Atlantic, Washington Times, St. Petersburg Times (comments). Golden Circle award and numerous local recognitions.