The Spanish reales, specifically, the Spanish-Colonial Reales, loom large in the history of United States coinage– particularly the silver coinage of the United States.
The Spanish reales, specifically, the Spanish-Colonial reales, loom large in the history of United States coinage– particularly the silver coinage of the United States:
From the above, one might think that “reales” are roughly equivalent to “cents.” Not true. Remember, it takes 100 cents to make one dollar. It only took 8 reales to make a “peso.”
So it was actually the Spanish-Colonial reale coin subdivisions that are the rough equivalent of the U.S. coin subdivisions (at least from the half-dime through the dollar), not the units of measurement themselves that are equal. Also bear in mind, during the era of the reales, Spanish copper coin denominations were measured in “maravedis,” while gold coins were measured in “escudos.” Don’t get too much of a headache trying to calculate it all out– let the economists worry about that.
The “reale” originated in Spain during the Middle Ages. In the 16th century, when Spain set up colonies in the New World, specifically in Mexico and Peru, a tradition of New World Spanish reale coins began. The first were struck in Mexico, beginning in 1536. Silver ½, 1,2,4, and 8 reales struck in Mexico City from 1536-55 were the first coins struck in the New World. The design on these silver coins featured two crowned Pillars of Hercules looming above rolling waves. On the reverse was the Spanish coat of arms. While the ½, 4 and 8 reales of 1536-55 are quite scarce, the 1 and 2 reales are more common, and even affordable today. The 1 reale is the most affordable, retailing around $85-$125 in average circulated condition. Not a bad price for a coin of this historical magnitude!
Except for a few rare ½ and 1 reale issues of 1568-73 Peru, the latter part of the 16th century, starting roughly from around 1556, saw the earliest production of “cob” reales. These were struck in the 16th century Spanish New World mints of Mexico City, Lima, Peru and Potosi. “Cob” reales, struck in the ½,1,2,4 and 8 reales denominations, featured a Spanish cross on the obverse, the Spanish shield of arms, or in some cases (as in 18th century Peru and Bolivia) a monogram instead of a shield of arms. Cobs were struck for a LONG period of time in the Spanish New World– from 1556 to 1770 (though by the late 1700's only a few Spanish-Colonial mints were still making cobs)! But it’s not so much the design that sets the cob reales apart, as it is their ultra-crude craftsmanship! Spanish-Colonial silver cobs were struck more as transportable bullion to be shipped back to Spain, than to be used as mediums of exchange in commerce. The vast silver deposits were coined into cobs just as soon as they could be extracted from the mines of South America! It’s rare to find a round cob– many are square-ish, rectangular-ish, heart-shaped even. Oftentimes the design is only partly struck onto the flannel– which is why a cob coin with a full date is exceptional.
Yes, the Spanish-Colonial 8-reales was the forerunner of our nation’s silver dollar– but not so much the “cob” 8 reales, as the predecessor to the cob reale coins: the Spanish-Colonial silver milled coinage. The first of these would be the Pillar Type ½, 1, 2, 4 and 8 reales coins of 1732-71. In fact, if you look in the front section of The Red Book: A Guidebook Of United States Coins, you will see an illustration of the Pillar Type Spanish-Colonial peso. Now, instead of crudely-handstruck silver cobs, the mints of Spanish America now were producing silver reale denominations that were of uniform weight, roundness and artistic merit. The obverse of these handsome silver coins features a crown adorning two globes (showing the Old and New World map outlines) that rest atop an island mound with waves beneath. The crowne globes are flanked by the Pillars of Hercules. On the reverse is a crowned shield of arms.
After the Pillar Type ½, 1, 2 , 4 and 8 reales coins, came a series of “Portrait” Spanish-Colonial silver coins. The denominations remained the same. The size and weight remained the same, but the obverse featured the bust of the Spanish ruler, and on the reverse, a crowned shield of arms, flanked by the Pillars of Hercules. There are three types of “Portrait” silver reales: the Charles III type (1772-89), the Charles IV type (1789-1809), and the Ferdinand VII type (1809-21, though up to 1826 at some Spanish-American mints).
The Pillar Type 8 reales is fairly costly, being such a historic Colonial-Era coin, not to mention being large and silver. An average circulated specimen will cost you around $150-$175. The 4 reales is scarce, but should cost less at around $50-$85 in average condition. The ½, 1 and 2 reales retail around $15-$25 in Good, $45-$60 in Fine.
Two new types of reale coins were introduced late in the Spanish-Colonial period. The first of these was the tiny silver 1/4 reale, featuring a crowned lion on the obverse, a castle on the reverse. These were first struck around 1796, during the reign of Charles IV, and were struck up through about 1816. During the reign of Ferdinand VII, a copper 1/8 reale coin was introduced in 1814 and struck through 1821.
The 1772-1821 8 reales are all quite available, but not cheap, still being Colonial-Era “dollars” in the practical sense– or at least they were used as “silver dollars” alongside our nation’s first silver dollars from the U.S. Mint. Average specimens will cost around $50-$75 in Fine condition. The ½, 1, and 2 reales are easily found, and cost just $12-$25 in average circulated condition. As always, the 4 reales denomination is the toughest to find, but still isn’t that expensive in relation to its scarcity. It will cost you roughly $45-$60 in average circulated condition– sometimes you can get them for lower than that.
The final phase of the Spanish-Colonial reales coinage, were those struck during the War of Independence, when Mexico and other South American countries were fighting for their independence from Spain. During those years of 1810-21, (in Peru it stretched to about 1826), silver reales of various denominations (but mostly pesos) were struck in the name of Ferdinand VII were struck in Royalist strongholds such as Chihuahua, Durango and in Mexico. Some of these royalist silver coins bore the usual ruler bust/Pillars of Hercules reverse (though rendered much cruder than the royal-issued coins) though some featured unique designs. Silver reales struck by royalists during these tumultous years are scarce and pretty costly– average specimens usually start around $50 and oftentimes go above $100.
When the War of Independence ended around 1821, so ended the era of Spanish-Colonial silver reales. But it was not the end of the reale as a denomination– it continued on as a denomination for coins of Mexico, Peru, and other South American countries up through the mid-1800's.
Of course, the large-size 8 reales cobs garner a lot of attention from collectors today. These coins are virtually everyone’s idea of what “pirate treasure” coins look like. And that’s pretty much accurate. Many a treasure chest laden with 8 reales cobs was hijacked on the high seas by 17th-18th century pirates! Today, an average circulated, sea-salvaged 8 reales cob can be purchased for roughly $65-$100. Again, not a bad price for a coin with so much legendary history. The ½, 1 and 2 reales cobs are also reasonably priced. Average circulated specimens can be purchased for $15-$45.