Sunday 27 February 2011

One Hundred Small Pieces

By Richard Morley.

A “Real” was a Spanish coin introduced by King Pedro I of Castille. Later on came the coin known as the “Peso”, Spanish for “weight” which was the equivalent of eight “reals” and legally weighed 27.468 grams of silver. Other names for the Peso were the “real de ocho”, “the eight real coin”, and the “Thaller” or “Spanish Dollar”. Worth eight reals, now you know where the phrase beloved of pirates, and parrots, “Pieces of Eight” comes from.

On the 23rd of December 1865 four countries, France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, formed the Latin Monetary Union and agreed to standardize their national currencies to conform to four and a half grams of silver, which allowed them to freely use, and trust, each others’ currency. So began an experiment with a currency while not international in fact, became one in practise. Indeed, France, Belgium and Switzerland did use the same name, the Franc, for their currency, although Italy used “Lira” because it was them, four years earlier, under King Vittorio Emanuelle II, who had decided to standardize the currencies used in that country to a coin of four and a half grams weight. Although originally a “Lira” was actually equivalent to a pound weight of silver. Rather too heavy for the average pocket!

The idea of monetary union in Europe was such a success that in preparation to join the LMU Spain, on the 26th of June 1864, decreed that a new coin, the peseta, replacing the old escudo, would also weigh four and a half grams of silver.

The name, “peseta” comes from a catalan word, paceta, meaning “a small piece of something”, and the peseta was meant to be small piece of the peso – a fifth, in fact.

Spain and Greece joined the LMU in 1868, followed by Romania, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Serbia and San Marino in 1896. The Vatican also joined, but when it was found its coins did not contain the requisite amount of precious metal the Swiss and French banks insisted on its ejection. Records do not tell if the pieces of silver inspected numbered thirty, but they were kicked out anyway! Later, the exchange rate of the member currencies was changed from a silver to a gold standard, but the LMU survived until the reorganization (if that could possibly be the right word) of Europe caused by the First World War.

So, monetary union in Europe is not a new thing. It remained a successful concept for more than half a century. I wonder if back in the 1870s people were blaming it for increasing prices and the ruination of their banking system. Perhaps not. Being the LATIN Monetary Union, Germany was kept out of it.

Spain, of course, continued to use the peseta until its eventual replacement by the Euro in January 2002, but remained as legal coinage until March. After which no peseta coins could be used - ever – again!

Repeat – EVER!

So why, when emptying trouser pockets prior to a spot of laundry a few days ago, did I find a one hundred peseta coin among my change?

I know how. I had only made one purchase that morning – a packet of cigarettes – from which the change from a five euro note would have been seventy five céntimos, usually consisting of one 50, one 20 and one 5 céntimo coins. The estanco that had sold me the cigarettes had slipped me, instead of the 50 céntimo coin, a hundred peseta coin. Almost totally alike in size and colour, although the 100 peseta coin weighs nine grams opposed to the 50 céntimo’s eight (according to our diet portion weighing kitchen scales), I had failed to notice the difference while sliding the change into my pocket.

So much too for that silver standard of the LMU. If we were still using it my rogue coin would have weighed four hundred and fifty grams – a pound of silver – and be worth around €400 at today’s prices. If only – sigh! I would be writing a different post if that were the case.

Evil thoughts began to cloud my mind. The estanco I had used was not one I had used before. Had they taken advantage of my unique guiri status to palm me off with useless currency? To be charitable, perhaps they had not noticed either. Maybe this coin has been circulating, masquerading as a fifty céntimo coin, for years, refusing to acknowledge its now worthless status.

It was minted in 1988 and bears the head of the King, Juan Carlos I, looking incredibly like his son, Felipe, does today. It is hardly worn, its aluminium-bronze composition having stood up to the test of time and jingling against other coins in pockets and purses very well.

Aluminium-bronze is mostly copper with varying degrees of aluminium, iron, nickel, manganese and zinc added into the mix. It is worrying to note that a maximum of 0.4% arsenic was allowed.

The composition of the newly hatched usurper, the fifty céntimo coin is something called “Nordic Gold” consisting of again, mostly copper, but with 5% aluminium, 5% zinc and 1% tin. Apparently this combination of metals is supposed to make the coins antimicrobial, that is, it inhibits the growth of bacteria, fungi and protozoans. (Sometimes this blog is just a mine of information!)

But whatever my one hundred peseta coin is made of, it is still worthless. And it remains so despite friends gleefully telling me that I have done well out of the deal. That my new possession, at the peseta / euro conversion rate is actually worth eighty-three of these new fangled céntimos.

Try telling that to the unsmiling, unhelpful check-out girl in Dia!

No one wants my coin. Not even machines. That, incidentally, was the only time I tried to spend it. It was not from dishonesty, but from curiosity. I wondered if the machine could tell the difference. It can. It fell through the metro ticket machine without even touching the sides, landing with a guilt ridden clunk in the tray. There was a security guard standing nearby. I glanced warily over my shoulder as I shamefully retrieved the coin and shoved it deep into a pocket.

It’s not legal tender. I would be breaking the law. There are already several tens of thousands of counterfeit fifty céntimo coins in circulation. In the first five years after the coin’s introduction more than thirteen thousand were found. Of course this is nothing compared with the forty three thousand one euro and three hundred and sixteen euro coins that were also found to be phoney in the same period. And my 100 peseta coin, despite its twelve years of perfectly legal status up to a decade ago, is now just a worthless disk.

Incidentally, most counterfeit coins are of German origin, which might be why they have the money to bail out everyone else. I’m not accusing – just thinking aloud, you understand.

So I cannot with good conscience attempt to spend the coin. During an unworthy second I thought about dropping it in the cup of the annoying beggar who molests every passer-by outside my supermarket and seriously contemplated giving it to the violinist who plays Bésame Mucho badly on the metro. But I am an honest man, I like to think, and could not do it.

I can’t change it in a bank. It’s too old. Apparently only coins placed into circulation in 1997 and commemorative 2000 peseta coins can be changed, according the Bank of Spain’s website.

It seems I am stuck with it. A souvenir of times gone by when it would have bought me a couple of coffees or even a pack of cigarettes. Like me, it’s old and past its prime. Unwanted and unvalued.

No wonder the estanco wanted shot of it.


  1. It's not worthless! You can still change it to fresh and juicy euros(well, cents really), but only at the Bank of Spain


  2. You're not worthless Richard! If only for your wonderful blog, if nothing else!

  3. I hasten to add the the counterfeit coins are "with the German national side", which is considerably different to being of German origin!

  4. Somewhere amongst my belongings, I still have a small box of coins from the 1960s - Spanish Pesetas, French Francs, West German Marks, Dutch Guilders, etc. Your post and the discussion of Pesetas brings back many warm memories from my time in Spain back in the 1960s, when I was single and much younger - those were the days.

  5. That's pretty interesting stuff. You must have been researching all that for ages (too much time on your hands ? lol ...)

  6. Unwanted - unvalued...?
    Now take your tongue out of your cheek before it pops right through!!
    I know you well enough to know you are not a wallower in self pity!!