COLOMBIAN GOLD BARS
RECOVERED FROM THE ATOCHA (1622)
Please note that is a research-only page. None of the gold bars pictured below are currently for sale.
Heritage Auctions sold the large (73 oz) gold bar pictured below in January of 2011. The bar had been previously auctioned by Christie's in its June 1988 sale of Atocha treasure. The Christie's catalogue described lot 90 as a 17 karat, 73.11 oz, 8.75 inch long bar. Christie's noted that a foundry mark was present, but could not decipher it. The Christie's catalogue also did not identify the bar as Colombian.
Thanks to the published work of Ernie Richards and Alan Craig we now know that the foundry mark on this, and an even larger companion bar (lot 96) found with it, should be read SEBASTN/ ESPANOL. Several placer gold fields were very active in Colombia (then called Nueva Granada) in the second half of the 16th and first half of the 17th centuries. Primitive and dangerous conditions in the gold fields encouraged immediate shipment of the ore to the security of a nearby official Caja Real, where the placer gold was melted, assayed, cast into bars, but not refined. The fineness of the bar reflected the fineness of the placer gold deposits (which varied considerably). In a 2002 Plus Ultra article, Alan Craig, drawing on the work of Robert West, succeeded in producing a very probable decipherment of the SEBASTN/ ESPANOL cartouche. Colombian foundries at this point marked gold bars according to the gold field from which they came. A very gold active field at this time was San Sebastian de Mariquita, located not far northwest of Santa Fe de Bogotá. Bogotá, soon to become a gold mint, had a large and secure Caja Real that could handle the output coming from a local gold rush (otherwise attested). Another Caja Real is possible, but Bogotá is a good candidate for where the SEBASTN bars were actually cast in 1621-22, whence down the Magdelena River to Cartagena and from there to Havana, picked by the the almiranta of the 1622 Terra Firma Fleet, a galleon called Nuestra Senora de Atocha.
Here courtesy of Heritage Auctions is a large image of the 73 oz SEBASTN bar. Further down on the page is a catalogue image from the Christie's sale of the second SEBASTN bar in that sale. To my knowledge these two large bars are the only known SEBASTN bars, the Deep Water 1622 having yielded various gold finger bars but no SEBASTN bars. If someone reading knows of other SEBASTN bars, I would love to hear from them.
The first puzzling thing about this 73 oz bar is that no entry was found for it in the Atocha manifest by the Christie's cataloguers. This is obviously an officially produced bar with a dozen or so quinto stamps. To see how different contraband bars appear look at lots 100-102 in the Christie's catalogue. It makes no sense to try to smuggle a properly produced and taxed bar. Its absence from the manifest also creates another problem: who owned such a large gold bar? I calculate that approximately 220 two escudos could be struck from its gold. If we add to this the gold content of its companion 98.5 oz SEBASTN bar, we have enough gold to strike over 500 two escudos. A fortune!
Fortunately, the second SEBASTN bar (98.5 oz) is identified on the manifest. According to the Christie's catalogue, a marginal note indicates that it was consigned by a merchant whose mark is a monogram AP. So who is this AP who owns one and very probably both SEBASTN bars? AP has a small fortune in gold cast into these two very large gold bars. What is AP's connection to the San Sebastian gold rush? Is he the "owner" of some or all of the San Sebastian gold field under the quaint Spanish system of encomedero? Augi Garcia suggests this possibility to me. In any case, AP had to be a prominent and very wealthy individual in 1622 Nueva Granada. It should be fairly easy to recognize him from material in the Archivos of the period. Does anyone reading this have any access to this archival material in Colombia? It would nice to know the full story behind the SEBASTN bars that end up spending 363 years in the waters off Key West.
Below is a catalogue picture of the 96 oz SEBASTN bar. Present whereabouts unknown.
CAppendix: Colombian Gold Cobs (1622-1756)
What would later become the Viceroyalty of New Granada acquired one of its first casa de fundicion (assay office) at Marquita in Central Colombia about 1590. Marquita issued officially stamped gold ingots for 30 years, some perhaps imitating the Tejeulos system being used at Mexico City. None of these ingots apparently survive, a circumstance that a new Tierra Firme shipwreck, 1590-1625, may eventually remedy.
In 1620 Philip III sold Capt Alonso Turillo that right to establish a mint at Bogota with an oficina or branch mint at Cartagena. Turillo arrived in Colombia in 1621 and very quickly commenced a silver coinage. About a dozen or so two escudos dated 1622 give evidence that a brief gold coinage may also been attempted in Cartagena. No doubt some of this 1622 issue was struck in Madrid as patterns to show Philip III and his court, but the dies may have later accompanied Turillo to Cartagena and been used again. A final judgment on the 1622 gold coinage is not yet possible.
Mint records show that Cartagena began to strike two and one escudos in 1627 and continued to do so for 9 years (1627-1635). No gold coins attest a brief possible minatge in 1626. Under political pressure from officials at Bogota, Cartagena was never allowed to strike gold after 1635. The Bogota mint began regular production at the same time as Cartagena, and with a few brief hiatuses struck gold cobs until 1756.
For 110 years Bogota struck only one and two escudos. Very few one escudo survive--the first is dated 1685--suggesting that the original mintages were small & episodic. Bogota one escudos showing a legible date are extremely rare before assayer Molano (1730's). Late in the 1730's, faced with large new gold deposits to refine and coin, Molano began to strike four and eight escudos. Four and eight escudos were struck for 20 years, until the switch to milled coinage in 1756.
Our knowledge of
Colombian gold (and silver) cobs is heavily indebted to four
shipwrecks. The Mesuno wreck of 1636 and the Maravillas shipwreck of
1656 added greatly to our knowledge of Philip IV era Colombian gold.
The 1715 Fleet Florida wrecks did the same for late Carlos II and
early Philip V issues, and of course the 1622 wreck of the Atocha has been
a key player in sorting out the first gold & silver issues of
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