The Mystery of the Coin That Shouldn’t Exist

The Mystery of the Coin That Shouldn't Exist

A decade ago, scientists and students at Peru’s Pontifical Catholic University in Lima came across a strange money mystery.

The university was acquiring 19th- and 20th-century Peruvian coins from local dealers, and graduate students in the chemistry department were analyzing the pieces for their thesis work. But one coin, the 10-cent piece known as the dinero, stood out.

The dinero was marked “1899”. The problem was that official records indicated that no coins of that denomination were minted in Peru that year – according to the people who minted the money, the coin had never existed.

Most international coin catalogs do not list 1899 dimeros, said university chemist Luis Ortega. And in the rare cases that they do, they often just have a note of “fake” and no further details, Dr. Ortega said. “No one was able to provide much information about it.”

Now Dr. Ortega and doctoral student Fabiola Bravo Huellpa believe they have shed new light on the mystery of the coin’s origins. In a paper published last year In Heritage Science magazineHe described how he subjected one of the two known 1899 dinosaurs to a barrage of scientific analyses, shedding light on its possible origins and its role during an unstable era of South American history.

To the naked eye, the 1899 coin resembles other dinneros: it is silver in color and has the same coat of arms and a seated woman representing the goddess of liberty. And it is remarkably similar in size to other dineros made in the late 20th century – about the size of a US coin.

But when Dr. Ortega and Ms. Bravo Huellpa bombarded the 1899 coin with X-rays and measured the light emitted, they determined that the dimer was made largely of copper, zinc and nickel. This alloy is known as nickel silver. It is commonly used to make silverware and decorative items and looks like silver, but does not contain silver. On the other hand, genuine denarios produced by the Lima Mint are approximately 90 percent silver.

Dr. Ortega and Ms. Bravo Huellpa also found that the 1899 dinero contained traces of iron, cobalt, and lead. Researchers suggest those inaccuracies mean the coin was counterfeited long ago, not recently. Such contaminants are characteristic of older alloys due to the limitations of technology at the time. “The purification methods were not as good as they are now,” Dr. Ortega said.

The researchers concluded that the presence of impurities along the coin’s worn faces suggested it was produced in the 19th or 20th century. But given that nickel silver was not widely used for coins or tokens in Peru at the time, it is likely that this coin was made abroad, the researchers suggest. Therefore its creators may have been completely unaware that no dinero were officially minted in 1899.

“The counterfeiter probably didn’t realize the coin didn’t exist,” Dr. Ortega said.

He said the influx of low-value coins into Peru in the early 20th century would have been welcomed. The country’s economy was struggling from the recent Pacific War, and the government focused on printing large denomination paper banknotes to pay off international debts; In 1899, the Lima Mint produced about one-tenth the number of silver coins produced only five years earlier.

As a result, people in Peru were using coins from neighboring countries to make small transactions or even cutting their own country’s coins in half. “Fraudsters have found an area of ​​opportunity,” Dr. Ortega said.

Dineros were low value coins used by common people. Study of this coin, and the economic and political situation that prompted its creation, can therefore be enlightening. “If you want to study our society, you don’t want to look at a Ferrari,” said archaeologist Laura Perruchetti of the British Museum in London, who was not involved in the research. “You want to see a Volkswagen or a Ford.”

Dr. Ortega has not finished his study of the counterfeit coins and their historical context. He plans to meet with a Lima-based collector who has amassed a collection of coins reportedly minted from the 1830s to the 1960s. Another 1899 Dinero has already surfaced in that collection, and he’s on the lookout for more.

“There must be some people around,” Dr. Ortega said.

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