Cuban Coinage As An Alternative

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Cuban Coinage as an Alternative

By Frank Putrow

Clearwater, Fl.

I am one of a very small group who collect Cuban coins. I realize that our choice is not very popular at this time, but I believe that Cuban coinage will become one of the most sought after categories in the coming years.

Cuba, embroiled in civil unrest for over 150 years, has been minting their coins for only 27 years, since the Cuban Mint was established in 1977. Prior to that time, Spain, United States, and Eastern European countries were the primary minters of Cuban coinage. Since 1977, Cuba has minted thousands of commemorative coins and their own coinage for circulation. Most Cuban collectors agree that these coins, minted by the Cuban Mint, are not eagerly sought after, due to uncertain mintage figures and inflated prices. In addition, Cuban coinage and currency, if produced after 1962, are included in the Trading with the Enemy Act, passed by the US Congress in 1963. This Act prohibits any import or export of covered items. Technically, as I understand the Act, it is not illegal to sell, trade or buy these items if the items are physically in the United States, but the law is firm, and the penalties are harsh. For that reason, most Cuban collectors focus on “pre Castro” or “pre Revolution” coinage.

There are only a few books in circulation regarding the “pre Revolution” coinage, which we identify as 1898 – 1962. Perhaps the most detailed book is The Coinage of Cuba; 1870 to Date, by Thomas Lismore, published in 1966. Mr. Lismore outlines the history of the Provisional Coinage of 1870, the 1897 Souvenir Pesos, and the subsequent Coinage for circulation to 1963. Other books in circulation are written in Spanish, with some English translation. They are: La Moneda de Cuba (Jose Maria Aledon –1999), Billetes y Monedas de Cuba (1975), Numismatica Cubana (Banco Nacional de Cuba), and Cuba – A Country and its Currency (Banco Nacional de Cuba). The latter was printed in both Spanish and English.

Lismore lists the mintage quantities of these coins, as best he was able to retrieve from US Mint records, which varies at times from other sources. An unknown is the quantity of precious metal coins that were melted down by Cuban gold and silversmiths, and advantaged Cubans during the economic hardships realized in Cuba. Today, additional uncertainties exist in the number of choice uncirculated coins from that time period. Population reports of the three major grading companies indicate very small quantities of certified, key Cuban coinage minted between 1898 and 1953. The 1870 Provisional and 1897 Souvenir issues were not intended for general usage, so they will not be further discussed in this article. However, they are very rare, and demand high prices if in uncirculated condition.

Like most other countries coinage, the images on the obverse of Cuban coinage are of its leaders or its heritage. Cuba seethed with revolution fervor from 1868 to 1898, beginning with the outbreak of the 10 Year War, and ending with the Cuban War of Independence in 1898. Although Cuba won the War of Independence in 1898, it was not an official independent country until 1902.

 The three versions of the 1897 Souvenir Peso and the 1898 Peso displayed the image of Leonor Molina, a young and beautiful fundraiser for the Revolution. After that time, through 1953, only two faces would appear on Cuban coinage. They are the image of Jose Marti, the Liberator of Cuba, who died in action in 1895 during the “Little War”, which preceded the War of Independence, and the face of the non-specific “Lady of Liberty, which is the symbolic bust of the Republic of Cuba. The only other images that would appear on the obverse of Cuban coinage during that period are the Cuban star or flag. In most cases, the reverse of Cuban coinage is common, with minor variations. It bears the Cuban coat of arms, within a wreath of oak on the left and olive on the right, with the ends of the branches meeting over the coat of arms. In general, Cuban coinage from 1898 to 1961 is straight forward, with minimal variations to distract the evaluation of the coin. Only recently has variations, such as low, medium, and high relief, been identified with the 1915 20 centavo, 1915 and 1920 40 centavo, and the 1915 peso. The low and high relief variance can be identified by the trained eye, however the medium relief remains a difficult attribute to identify without a microscope and a gifted eye. Fine (FR) and coarse (CR) reeding variations of the 1915 20 centavo are simple to identify by counting the reeds on the circumference of the coin. The FR will have 150 reeds, while the CR typically has 115 reeds. A trained eye will be able to distinguish these two categories without counting the reeds.

The 2004 Standard Catalog of World Coins (Krause and Mishler) footnotes the Cuban high and low relief as follows: “Coins with the high relief stars normally exhibit a weak key and palm tree on the reverse. Coins with low relief stars tend to exhibit much more distinct lines running towards the center of the star.” It has been my experience the key factor is the distinct lines, plus the slope angle of the star point from the center of the star to the end of the point.

From 1898 to 1914, the US dollar was the official currency of Cuba, although Spanish, and French money was still circulated. In 1914, the Cuban Legislature created the Cuban National Currency System, which authorized the minting of centavos (1, 2, 5, 10, 20 and 40), and silver and gold pesos (1, 2, 4, 5, 10 and 20). All were minted at the Philadelphia Mint in 1915 and 1916. In 1915, the Cuban Legislature passed a law, prohibiting all foreign coins and currency, except Cuban and American. Turmoil continued in Cuba during the succeeding years, and the Cuban Government often requested US military presence.

Dictator General Gerardo Machado y Morales, was opposed by a rightist political group named the ABC, a secret society consisting of three (ABC) unidentified cells. In 1934, after the overthrow of Machado, the ABC peso was minted, with the “Lady of Liberty” gracing the obverse. The ABC peso was minted until 1939. Some researchers conclude that the ABC peso was never officially released into circulation,  however many of the ABC pesos demonstrate wear, which implies that they were placed into circulation. A looming issue surrounds the 1937 ABC peso, which is considered rare, although the official mintage is 11,500,000. In 1948, the newly established National Bank of Cuba issued bank currency guaranteed to the extent of 25% by gold and foreign exchange. This reduced the requirement for the huge reserve of silver pesos, and when the market price of silver rose in 1951, the Bank ordered the pesos in reserve to be sold as bullion. The officials ordered one bag of each ABC peso to be reserved for numismatic purposes. Records indicate that all bags of 1937 ABC pesos were mistakenly brought to the port to be loaded on the Cuban Cruiser Patria, for the shipment to the United States. During handling, one of the 1937 ABC peso bags burst open, and the coins were strewn over the dock. Sailors were instructed to recover them, but a number were unaccounted for. Overnight, the 1937 ABC peso became a rare item. The bank bags contained an unknown quantity, so the actual quantity can only be estimated. Considering the unknown quantity in circulation at that time, estimates vary regarding the ABC pesos in numismatists possession today.

Cuban commemorative coins were introduced in 1952, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Cuban Independence. The commemorative issue of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 40 centavos was authorized with the obverse displaying the Cuban Flag, and the dates 1902 and 1952 superimposed. In 1953, the commemorative coins of 1, 25, and 50 centavos, as well as one peso, were minted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Jose Marti, who is celebrated on the obverse of these coins.

After the overthrow of the Batista dictatorship on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro became allied with the USSR. After the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the US Congress passed legislation, which prohibited any import or export of Cuban goods, including legal tender. This Act, challenged throughout the years, is still in effect, and has hindered the purchasing and trading of the “post Castro” Cuban coinage and currency. Awareness of this US 1963 Trading with the Enemy Act is essential, since confiscation of coins and monetary penalties may result. For this reason, my focus is currently “pre Revolution”.

Numismatists are generally history buffs, because the legal tender of a country reflects the important periods and heroes of the nation. My interest in Cuba was heightened, as I researched the coins left by my late father-in-law, Armando Mendez. Today, my collection has increased tenfold, and I am currently introducing my son, Michael, to this exciting period of Cuban history. We hope to visit Cuba, the birthplace of my wife’s grandmother, in the future, after diplomatic relations are restored between our two countries.

                                   SILVER MINTAGE OF CUBAN COINAGE       1898 - 1961

                                                                   (in 000’s)

            PESO        1C          2C         5C         10C          20C         25C         40C          50C

1898           1


1915    1,976     9,396     6,090     5,096       5,690        7,915                       2,633

1916       843     9,318     5,322     1,714          560        2,535                          188

1920                19,378                 10,000       3,090        6,130                          540

1932    3,550                                                                     184

1933    6,000

1934    3,000


1934    7,000

1935  12,500

1936  16,000

1937  11,500

1938  10,800     2,000

1939    9,200

1943                20,000                   6,000

1946                50,000                   5,096

1948                                                               5,120       6,830

1949                                                               9,880     13,170

1952                                                             10,000       8,700                       1,250

1953    1,000    50,000                                                                  19,000                     2,000

1958                 50,000

1960                                             20,000

1961 100,000                             100,000

Silver proofs of the above issues are 50 –200 in quantity, and are considered rare.

                                   GOLD MINTAGE OF CUBAN COINAGE       1915 – 1916

                                                                      (in 000’s)

                          PESO                2P                  4P               5P               10P               20P

1915                    6.85                10                  6.3              696              95.2              56.8

1916                  10.6                150              128.8           1,132.5      1,168                     .001

Gold proofs of the above issues were minted for special presentation and officials. The exact number is unknown, but they are thought to be from 0 (1916 20P) to

140 (1915 1P). They are considered rare to extremely rare.

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