What Can You Learn While Being a Numismatist?

June 11, 2020

By Patrick A. Heller


In my decades of working as a coin dealer, I have written a lot of sales copy. In the process of describing various items, I have had to dig into the history of the pieces or about the history behind what was selected for the artwork. In the process, I learned far more than I ever learned in history classes in school.

Just for fun, let me share some of these things that I learned while doing numismatic research.

Heller-denominated coins and currency.  The first coins of the Heller denomination were issued in 1189 in the German city of Hall am Kocher (today called Schwabisch Hall).  The first Heller coins were made of silver and depicted a human palm on one side.  The palm represented the right hand of God.  During the early Middle Ages, the depiction of God or Jesus Christ came to be considered blasphemous, so usage of these images on coins ceased.  However, it was judged acceptable to only depict the palm.  Another purpose of depicting the right hand of God on the coin was to intimidate people who otherwise might not trust seeing these coins for the first time.

Over time, these coins were debased.  From about the 1600s onwards, all Heller-denominated coins were copper or mostly copper.  They were also the smallest value coins in the lands where they circulated—in Germany, Austria, and areas of the modern-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. Although the denomination was eliminated in Germany after the German Empire was established in the early 1870s, Hellers continued to be used in German colonies such as modern-date Tanzania into the 20th century. Austria discontinued Hellers at the end of World War I. The final notes denominated in Hellers were removed from circulation in 2008 in the Czech Republic because the purchasing power was too low.

Incidentally, people with surnames such as Haller, Heller, or Keller almost certainly have ancestors from the German city of Hall am Kocher.

Strange allegiances and family feuds.  Future Hungarian King Bela III was born about 1148, the second son of King Geza II. As such, he was not destined to become king of Hungary. His father made him a duke of Hungarian lands that included modern Croatia and Dalmatia. His older brother became Hungarian King Stephen III in 1162. At the age of about 15, Bela moved to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Emperor Manuel 1 Kommenos betrothed his daughter Maria to Bela and gave him a senior court title. From 1164 to 1167, Hungary and the Byzantine Empire battled each other three times, partly over incorporating Bela’s duchy into the Empire. Bela fought with the Empire against his brother. In 1165, Manuel designated Bela to be his successor as Byzantine Emperor. The betrothal and designated succession were revoked in 1169 when the Emperor’s wife bore him a son, though Manuel granted Bela a lower title of “kaisar” (undoubtedly derived from the Roman Empire title of Caesar).

Hungarian King Stephen III died in 1172. Bela, after pledging to never make war against the Byzantine Empire returned to his homeland and was proclaimed the new king. As Hungarian king, his military forces allied with the Byzantines in some wars. He was preparing to lead his troops on a Crusade in the Holy Land when he died in 1196.

Eleanor of Aquitaine.  This wife and mother of multiple kings had an extraordinary influence on the history of Western Europe. When her father died, she became the Duchess of Aquitaine (a major state within France), a title she held for 67 years.  As a 15-year-old duchess, she was the most eligible bride in Europe. Within three months of her father’s death, she married French King Louis VII, serving as the French queen from 1137-1152. Their marriage was annulled because she was unable to give birth to a son, though her title as Duchess of Aquitaine was kept intact.

Eleanor then married Henry, Duke of Normandy, who became British King Henry II in 1154. Henry was her third cousin and 11 years younger than her. Over the next 13 years, she gave birth to five sons—three of whom became British kings: Henry the Young King, Richard I (the Lionhearted), and John—and three daughters—two of whom became queens (Eleanor married the King of Castille, thus securing the southern border of Aquitaine, and Joan married the King of Sicily).  She was one of few people who were alive at the times of both the Second and Third Crusades.

Shipwreck of the El Cazador.  This shipwreck changed world history. Dominion over the Louisiana Territory was transferred from France to Spain in 1762. In the 1770s, the Louisiana Territory fell into hard times because the circulating currency there was not backed by gold or silver. Spanish King Carlos (Charles) III decided to replace the fiat currency with silver coins. On Jan. 11, 1784, the El Cazador set sail from Veracruz, Mexico, with approximately 400,000 Spanish silver 8 reales plus a quantity of smaller denomination silver reales.

The ship was never heard from again. After unsuccessful searches, the El Cazador was officially listed as missing in June 1784. Had this ship reached New Orleans, it might have rescued the local economy to where Spain could have maintained its dominion.

Instead, when Spain could no longer afford to support Louisiana, it negotiated to transfer the territory to France’s Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801. Napoleon’s hope was to use the land as a major base of French expansion in North America. However, French forces were sent in 1801 to regain control of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti) and ultimately failed. This led Napoleon to abandon his plans for North America, whereupon the Louisiana Territory was sold to the U.S. government in 1803 for $15 million.

Just imagine what the political landscape of North America might be today if the El Cazador had made it to New Orleans.

On Aug. 2, 1993, the fishing trawler Mistake’s net hit a snag. When it was pulled up, the net contained a number of Spanish silver coins dated 1783. The El Cazador had been found. Specimens from this historic shipwreck are now available at prices comparable to other Spanish 8 reales from the era.

I hope the above stories have inspired you to further dig into the history of the coins you collect.

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