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Counters for Charles IV of Spain




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Isn't it satisfying to solve a long-running mystery? Of course! In my collection for some years I have had two similar counters (#3,4) and an armorial fish (#2) which I was unable to trace: they all had two towers or columns with a banner draped around each one with an indistinct motto on the banners; and between the columns two globes; above this, a Royal-looking crown but not an English one. To the reverse to the smaller of the rounds there was a full coat of arms but once more not one which appreared in UK reference books. For years they remained an annoying puzzle. The latest addition to my collection ( thanks here to Gail Northcutt) is a very interesting round (#1) with the same two towers and the full arms to the other side. And thanks to Ebay for the important link to.....the King of Spain! The two towers actually form part of the Royal crest of Spain: they represent the towers of Hercules. And the motto actually reads PLUS ULTRA though on the smaller counters this is (annoyingly) abbreviated. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spain was looking - like many European countries- to expand her boundaries with conquests of new lands. The reference to the pillars of Hercules goes back to Roman times when they represented the end of Roman influence at the Straits of Gibraltar, with the motto NON PLUS ULTRAE - do not go beyond; after the success of Columbus, the King of Spain adapted this to PLUS ULTRA - to say Yes there are lands beyond here - and they will be Spanish! So this joins together all four counters now in my collection - there may well be more shapes and sizes. The arms of Spain were changed in 1808 which helps in dating them to before that date. And they may possibly come from two or more sets ordered from China - they are in at least two different styles suggesting this is likely. Few armorial fishes were produced after around 1770; the counter with 'coils' type border dates from around the same time. Charles III reigned from 1761-1788; Charles IV from 1788- 1808. I would suggest that they were produced for Charles III.

There still remains a mystery, though. On the new counter, to the sides of the arms are two inscriptions: MM and 8. Now what do these refer to? Any suggestions?

Later addition:

Thank you so much for the help in answering that question - and it is a very exciting answer indeed. Gail Northcutt and Robert Padgett were both able to point out that the counter is an exact copy of a Spanish coin and I have attached  pictures of it, with the kind permission of sarr-coins. The coin is a Spanish Mexico City mint dollar of 8 reales for Carolus III and it was legal tender in the United States until American dollars were produced adopting the exact same wieght and size.The initials MM refer to the Mintmasters/ Asseyers Manuel de la Pena and Manuel Assorin (other versions exist with different initials) and the 8 refers to the size/weight of the coin - 8 Reales at 38 mm. and weighing 27.2 grammes. These coins were the famous Pieces of Eight so beloved of pirates - they were legal currency in many countries. 

This information is important. It is the first example to my knowledge of a coin used as the model for an armorial gaming counter in Canton. It was regular practice for bookplates, seals and detailed copies of coats of arms and/or crests to be sent for copying:but why use a coin? Clearly it was a copy of legal currency which was internationally recognised, so it may have been given a clear monetary equivalent value- one  dollar or eight Reales. That would however be contrary to the normal practice of keeping the sets of gaming counters flexible in value at the card tables, so that different people could play for different stakes. And it also raises the question about why the other counters shown here -  with the Pillars of Hercules etc - should show facets of the original coin but without theSpanish Royal arms and other details. And for me it raises another question: were these counters produced for the King of Spain? That seems very unlikely, given the new information. If Charles III or any other King were having counters made for himself, I feel sure that he would not have sent a silver coin to China to be copied, with extraneous information about Mintmasters/ asseyers etc.. He would have taken the trouble to send more detailed instructions; and would probably have ordered a much grander  style of counters than some of the smaller examples shown here. But as ever this is conjecture. 

So the mystery of the arms, crest, motto and 'pillars' is solved; but unfortunately it only raises more questions! How frustrating these beautiful gaming counters can be!

I am really grateful to Gail and Robert for the research which they shared with us.


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