Mardi Gras giveaways can form an inexpensive collection

‘Doubloons’ are affordable, easy way to collect parade souvenirs
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Published : 03/13/14
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New Orleans native Rafael Monzon is a serious collector and dealer of Mardi Gras doubloons.

“I move my doubloons around with a forklift,” Monzon said recently, without a touch of bravado. “I’ve been chasing doubloons from my diapers.” 

The 44-year-old resident of suburban Gretna, La., is owner of New Orleans Charms, and also operates the website www.mardi-gras-doubloons.com.

Doubloons have been used for 55 Mardi Gras seasons, counting the one just closed, in a tradition that has spawned tens of thousands of collectible items from dozens of Krewes, or associations, across Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

“Doubloons” is the name given to the often colorful, usually aluminum disks with special designs and advertising, that are thrown from parade floats. With hundreds of Krewes in more than a dozen parades in the New Orleans region alone, the number of doubloons issued each year is incalculable.

Monzon keeps his doubloons stacked in pallets, sorted alphabetically by Krewe name, by year of issue and by type, but he gladly sells them in 10-pound lots (each including about 950 to 1,000 doubloons) for $29.99. 

Collectors don’t have to go to that extreme, of course, but Monzon said that a small but avid group of collectors searches for new doubloons every year. 

As an example, he referred to “seven different swapping events for members to trade doubloons” held March 7. 

The Crescent City Doubloons Traders Club (www.ccdtc.com) is one organization that works to record new doubloons and share available doubloons with members, as well as calculate pricing data for this niche area of the hobby. 

Though these doubloons are not purely numismatic in nature, collectors are likely to encounter them in coin dealer junk boxes and on eBay and other auction sites, as they are often collected alongside other areas of exonumia.

No standard exists as to what size, thickness, metal and color combine to make an authentic Mardi Gras doubloon. Today they are struck in multiple colors and different metals. 

The early examples are a lot more straightforward.

Mardi Gras doubloon history

Mardi Gras and Carnival parades have been held in New Orleans since the 1830s, and the custom of throwing objects to parade onlookers began in the 1920s, according to Monzon. 

The use of doubloons can be traced to H. Alvin Sharpe, who suggested that the Rex Organization (the School of Design) use the round aluminum pieces as throws, adding to the beads and wooden nickels already in use.

Upon meeting with the captain of the Rex Organization, Sharpe is said to have tossed examples of the doubloons at the captain. The doubloons bounced off him harmlessly, Sharpe illustrating how they would bounce off people in the crowds (unlike glass beads, which had caused consternation during earlier parades). The doubloons were said to approximate the size of the authentic Spanish coins of that denomination, hence their name.

The King of Carnival, Rex, was placed on the obverse of the 1960 doubloons and the School of Design logo was used for the reverse. 

Organization officials, wary of having unpopular items left over, omitted the date on most of that year’s 80,000 aluminum throws. 

Instead of lingering as unwanted leftovers, the doubloons were popular and all of them were eagerly snapped up. Future issues were dated, and today the undated example is one of the rarest regular issue doubloons. 

Some 5,000 of the undated versions were gold-colored that first year (with a small amount featuring the date added), and the colorful, anodized aluminum versions became the standard. 

Doubloons are rather crude when compared to federal coinage, but they are intended to be affordable, brief souvenirs of the festival atmosphere during the carnival season. 

Besides aluminum, bronze and .999 fine silver examples are often made, with the latter two compositions to be used for special presentations (they would be too expensive, and too heavy, to use as regular throws). 

Two pieces might be made in gold for each Krewe and design every year, Monzon said — one for the king of the Krewe and one for his tailor. During the period when the use of gold in coin-like objects was tightly regulated by the federal government, Krewes took such steps as adding a pin to the back of the gold versions to make them less coin-like.

Doubloons range from 1 inch to 3 inches in diameter, but most (90 percent or more, Monzon said) are 1.5 inches in diameter and struck from 15 gauge aluminum.

Aluminum examples are light enough that it takes between 90 and 100 to equal one pound.

The sheer volume of doubloons every year has made it harder for collectors to track them, and has served to tamp down interest, Monzon said.

No one central depository exists for information about what doubloons are being issued since, often, different people in the same Krewe are making them. Multiply that by 46 Krewes in New Orleans, plus multiple Krewes in Houma and Slidell in Louisiana, others in Galveston, Texas, in Mobile, Ala., and in several locations along the Gulf Coast, and the result is that “no one person knows what all issues are created for 2014,” Monzon said.

One Krewe, Thoth, issued more than 40 different doubloons in 2013, he said, and the mintages on some of the doubloons were probably in the 50s, for an organization with membership numbering multiples of that mintage figure. 

Some Krewes have even adopted technology that is seen on world coins. The Krewe of Bacchus has issued a cloisonné doubloon, Monzon said. 

Some doubloons bear advertising, but those thrown during parades in Orleans Parish (the city) are not allowed to, by parish law, said Monzon. 

The doubloons’ general abundance (as many companies used them for advertising) was “the downfall of doubloons in the late 1980s,” according to Monzon, but interest in them has risen since the 50th anniversary, he said.

The number of collectors of new issues is in the dozens, and the prices of new doubloons drop quickly after Monzon satisfies those first few dozen orders every year (he also sells the pieces individually). 

In general, an average post-2000 doubloon is worth about $1 each, with those issued before 2000 trading for 50 cents or less. 

A doubloon for the 1984 World’s Fair is a $10 to $15 piece in aluminum, and even the rarest aluminum doubloon is only an $800 item.

Two price guides are available through CCDTC.com, but Monzon noted that the value of doubloons changes depending on the time of year. 

“People start thinking about Mardi Gras doubloons around Mardi Gras so the price in summer is less.”

“If someone is looking for an economical collection, something that’s 20 cents apiece, 30 cents apiece, Mardi Gras doubloons are it.”

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