World Coins feature from the March 6, 2017, Monthly issue of Coin World:
The cut, counterstamped and otherwise necessity coins of the West
Indies have always been of interest to me, as I have a family link to
that part of the world. My paternal grandfather, Allan T. Gilkes Sr.,
was born in 1888 on the island of Montserrat but emigrated from the
island to the United States while still a teenager.
Much of where my grandfather knew as home is no longer habitable.
Nearly half of the island was buried in volcanic ash during major
eruptions of the Soufrière Hills volcano between 1995 and 1999.
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Montserrat is one of six islands that constitute the Leeward
Islands, with nearly twice that number forming the Windward Islands
group to their south. The two island groups form one section of the
long chain of mainly volcanic islands that curve northeast from
Venezuela in South America to Puerto Rico. The islands create a border
between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands were valuable stopping points in the sea journey between
South America and Europe, and the nations in conflict in Europe
brought their conflicts to the islands.
Each of the island groups at one time or another during the 17th,
18th and into the early 19th centuries, used necessity money, often in
the form of cut and countermarked versions of the silver, gold and
other metallic coins of whichever major nation controlled a particular
island at a particular time.
While most of the cut pieces originated as Spanish Colonial or
English coins, examples of cut Massachusetts silver coinage used in
island circulation in the late 17th century are known.
Contemporary and modern forgeries of the genuine cut and
countermarked issues are also known to exist, so collectors should
seek the coins only from knowledgeable and trustworthy sources.
Why cut a coin?
The cut pieces, valued at fractions of their uncut counterparts,
were necessary for making change and smaller purchases.
These forms of money were put into use long before any specific
circulating issues were minted dedicated to an individual island or region.
Both the Windward and Leeward Islands are part of a larger grouping
termed the Lesser Antilles, which are, in turn, a section of the
Caribbean Islands of the West Indies. The Leeward group are the
northern islands in the Lesser Antilles section, extending from east
of Puerto Rico and reaching southward toward Dominica.
The Windward Islands start from Dominica and reach southward toward
Trinidad & Tobago.
England, France and the Netherlands all jockeyed for control of each
island, with some islands changing hands multiple times. Many of the
cut and countermarked coins reflect these changes, with countermarks
on the various pieces reflecting values for more than one nation’s
As the pieces circulated among the islands, acceptance and valuation
of the cut and counterstamped coins between islands also differed, and
the pieces acquired more markings for this reason as well.
Collectors may consider assembling a representative type set.
Possible combinations are endless, as hobbyists may select by host
coin being used; denomination; island or islands on which each piece
could be used; how each was cut; the various counterstamps used; and
more. An examination of auction catalogs suggests that opportunities
for type pieces are more prevalent among silver issues than gold.
Whether silver or gold, pieces can be valued into the hundreds or
even thousands of dollars depending on rarity and condition.
Each piece is technically unique, since the use and position of
counterstamps and the way a coin is cut create differences among even
pieces marked as having the same value.
The host coin of choice most often encountered is a silver 8-real
coin, the Spanish Colonial dollar, which could be physically divided
into 12 equal parts or “bits.” This monetary division would determine
how a whole coin could be divided, then counterstamped and valued by
the controlling authority. The country in control would usually
establish a value by royal edict, and that value could change in time
with another royal decision.
How a coin was cut apart, as well as the values assigned to the
parts, was determined by what denominations were required in
circulation at the time. Further cutting would create yet smaller
denominations. The shapes created would depend on the cuts that came
before. A cut quarter piece, for example, could be accomplished
multiple ways depending where on the coin the cutting began.
Some cut pieces retain most of the original host coin, but with a
center piece cut out in a multitude of possible shapes. The piece cut
out could also be countermarked and valued separately based on its
weight in precious metal.
Countermarked pieces using French sou and sol coins as host coins,
and English and Dutch issues from various series, are also known.
According to Fred Pridmore in The Coins of The British
Commonwealth of Nations: Part 3 West Indies, by the late 17th
century, the French billon coin was the only sol-denominated piece
remaining in quantity in circulation in the West Indies. The billon
composition was approximately 25 percent silver and 75 percent copper.
From decades of use in circulation, the host coins’ designs were often
obliterated by wear, often reduced simply to an appearance of
gray-black colored slivers, according to Pridmore.
Often the only device remaining on the billon is a recessed
The English referred to what they considered debased silver coinage
as “black dogg” because of the color. In the French West Indies, the
same worn pieces garnered the nickname “sol marque,” meaning “dirt mark.”
The countermarked and cut pieces that circulated on Montserrat
included pieces solely countermarked for Montserrat, or countermarked
by Montserrat with another island’s authority.
For example, a Montserrat and Tortola countermarked 2 bits piece,
Pridmore 46, is a cut one-quarter segment of a Spanish Colonial 8-real
coin countermarked with an M stamp on the obverse and three couped
cross stamps on the reverse, for Montserrat, circa 1788 to 1801, and
with a Type II TIRTILA stamp (for Tortola, circa 1805 to 1824) on the
obverse almost obliterating the earlier M stamp.
The Montserrat countermark exhibits a combination of three M stamps
on one side as a means to prevent clipping and debasement. The couped
cross stamp on the other side, meant as a valuation stamp, was usually
only applied once on cut segments.
The Pridmore 46 piece has an opposite combination of markings,
however, with three of the couped crosses, but only one of the
Pridmore assigned the period of 1785 to 1805 for the Montserrat
couped cross stamps, based on the latest date known to him on a
Spanish Colonial 2-real coin countermarked with the couped cross
design, and on several examples of the TIRTILA counterstamp (which was
assigned to the 1805 to 1824 period) being applied over earlier
Montserrat cross stamps. The Heritage Auctions’ lot description for an
example of the Pridmore 46 piece that sold for $4,700 in a Sept. 4,
2014, sale, notes that the
Edward Roehrs Collection, however, contained a Spanish pistareen
dated 1788 with such a Montserrat cross stamp. The piece was Lot 152
in Dix Noonan
Webb’s Sept. 28, 2010, sale of the Roehrs Collection.
According to the Dix Noonan Webb lot description: “This coin is
unusual in that an official stamp has been countermarked on a
pistareen rather than on a Spanish-American 2 reals. It is not unusual
to find pistareens countermarked with contemporary forgery stamps.”
Another similar example, Lot 692 in Bonhams July 1996 sale
containing the Alexander Patterson Collection, bears a TORTOLA Type I
stamp, circa 1801, over a contemporary imitation of the three M stamps.
The two pieces, according to the Heritage cataloger, narrow the
period of the cut one-quarter segment Montserrat issue instead to 1788
Among gold issues one may encounter that reflect changes in
valuation, one example is a countermarked piece that appeared as Lot
238 in the Sept. 28, 2010, sale by Dix Noonan Webb of the Edward
Valued as a 66-livre gold piece under regulations established by
royal edict in July of 1798 on Martinique, the piece is fashioned from
a counterfeit 1767 Brazilian gold 6,400-real coin of Joseph I.
The piece is marked to indicate changes in its value authorized in
different locations between 1798 and 1805, as it traveled in
circulation — valued twice for Martinique and once each for St.
Vincent and Guadeloupe, the piece underwent the addition and then
removal of a gold plug, and the same with a base plug.
Several prominent numismatists have assembled extensive, distinctive
collections of cut and countermarked coins of the West Indies.
Foremost among the collections sold at auction over the past several
decades are those of John J. Ford Jr., whose collection was sold Oct.
16, 1989, by Glendining’s in conjunction with A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.; Fred Pridmore,
whose collection was sold Sept. 21 and 22, 1981, by Glendining &
Co., in conjunction with A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.; Edward Roehrs,
whose collection was sold in two parts, Sept. 28, 2010, and Nov. 17,
2011, by Dix Noonan Webb.
DNW also sold an extensive offering of cut and countermarked coins
from an undisclosed consignor in its September 2008 auction. Coins in
the offering, assembled during a 35-year period, included pieces
pedigreed to the former ownership of Fred Pridmore, R.A. Byrne, John
Work Garrett, Alexander Patterson, Ralph Gordon, Williams Tankersley,
Auction catalogs that illustrate major collections of cut and
countermarked coins will provide collectors with an appreciation of
the many types of pieces one may encounter in future auctions and/or
on the bourse floor of a numismatic convention.