World Coins

Diamond miners in Namibia strike gold instead

A Portuguese shipwreck off the coast of Namibia contained some 2,100 gold coins, an estimated 90 percent of which were issued during the reign of Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, like the example shown here. A graphical rendering shows how a ship of the era, like the Bom Jesus, would have looked at the time it sank in 1533.

Images courtesy of Dr. Bruno Werz.

Though they intended to find diamonds, miners in Namibia struck gold — and silver.

A treasure of an estimated 2,100 gold coins and an undisclosed number of silver and base metal coins was found in a shipwreck off the coast of Namibia. The wreck of the Bom Jesus began making news in early June, but was actually discovered in 2008. Namibia is located at the southern tip of Africa, near the nation of South Africa. 

Numerous international media outlets, from CNN to Fox News and London’s Daily Mail, reported on the treasure found April 1, 2008, and the whole site was excavated completely later that year. Work since then has identified the origins of the wreck, and archaeologists have shared insights and information about the find. 

Diamond miners with a joint company operated by DeBeers International and the Namibian government located the 1533 wreck of the Portuguese vessel off the coast of Oranjemund, in southern Namibia.

It is the oldest European vessel to be discovered off sub-Saharan Africa to date, according to Dr. Bruno Werz, the chief executive officer of the African Institute for Marine & Underwater Research, Exploration & Education.

Werz told Coin World that the Namibian government appointed him as the project’s principal investigator in charge of the excavation of the shipwreck.

The new ship had been bound for India, sailing for Portugal’s King Joao III. 

The coins were excavated from a small section of the wreck, indicating that they were stored together. The wreck was discovered while conducting excavation for diamonds, as massive sand walls were created to help miners temporarily reclaim the coastline from the sea.

An estimated 90 percent of the coins are Spanish excelentes of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. These coins are denominated as 1-, 2- and 4-excelente pieces and were issued from 1476 to 1516. 

The 1-excelente coin contains .1109 ounce of gold, and multiples contain multiples of that amount. The coins, however, have been valued at far above their precious metal content for some time. 

Gold Coins of the World by Arthur L. and Ira S. Friedberg (2009) valued a common 1-excelente coin at about $1,500, a common 2-excelente coin at $3,500 and a common 4-excelente coin at $15,000. For perspective, those prices were based on gold at $850 an ounce. 

“This Spanish coinage must have been provided by a consortium of Iberian businessmen who invested in the 1533 fleet to India,” Werz wrote in an article he provided to Coin World.

About 8 percent of the coins were portugueses, gold coins from the reign of King Joao III. The remainder of the gold coins were Venetian and Hungarian gold coins. 

Most of the silver coins are Portuguese; no origin was disclosed for the copper alloy coins also found.

Also found among the wreckage were cannons, elephant tusks, table wares and 22 tons of semispherical copper ingots marked with the trident symbol of the Fugger family, famous merchants and bankers from Augsburg (Germany) who had an office in Lisbon. 

Though Portugal would normally have claim to the treasure, the nation waived its rights and the Namibian government owns the recovered contents.

NamDeb (the joint venture between DeBeers and Namibia) did not answer Coin World’s inquiries for information about the find and the disposition of the coins.

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