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The Coin of Moby Dick

posted Feb 12, 2012, 4:15 PM by OC Coin Club   [ updated Feb 12, 2012, 4:32 PM ]
by David Schwager, February 2012

“They were bent on profitable cruises, the profits to be counted down in dollars from the mint.”
– Moby-Dick, Chapter 41

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is arguably the greatest work of literature ever produced in the United States. Readers will remember that a gold coin figures in the plot. Summarizing the coin’s role in the book, it first appears, referred to as a “Spanish ounce of gold” and a “sixteen-dollar piece,” when Captain Ahab nails the coin to the mainmast and offers it as a reward to the man who first spots the object of his hate, the white whale Moby Dick. Melville later devotes an entire chapter to the coin (Chapter 99, “The Doubloon”), in which eight characters examine and comment on or react to its symbols. No sailor ever earns the coin because Ahab is the first to see Moby Dick on each of the three days he appears.

Although the obverse remains facing the mast and is not visible, Melville describes the coin’s reverse in detail. With its smoking mountains, zodiac signs, and other peculiar images, the coin might seem to be a product of the author’s imagination. The careful description, however, shows us exactly to which gold piece the book refers. It is an Ecuador 8 escudos of 1838 – 1843.

Latin American coins such as this, commonly circulated in the United States at the time the novel was written in 1851. Eight Ecuador reals, like reals of Mexico or Spain, make one American dollar, and an escudo equals 16 reals. This gives the coin a US value of $16, as Melville describes. It is 21 karat or 0.875 pure gold and has an actual gold weight of 0.7614 ounce. The obverse shows a Liberty head, the motto “EL PODER EN LA CONSTITUTION” or roughly “Authority in the Constitution,” and a caption giving the purity, date, and denomination. The reverse, so well examined in the novel, shows three mountains topped by a tower, a fire, and a rooster, as well as a the sun passing through part of the Zodiac and stopping at Libra. “REPUBLICA DEL ECUADOR – QUITO M.V.” gives the issuing nation, the mint, and the initials of the assayer.

This was the first large gold coin of a young nation, a fact reflected in the less-skillful quality of the engraving. Mintage figures are unknown, and in 1844 this piece was replaced with an 8 escudos coin bearing the portrait of Simon Bolivar and the national coat of arms.

As collectors, we naturally are interested in how we can own a coin of this type. The lowest value in a Krause catalog, based on an outdated gold price of $600 - $700 per ounce, is $650 for the most common date of 1841 in Very Good, or about 30% over the melt value of around $500. Examples in any grade, however, come up for sale only rarely. Searching Heritage Auctions results, for example, finds only one sale of these coins in the last few years. In January 2010, nine pieces, representing all varieties, sold for values ranging from $6,900 for an 1841 uncertified XF to $25,300 for an 1839 NGC AU58. The combination of its numismatic and literary value makes this an extraordinary coin.