A decade ago, a curious money mystery fell into the hands of scientists and students at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima.
The university had been acquiring 19th- and 20th-century Peruvian coins from local dealers, and graduate students in the chemistry department were analyzing the pieces for their thesis work. But one coin stood out, a 10-cent piece known as money.
The money was marked “1899.” The problem was that official records indicated that no coins of that denomination were minted in Peru that year; According to the people who made the money, the currency never existed.
Most international coin catalogs do not include coins from 1899, said Luis Ortega, a chemist at the university. And in the rare cases when they do, there is often just a “forgery” note with no further details, Dr. Ortega said. “No one was able to provide more information about it.”
Now Dr. Ortega and Fabiola Bravo Hualpa, a doctoral student, believe they have shed new light on the mystery of the coin that emerged from nowhere. In an article published last year in Heritage Science magazinedescribed how they subjected one of two known coins from 1899 to an avalanche of scientific analysis, illuminating its possible origins and the role it might have played during an unstable era in South American history.
At first glance, the 1899 coin looks like other coins: it is silver in color and features the same coat of arms and the same seated woman representing the goddess of liberty. And it is remarkably similar in size to other money minted in the early 20th century: about the size of a US dime.
But when Dr. Ortega and Ms. Bravo Hualpa bombarded the 1899 coin with X-rays and measured the light it re-emitted, they determined that the money was largely made of copper, zinc and nickel. This alloy is known as nickel silver. It is commonly used to make silverware and ornamental objects and has a silvery appearance, but does not contain silver. Genuine coins produced by the Lima Mint, on the other hand, are approximately 90 percent silver.
Dr. Ortega and Mrs. Bravo Hualpa also discovered that the 1899 money contained traces of iron, cobalt and lead. Those impurities imply that the coin was counterfeited a long time ago, not more recently, the researchers suggest. These contaminants are characteristic of older alloys due to the limitations of the technology of the time. “Refining methods were not as good as they are now,” Dr. Ortega said.
The researchers concluded that the presence of impurities, along with the coin’s worn faces, suggests it was produced in the 19th or 20th centuries. But since alpaca was not widely used for coins or tokens in Peru at the time, it is likely that this currency was created abroad, the researchers suggest. It is therefore possible that its producer was completely unaware that no money was officially minted in 1899.
“The counterfeiter probably didn’t realize that coin didn’t exist,” Dr. Ortega said.
He said an influx of low-value coins would have been welcome in Peru in the early 20th century. The country’s economy was reeling from the recent Pacific War and the government was concentrating on printing higher denomination paper bills to pay off international loans; In 1899, the Lima Mint produced approximately one-tenth the number of silver coins it had produced just five years earlier.
As a result, people in Peru used currencies from neighboring nations or even cut coins from their own country in half to make small transactions. “Counterfeiters found a field of opportunity,” Dr. Ortega said.
The moneys were low denomination coins used by common people. Therefore, studying this currency and the economic and political situation that drove its creation can be illuminating. “If you want to study our society, you don’t want to look at a Ferrari,” said Laura Perucchetti, an archaeometallurgist at the British Museum in London, who was not involved in the research. “You want to look at a Volkswagen or a Ford.”
Dr. Ortega has not finished studying counterfeit coins and their historical context. He plans to meet with a Lima-based collector who amassed a variety of coins apparently minted between the 1830s and 1960s. Other money from 1899 has already turned up in that collection, and he is looking for more.
“There must be some out there,” Dr. Ortega said.