Size Matters: Three of the World’s Biggest Coins

This example of Swedish plate money from 1715 realized $1,410 at a Sept. 7, 2012, auction. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)

By Gerald Tebben

Every now and then money takes on immense proportions. It happened on the South Pacific Island of Yap, in several German states and in Sweden. The immense “coins” are scarce, valuable and prized by collectors.

Yap Stone Money: The origin of Yap’s stone money is lost to history. The money—discs of stone up to 10 feet across with a hole in the center—was hacked out of the stone at the island of Palau and transported by canoe and raft some 200 miles across the ocean to the stone-less island of Yap.

The stones had value because of the work it took to make them and the danger that had to be overcome to get them home.

Yap money stones created after Europeans traders offered transportation between the islands were valued at less than earlier pieces. Yap stone money is scarce today. Japanese occupiers crushed many pieces before and during the Second World War to make military roads. Only a handful of pieces are in the United States, and Yap forbids export of what it now regards as its patrimony.

German Multiple Thalers: Imagine this: A government auditor inspects your home and yard, checks your bank account and inquires about your debts. After determining that you’re solvent and have a high net worth, the auditor produces a gigantic silver coin, orders you to buy it from him and tells you that, under severe penalty of law, you may not spend it.

That’s pretty much what happened in the late 1500s when Julius, Duke of Brunswick, stumbled upon a way to store precious metal as a reserve without tying up his own money and fend off inflation. While the duke’s citizens may not have appreciated his novel approach to monetary policy, collectors have been grateful for centuries.

The practice brought about the minting of gigantic coins, called julioser or multiple thalers, each weighing as much as 14 ounces. The coins, which were authorized by a succession of rulers for a century, were struck on either very broad planchets or very thick ones. They often show the ruler on the obverse and an inscription on the reverse. Many depict mining scenes.

Julius hatched the novel coinage at a time when a massive influx of silver and gold from the New World was destabilizing European monetary systems. He was particularly concerned because he owned vast silver mines in the Harz Mountains.

Tying up the newly minted German silver in gigantic non-spendable coins kept the bullion off the market. Rulers kept track of who owned which coins and reserved the right to call them in when the government needed silver.

Swedish Plate Money: A minor struggle in European history, the Kalmar War of 1611 to 1613 had gigantic consequences for coin collectors. Under terms of the Treaty of Knared, Sweden was required to pay massive reparations to Denmark. The effort took all of Sweden’s silver, even the king’s tableware, according to legend. The Swedish Mint responded to the domestic monetary needs of the nation by producing large coppers “coins.”

The coins, called plate money, were worth their full value in copper and weighed up to 48 pounds. The largest pieces, with a value of 10 dalers, measures 27.5 inches by 12 inches. Dies originally designed for silver coins were repeatedly punched into the plates to indicate their value. Curiously, the dies had the words “silf mynt”—“silver money”—as part of the legend.

Plate money was produced from 1644 through 1776. Dies dated 1759 were used for several years. Though in reality they didn’t circulate much, the plates were often deposited in banks, which gave the depositor a paper note, an early form of Western paper money.

In the 1970s and 1980s, several private mints produced massive coins for “nations” you never heard of. Curiosities that never gained much traction in the collector community, these non-circulating, legal-tender coins generally sell for bullion.


Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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