The Moroccan Cast Money TreeOr, A Journey to the Deepest Corners of Numismatic Historyby Jason PoeAny of you who know me know that I’m a fan of Moroccan coinage. The simple geometric patterns, the symbolism, the history, the story – it’s all fascinating to me. My latest endeavor was brought about by a recent Heritage auction purchase – and here’s the story about why it is so special. This is one of the rarest pieces in my collection, and also one of the most fragile. Funny story: when it arrived on my front doorstep, I came home to find the box bashed in. I knew what was in the box, so my heart nearly dropped because I knew how fragile the piece was. Luckily, Heritage has experience in shipping fragile items – inside the big box, was a smaller, sturdier box. Inside that smaller box was many layers of bubble wrap. Inside that was a cardboard reinforced envelope with the item inside. What was the item? Read on to find out!You may be familiar with the cast bronze coins produced by Morocco, known as the falus. If you aren’t familiar with them, I have one pictured below. This is a 4 falus coin from AH 1287 (1870 AD). They weigh roughly 11.5 grams, and are usually somewhere around 28 mm (slightly larger than a modern US small dollar coin). They are hefty coins, and usually found in low grades. They are very crude, made from hand engraved punches. Sometimes, they have unique errors like the one I have shown here – notice the date is “12887.”These coins were made by the casting method. There would be a clay mold (one each for the obverse and reverse), and the coiner would punch the designs into the clay mold. When the clay was baked and hardened, they could then put the two pieces together to form a chamber into which the molten metal would be poured. However, rather than just casting one piece at a time, they would make a channel between pieces (called a gutter) and cast four pieces per branch. These branches were joined at the top to make a “tree,” and 12 coins would be cast in a single pour. When the metal cooled, the coins would be broken apart and the jagged bits would be filed down. Sometimes, as you can see at the top of the coin shown above, it wasn’t a clean break. Sometimes a chunk of the coin would be missing, sometimes a bit would be left over. This is known as the “sprue.”Most cast coins use a similar method. For example, China and Japan used the tree method to cast coins. To get an idea what the mold looked like, see this picture of a Chinese mold (I couldn’t find a Moroccan mold).Sometimes, it's possible to find unbroken pieces. Usually, they come as two- or three-coin groups. Sometimes, you can find an entire branch of 4. If you get really, very lucky, you’ll find an unbroken tree. When I first started collecting Moroccan coinage, I read a brief snippet in Krause: “occasionally entire or partial trees are found on the market.” My curiosity was piqued.Over the years, it turns out that a few of these unbroken trees have shown up. Usually, they are of the lowest denomination, a single falus. The higher up you go (1 falus, 2 falus, and 4 falus coins were made), the rarer the trees seem to become. As I dove into researching these pieces, attempting to locate one (at least to see it – I never thought I’d be able to buy it!), I came across a quaint book by William H. Valentine, titled “Modern Copper Coins of the Muhammadan States.” It appears to be handwritten, and the illustrations are all hand drawn. However, he has a description of a certain item: “This drawing represents the method in which the Moorish copper money is cast and consists of twelve one falus pieces, each coin being subsequently broken off. The original is in the possession of the British Museum, who kindly gave me permission to make this reproduction.” I searched the archives of the British museum (their entire collection is digitized online), but alas, I could not find this piece. It appears they may have sold it. These falus were cast in AH 1261, or roughly 1844 AD.The next reference I found to these Moroccan cast money trees was in the 1922 Numismatist. A Mr. A. R. Frey gave a presentation at the 1922 ANA Convention, and then had a display. He talked about coinage of varying shapes besides round – triangle, square, octagonal, and other odd shapes. One of the items he presented was this tree of falus cast in AH 1278 (1861 AD). Again, this tree is of the one falus denomination.Numismatic history was silent on these cast trees for a few decades, as far as I could find, but then Stacks and Bowers had an auction at the 2018 ANA. They had not one, but two! different examples of the unbroken tree. The pedigree note on that auction gave me a fantastic clue: “Ex: Hans M.F. Schulman auction, January 26-27, 1971 “The Howard Gibbs Collection.” Luckily, the Newman Numismatic Portal has digitized mountains of numismatic history, and I was able to easily pull up the auction catalogue. Sure enough, there were a couple of unbroken trees and a few broken trees listed. I drooled and salivated over these tantalizing glimpses of cast money trees – and wondered where they might be now.Well, fast forward to about a month ago. I noticed a listing on Heritage for one of my holy grails – an unbroken Moroccan cast tree. But there was something different about this one: this one was a 4 falus denomination! This wasn’t the more common 1 falus. I watched, I waited, I anxiously and eagerly counted down the days to the auction, knowing without a doubt that this piece would become mine! Finally, I won!In the interest of finding out more about this coin, I did a bit more research. Heritage provided a brief pedigree: “Ex. Detroit Money Museum (Inventory no. 2-7-63) From the Charles J. Opitz Collection.” The Heritage listing also mentioned that this piece was pictured on page 230 of Charles Opitz’ book, “An Ethnographic Study of Traditional Money.” I bought the book, and while there is only the briefest mention of the Moroccan money tree, the book has been a fascinating journey through shells and beads and cloth and such – all the things people have used as money besides coins.Since I was trying to find out everything I could about the piece, I decided to contact Mr. Opitz directly and ask him about it. He told me that it was originally in the collection of Nathan Shapero, who loaned (and then sold) his collection to the Detroit Money museum. The Detroit Money Museum opened in 1960 and housed an impressive display of primitive and traditional money, and told the story of the history of money. One of their most impressive pieces was a yap stone. Sometime in the early 1980’s, Shapero sold his collection to the Detroit Money Museum. Unfortunately, this arrangement wasn’t to last – in 1986, most of the museum was sold to a Detroit dealer. Mr. Opitz was fortunate enough to visit that dealer and purchase most of the traditional money – this piece included.I decided to investigate a bit further, and see if I could locate any other 4 falus trees. I recalled the Gibbs sale of 1971, so I went back and checked that auction catalogue again. Sure enough, there it was: “Unbroken tree casting of 12 three falu coins dated 1289 AH. Extremely rare. Only in these three collections: (a) Chase Manhattan (b) Shapero Detroit (c) Gibbs. Note: “I have hunted for a complete tree (I had a broken one) for over 30 years. Now June 1964 I went to Marakesh and found it.”” (not sure why they called this a 3 falu coin – that denomination is quite uncommon)Wow, what a fascinating piece of information! Only three known – and I apparently have just bought the Shapero-Detroit-Opitz specimen.Congrats, you say. Show me the piece, you say. Ok, here it is! The first thing you notice is the nice, even color across the piece. The branches are solid, and there is no hint of corrosion anywhere on the piece. The branches come together in a solid bit at the top, which was clearly cut and ground where it was poured. In between each coin is a short gullet, with “perforations” near each coin to help break it off. I am extremely pleased to add this piece to my set.So, questions? Comments? Do you have a broken or unbroken tree to share?