Jim Bisognani: The Sun Shines Brightly on These South American Coins

Posted on 4/7/2022

Rare Uruguayan coins are a bright idea for collectors seeking a new challenge.

Friends of my column sometimes ask me why I mention the weather so much. To answer that succinctly, I live in New England. Well, the weather here is a part of the daily fabric, and in my opinion no other citation rings truer than Mark Twain’s famous quotation, “If you don’t like weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”

Having been raised and lived here for nearly 90% of my life, I can speak from long experience: Twain got it, and he only lived in New England for 24% of his life.

That is why the other 10% of my time spent in Southern California was such an inviting yet boring change. I mean, who wants to always be greeted by bright sunny days and virtually no chance of rain from spring to fall. What am I saying? Of course, I would. The forecast here is for driving rain the next five days, ugh! I know April showers bring May flowers, but try telling that to the ducks and the guy constructing an ark down the street.

So, as I typed away at the keyboard, attempting to shield my eyes from the blinding “rain light,” my mind raced back momentarily to those smiling sunny faces on copper coins from the South America nation I became acquainted with at the breakfast table.

Yes, yours truly first encountered these guys in my youth while having breakfast. Of course, like any other 10-year-old, I had a world coin book in hand while eating my cereal when I came upon those smiling sun faces pictured on the early copper coins of Uruguay. After digesting my raisin bran and those images, I glanced up at the cereal box and I immediately thought there was quite the family resemblance to “Sunny,” the Kellogg’s Raisin Bran mascot. I then wondered aloud who came first, the cereal mascot or the coin?

Regardless, I mean when a coin is smiling at you, well you have to smile back, right? Since there will be such a lack of Mr. Sun here, these guys may just breathe a bit of fresh air and break the gloom.

One of my favorite sunshine boys is the Uruguay 1, 2 and 4 Centesimo dated 1869, wonderful one-year type coins featuring that pulsating, radiating sun. Engraved by Ernest Paul Tasset, these bronze coins were struck at both the Mint of La Rochelle in France (H) and Paris Mint (A). Like all world coins, these pieces have enjoyed an upsurge in prices. Especially in fully Mint State RB or Red, these coins are a delight to behold.

Uruguay 1869H 2 Centesimos graded NGC MS 65 RB
Click images to enlarge.

For the collector looking to add a few smiling faces, the 1869 one-year type is by far the most inexpensive route to go. Nice circulated VF to XF coins of all denominations can still be bought for around $25.

Yet the series design featuring the glorious Sol de Mayo — “the Sun of May” — was featured first on the inaugural 1840 bronze 5 and 20 Centesimo coins. These coins are very rare, exhibiting full details in Mint State. The 20 Centesimo, which had a mintage of only 2,125 will set you back around $500 in VF to XF grade. Yet, below I found a huge bargain.

Uruguay 1840 20 Centesimos graded NGC XF 45 BN
Click images to enlarge.

This example, graded NGC XF 45 BN, sold at auction just over two years ago for a paltry $168. Hey, if the owner wants to sell, let me know. I know, two years is ancient history in this market. Many of these smiling faces are off to the races.

The 1840 5 Centesimo, with a mintage of only 1,500, is a much more difficult coin to find with fully delineated legends. Anything near fully struck condition is a treasure. Unlike the later 1869 issues, which were produced with higher production standards at the La Rochelle and Paris mints, both of these 1840 denominations were often crudely produced at the Montevideo Mint. Thus, prices realized for any coin exhibiting full or nearly complete legends is a prize for the advanced collector.

Below is an example that is graded NGC MS 63 BN. This coin last appeared at public sale in April 2014. The color and texture are smooth and are likely the best you will ever encounter.

Uruguay 1840 5 Centesimos graded NGC MS 63 BN
Click images to enlarge.

Then there are the 1844 Uruguay 40 Centesimos featuring the large male sun face. This is the finest known, according to NGC Census. It was sold at the Heritage World Signature sale a decade ago and hasn’t appeared again as far as I can determine. Graded NGC MS 62 BN, the coin is most certainly a very well struck and eye-appealing example of this large bronze, which is often found poorly struck.

Uruguay, 1840 5 Centesimos graded NGC MS 63 BN
Click images to enlarge.

And while he is very tough to come by in mid- to high-grade circulated condition, it is his Mrs. which is the true prize for the Sun Face aficionados. Perhaps just for a change of pace, the designer added flowing locks of hair framing Mrs. Sun’s face. While there are a dozen known different obverse and reverse parings for this distinctive issue, the majority remaining are mostly so poorly struck the face of Mrs. Sun is all but obliterated. Yet this example graded NGC AU 58 BN, which sold at the Heritage Long Beach Expo sale eight years ago, is the best preserved and by far the most radiant example I have ever seen of her.

Uruguay, 1844 40 Centesimos, graded NGC MS 62 BN
Click images to enlarge.

Well, my friends, for those looking to a different collecting path, I hope this inspires you. Who knows? Perhaps at your next breakfast table, ideas for a topical collection will ignite a new numismatic journey!

Until next time, be safe and happy collecting!

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