The saddest night in the history of Spanish numismatics

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by Isabel Rodríguez Casanova

August 7, 2014 – The newspaper ABC reported on a recently issued book. ‘El tesoro del Vita’ (‘The Treasure of the Vita’) by Francisco Gracia y Gloria Munilla tells of how the Spanish cultural heritage was despoiled on behalf of the government of the Second Republic. The subject is not new, there have been many other authors and historians who worked on this before. The fact that an important part of historical Spanish gold disappeared on the yacht Vita to Mexico and, eventually, was lost forever, is one of the most shameful events that we know from the history of our country’s cultural heritage.

The main façade of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional today. Photograph: Dodo /

The loss of the gold coins of the coin cabinet at the Museo Arqueológico Nacional (MAN) was a true bleeding. On various occasions Felipe Mateu y Llopis, the involuntarily protagonist of this dreadful event, recounted in all details what happened in this tragic night of November 4, when the coin cabinet was ransacked in the shine of lanterns and at the presence of armed militians. (ABC published a very detailed description of these circumstances.)

Probably one of the very first published accounts on this heist was by Wilhelm Reinhart, an Austrian scholar and renowned collector of Visigoth and Swabian coins. As soon as 1939 he wrote in the Deutsche Münzblätter that the coin cabinet was pillaged as F. Mateu y Llopis had told him personally. Additionally he mentioned the seize of private collections comprising his own by cracking strong boxes of the bank.

Some years ago Carmen Alfaro – chief conservator at the MAN coin cabinet from 1985 until her premature death in 2005 – published a book that aimed at a reconstruction of the inventory of ancient gold coins once in the possession of the museum (Catálogo de las monedas antiguas de oro del M.A.N., Madrid, 1993). By this way she tried to assess as reliably as possible what was probably lost.

When the coins of the MAN were seized, a superficial list was made containing all objects the militians took away. On this list both C. Alfaro as well as M. Almagro Gorbea based their future researches. Almagro Gorbea is an antiquarian with the Real Academia de la Historia and, lately, examined this question thoroughly:

  • 58 Greek coins weighing 0.429 kg.
  • 830 Roman coins weighing 5.353 kg.
  • 297 Byzantinian coins weighing 0.992 kg.
  • 343 Arabian coins weighing 1.251 kg.
  • 242 Arabian coins not weighed.
  • 322 Visigoth coins not weighed.
  • 94 medieval and modern Spanish coins weighing 1.028 kg.
  • 111 French and Portuguese coins weighing 0.577 kg.
  • 432 foreign coins weighing 2.581 kg.
  • 67 medals weighing 3.636 kg.
  • 2 more medals weighing 0.061 kg.

According to Carmen Alfaro’s list 2,796 coins were affected – that means nearly all coins in the possession of the museum. Starting from this list M. Almagro calculated that the total value of the gold as by the precious metal value at the end of 2006 was approximately of 270,000 euros. The numismatic value, however, might be fixed around 10 million euros.

Mateu y Llopis and Felipa Niño, also conservator at the coin cabinet, risked their life trying to hide in different ways the most valuable pieces of the collections: in secret drawers, under statues in the garden, in an ammunition box made of lead in the basement, or by claiming that some coins with a minor fineness were just silver coins. Their prudence and cleverness saved some of the greatest treasures that we can still admire in the Archaeological Museum.
Among the lost coins, on the other hand, there was the complete collection of Visigoth coinage just recently published by Mateu in a monography (June 1936). A note book contains a list of all Roman issues compiled by a pupil of D. Manuel Gómez-Moreno and permitted thus to reconstruct the losses: Of some 1,000 Roman pieces barely 90 were recovered. Among those lost forever was for example an extremely rare quinar of Augustus and Tiberius, and very rare aurei of the Severan dynasty. Together with other rarities from the Greek world the Ptolemaic gold coins disappeared too.
Very heavily affected was the collection of Islamic coins of which a big portion was carried away. And the Antonio Vives Collection is yet another gravely deplorable loss. Today we have only casts and publications of these coins.

Although less grave from a numismatic point of view it cannot go unmentioned that there were further losses. The government of the Second Republic stole also the gold coins of the Banco de España (even though a large portion had already been transferred to Moscow previously), the coins of the Casa de la Moneda, and some very valuable private collections. Nothing has remained of these collections but very few documentation. Therefore it is very difficult to calculate seriously the numismatic value of the lost material.

From the moment when the yacht Vita reached Mexico aboard the gems of Spain’s historical heritage, we nearly cannot follow its trails. The final destination of the coins was never established but probably they were smelted down. Because during the last nearly 80 years never one of these coins was identified neither on the market nor in any collection of the world.

For further reading:

  • Alfaro, C.: Catálogo de las monedas antiguas de oro del Museo Arqueológico Nacional. Madrid, Ministerio de Cultura, 1993.
  • Almagro Gorbea, M.: “El expolio de las monedas de oro del Museo Arqueológico Nacional en la Segunda República Española”, Boletín de la Real Academia de la Historia, nº 205, 2008, pp. 7-72.
  • Almagro Gorbea, M.: “Las monedas de oro del Banco de España depositadas en la URSS. Un cálculo teórico de su valor actual”, Numisma, 253, 2009, pp. 127-141.
  • Reinhart, Wh.: “Über einige Fälschungen westgotischer Münzen”, Deutsche Münzblätter, Nº 444; Dec. 1939, pp. 389-391.
  • Tortella, T.: “Las monedas de oro del Banco de España”, en VV.AA. Monedas de oro del Banco de España, Madrid, 1991.

We translated and published this text by courtesy of the author. You can find the original Spanish version on the website of Panorama Numismatico.