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Manila's "Loose Change" Teams Up with a Lion

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

Five coins coming up for auction this month at the Leon Gallery 29th Online Auction should interest both serious numismatics collectors and Philippine History buffs. Five barrillas of different dates were tucked away in coin sleeves inside an old dusty album that gathered dust in an old office. I was lucky enough to be among the first to examine these coins and other numismatic items coming up for auction in the upcoming Leon Gallery 29th Online Auction on October 21, which was all by accident. Around a month ago, I visited Leon gallery with a friend who had just won a lovely painting in Leon's "Magnificent auction" for September called "View of San Juan Courtyard" by Juan M. Arellano (1888-1960). As we were casually conversing with the owner, Mr. Ponce de Leon, whom everyone called "Sir Jaime," he had asked the question how my friend and I met, as he probably found it odd that an American, walking around in shorts and a backpack, walks in the auction house with a middle-aged Filipino man wearing jeans and rubber shoes on a bright Monday afternoon. When "Sir Jaime" discovered we were friends through a common hobby, numismatics, he quickly went to his room to take out three old albums filled

with coins and medals. I wasn't expecting much from the albums, as the first few coins that were taken out weren't very sexy. However, when I pulled out the second album, and my hand flipped to the middle page, five coins just jumped and called out my name. I had to take a second and even a third look to ensure I wasn't dreaming, and I just stood there, marveling at their uniqueness and beauty. I knew right away that these were buried treasures, as Jaime had mentioned that these coins had been lying in his office for the past eight months. I took a snapshot of each coin and shared it with a friend, whom I will call Bayani, the book's author and expert on the topic and the one who helped me with much of the details, specifically the technical ones for this blog.

But even more intriguing was the note that had accompanied these coins. It was a memo from Dra. Angelita G. Legarda, M.D., receiving "ten barrillas of different dates for study and

photography." The memo was on the letterhead of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas on behalf of the "MONEY MUSEUM." The date it was received was even more intriguing: June 7, 1978 -- the golden age of collecting. These barrillas were received from a collector, who I prefer to remain anonymous on this blog, with respect to the Family. But I was told he was a "Monetary Board Member" of the Bangko Sentral then. So, it makes the provenance of the coins even more compelling. But before we even dwell on these details, let's go back to history about the coin and why it is called "Barilla." It would be best to "lift" a paragraph from the Leon Gallery auction catalog as it encapsulates everything."

"At a time when the Spanish silver cobs and Dos Mundos 8 reales circulated in the Spanish

Philippines, the need for fractional currency or small change arose. A tiny coin was eventually made in Manila to answer this need for small change, a coin of significant value today for serious Philippine numismatists and other collectors. These coins were cut from copper rods or "varillas." The Barrilla thus was born, and from this Spanish-Philippines invention came the word "Barya," the Filipino term for "loose change." Very rare and highly coveted by collectors, it was a coin of little significance. A coin of little value, limited circulation and valid only in Manila where a medium for small transactions was needed."

The first coin, Lot 115, is a 1732 Philippine Barrilla. It has the words "BARILLA ano de 1732 "

inscribed on the obverse and the stamp of the middle portion of Manila's coat of arms, consistent with the more famous 1728 Barrilla issuance. However, the seal in the middle is not stamped but looks like it is part of the die itself. The coin is unifaced and has a diameter of 24.40mm with a thickness of 4.80mm, while it weighs a solid 21.75 grams. One should go to Leon and thoroughly inspect the coin as the "feel" of the coin in your hands is different.

The second coin, Lot 116, is a 1722 Philippine Barrilla. Probably the only surviving sample of this very early Philippine Barrilla and, I believe, the earliest dated barrilla that we know of with the

words "BARRILLA MANILA 1722" inscribed on the obverse. This coin has no stamp of the coat of arms of Manila, but only the tower component. It is a uniface coin but weighs much more at 35.81 grams, a diameter of 27.28mm, and a thickness of 6.69mm. The one feature I noticed about this coin is the way the tower component's middle stamp looks similar to the seal of the

previous barilla where it is part of the die itself. This tower component seems to be raised. A unique feature as it seems to have been "punched" and added in the middle, and just like the earlier barrilla, this one has a very "heavy metal" feel, yet I agree with what the catalog says: a thorough XRF study must be done

to determine the full metal content of the coin. I believe that is the only way to confirm the metals involved and to see and determine the metal component that makes up the coin. A side-by-side image of the first two lots shows how much bigger this barrilla is compared to the later 1732 of Lot 15. It shows its heftiness and size advantage.

Lot 117 is composed of two coins that are, in my opinion, "numismatic eye candy" for serious

collectors. Two coins dated 1731 and 1740. The earlier dated coin bears a "BA Monogram" on the obverse surrounded by "Manila 1731", while the reverse displays the castle that supposedly symbolizes the coat of arms of Manila. It weighs 10.52 grams and has a diameter of 19.75mm and a thickness of 3.85mm. The second coin also has the "BA Monogram" surrounded by the words "Ano De 1743" on the obverse, which

appears to have been double-struck." The reverse also bears the coat of arms of Manila, with the castle at the top and the sea lion at the bottom. It weighs 9.38 grams and has a diameter of 20.61mm and a thickness of 3.31mm. A similar pair was sold in Stacks & Bowers three years ago with surprising results. I also conducted what Bayani told me about the "orientation test." Whether these coins have a "medal or a coin orientation. For obvious reasons, this test

works specifically for coins with both an obverse and reverse, and the previous coins in Lot 15 and 16 were uniface; hence, they cannot be subjected to the test. Both coins passed the test, with the 1731 having a medallion orientation while the 1740 has a coin orientation alignment. Please see the videos of the "orientation tests" for both coins in the notes.

The fifth coin, or Lot 118, is the most interesting. Though it is dated almost dated two centuries


later, it is most probably the most historical among this barrilla coin offering of Leon. The coin bears the number "1899" suggesting that the piece was issued and used around the turn of the 19th century around the era of the First Republic. It bears the value "2" on the side of a triangle surrounding the letter "L," which may represent the word Laguna. While on the reverse, the letters "RF" are stamped or punched twice. This could be interpreted as

Courtesy of Stacks & Bowers (2019)

"Republika Filipinas." This play of words and initials, not to mention the use of the triangle as part of the coin's design, reminds me so much of two coins: one went to auction four years ago, and another has remained very quiet and not seen in the wild as much. The famous Panay Centavo, also dated 1899, went to auction at Stacks and Bowers and sold for over $40,000; and the Aguinaldo

1899 Coinage of the Phil. Revolutionary Government

revolutionary coinage that has achieved "unicorn" status amongst numismatic collectors. Dra Angelita G. Legarda M.D. wrote the only known article on this coin in the Barrilla Monograph Vol. V. No. 3 1978 (please see notes below). According to Dra. Legarda, these coins may have been related to the victory of General Henry Lawton in Laguna de Bay after Malolos was captured. It is suspected that this piece was part of the tokens manufactured for the American's needs in the Southern Tagalog provinces. What I find ironic about this piece and the timing of Dra. Legarda's Monograph is the date by


which the monograph was released and the timing of Dra's receipt of these barrillas on behalf of the Bangko Sentral of the Pilipinas Money Museum. Both of these dates happened in 1978. Coincidence? Maybe? But could it be that Dra. Legarda used this same piece as part of the article she had written more than 45 years ago. So even then, these coins were considered extremely rare and may be part of the elusive Spanish-American War coinage.

The initial feedback I got from collectors when I told them about these five coins going into auction was indifference, as they felt that many fake barrillas were going around the market. But these five coins have remained very quiet as only a handful of people know of these early barrillas because they were not as seen or as popular as the 1728 issue. It's also true that this little coin of insignificant value, when it was initially issued centuries ago, has added so much value over the years, especially to numismatic collectors. If you recall, in an auction last August 2020, at the Stacks and Bowers auction, a Philippine barilla dated 1728 was sold for more than $21,000, and another Philippine barilla dated 1733 was sold for $18,000.

Because of these pandemic prices, the Philippine Barilla has become a "victim of its own success." Several fake barrillas appeared in the marketplace, and we know of some guys they victimized. It had become some fake coin that came out of a real production line; they started appearing everywhere, and the culprits are still at large and have not been called out on this. However, these five barrillas came out when the prices of these coins were not going crazy. They came out at the height of what I would describe as "academic collecting." Where collectors then would collect to educate. They would discover coins and study them to document for future collections. So there was no "monetary" or "greedy" reason to fake these coins, as known numismatists and collectors like Dra. Angelita Legarda M.D. eventually documented them. So when coins like these have an accompanying "memo" that documents the coin's provenance, signed by Dra. Legarda herself, and when there are not many samples of these coins going around, unlike the 1728 issue, I believe these coins are as real as possible. If one examines the memo of Dra. Legarda closely she had received ten barrillas for "study and photography." Ten barrillas, and yet we only discovered five in the album. I wonder where the other five barrillas went?

It's always difficult to make a true diagnosis of whether a coin is authentic or not, especially when there are not many samples to go around to test and compare and not many documents to support them. But the circumstances surrounding these coins, from the way it was discovered to the way they were quickly documented and handled, not to mention the pieces of the puzzle that had to be addressed and put together, call for a compelling conclusion that they are indeed as authentic as they can get. No matter your motivation, whether you are a true collector of early Philippine coins, a lover of Philippine numismatic history, or a capitalist wanting to earn big bucks, these coins deserve your attention. When I first handled this "buried treasure" that was discovered in an office in Makati, I felt like it was such an honor and such a "historical numismatic treat" that led to a "pure orgasmic moment," from a numismatic point of view, of course.


1. This blog wouldn't have been possible without the help of my good friend Bayani. He is the author of the monograph entitled "Kalansing 1610-1766: Bariya at Kunding" where he did an in-depth study on Philippine Barrillas and the earlier Condins.

2. Video of Orientation test conducted for the two coins of Lot 117

3. Barrilla Monograph Vol. V. No. 3 (1978).


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