At noon on October 22, 2009, the main hall at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona was filled to capacity. There had been more than 1,200 requests to attend the event, but only 200 people had been selected to witness the auction house Áureo & Calicó offer collectors from across the world a chance to buy a gold coin made in Segovia in 1609, under the reign of Philip III of Spain. The piece was denominated in escudos – a currency used until the early 19th century – and was part of the Caballero de Yndias collection, a compendium of over 2,000 coins that once belonged to a Spaniard who had settled down in Cuba.
The starting price for this unique item – measuring 71 millimeters and weighing 339 grams – was €800,000 and that was without factoring in an additional 18% in fees. Only one individual at the auction, a Swiss man identified simply as Number 74, rose to the challenge: he paid €944,000 for the 100-escudo piece, making it the most valuable coin in Spanish history.
The Spanish government, then led by Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Socialist Party (PSOE), was unable to exercise preferential acquisition rights because the coin had been “a temporary import,” meaning that it had been brought to Spain from abroad exclusively to be sold at the auction.
“A coin is worth precisely what someone is willing to pay for it at any given moment, but as an investment, it is not safe. It is ruled by the laws of supply and demand to a superlative degree,” notes the expert Jesús Losada in his book Las monedas españolas más valiosas (or, The Most Valuable Spanish Coins), which explores the biggest global auctions to 2021 involving these sought-after objects.
In his book, Losada explains that the coin purchased by the unknown Swiss collector was originally made at the Royal Mint of Segovia, the only facility with the necessary machines to craft it. Doing so involved inserting sheets of gold “through two cylinders that were activated by a large hydraulic wheel as many times as necessary, until a sheet of the required thickness was achieved.” This thinner sheet would then pass through two other cylinders to strike both sides of the coin with the appropriate design. There are only seven other known facilities in the world with this kind of machinery.
The second-most-valuable Spanish coin ever sold at auction was minted in Pamplona in 1652 during the reign of Philip IV. It is an eight-escudo piece that once belonged to the collection of Archer Huntington, a 19th-century philanthropist from New York who donated it to the Hispanic Society of America. When the museum found itself in dire financial straits, it was forced to sell off its 38,000-strong collection. The sale took place at Sotheby’s in March 2012 and raised $30 million (€26 million). The Spanish coin was bought for €614,250 and auctioned off again in November of that year.
As for the third most valuable Spanish coin ever sold at auction – another 100-escudo piece made in 1633 under Philip IV – only four of them are known to exist: one is kept at Spain’s National Archaeology Museum, another one belonged to the Prince of Ligne (a Belgian lineage) who sold it in London in 1968, and a third was in the hands of a collector from Milan known only as L. B. who auctioned it off in 2019 for €590,000.
On July 31, 1715, a large fleet of Spanish galleons laden with riches sank off the coast of Florida after departing from Havana on its way to Spain. A hurricane destroyed 11 out of the 12 ships, and more than 100,000 coins ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of them have since been found by treasure hunters who offer them to auction houses, even though legally they belong to the Spanish state because they were part of a shipment on state-owned vessels. One of these coins went on sale in 2009. Minted in Mexico in 1695, under the reign of Charles II, the buyer paid €448,000 for the eight-escudo gold piece.
But not all the most valuable coins sold at auction are made of gold. The seventh spot is held by a silver eight-real coin minted in 1538 in Mexico during the reign of Queen Joanna I. It was sold by the auction house Daniel Frank Sedwick for €469,400 in November 2014, thus becoming the most expensive Spanish silver coin in history. This coin was legal tender in the United States until 1857, “which means these eight-real coins were the true first dollars” in America, according to Losada. Two more such coins are known of, both of which were plucked out of shipwrecks.
Losada also notes that there are other old coins that have never been auctioned off, making it hard to know their market value, but which he estimates at above €1 million. He mentions 50 examples from the days of the Catholic monarchs in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, including “a real gem weighing 176 grams with a diameter of 66 millimeters, minted in Seville between 1497 and 1504.” Until 2012, this too belonged to the Hispanic Society of America in New York.
The Cortes de Monzón, an early parliamentary body, gave Charles I of Aragón “the biggest coin of all time,” a 100-ducat piece weighing 349 grams with a diameter of 83 millimeters. It was a thank-you gift for getting behind the construction of the Imperial Canal of Aragón, a project to divert water from the Ebro River to feed the farmland in what is today Zaragoza. The coin shows the faces of Joanna I and her son Charles with the legend in Latin “Iona et Karolus reges aragorum trunfatores et katolicis” (or, Joanna and Charles monarchs of Aragón triumphant and Catholic). During the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon, it was stolen by the latter’s troops and is now on display in Paris, at the National Library.
Losada’s favorite, however, appears to be a large coin made under Ferdinand IV of Castile, “an impressive and unique” gold coin weighing 45 grams with a diameter of 67 millimeters, which is undated but believed to have been made between 1304 and 1308. This coin is now at the Valencian Institute of Don Juan in Madrid.
Losada seems surprised that no Spanish coins, despite their rarity, technical quality and good state of conservation, have ever reached a selling price of $1 million (€880,000) at auction, whether in Spain or abroad. The most expensive coin ever sold is a double eagle, a gold coin made in the United States in 1933, with a denomination of $20 (€18). This past June, a collector paid €15.4 million for it even though there are 12 others just like it. “But that’s a whole other story,” says Losada.
A millionaire German doctor is facing criminal charges after vaccinating an estimated 20,000 people with a self-developed vaccine against Covid-19.
Some 200 people were queueing for a jab at the airport in the northern city of Lübeck on Sunday when police arrived and closed down the improvised vaccination centre.
A police spokesman said doctors had already administered about 50 vaccines: not from BioNTech or Moderna or another recognised producer, but a home brew by Dr Winfried Stöcker.
The controversial doctor, who is also the owner of Lübeck airport, insists his jab is 97 per cent effective against Covid-19.
Dr Stöcker was not present, did not administer vaccinations and faces no charges, according to his lawyer Wolfgang Kubicki, a leading member of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), which is part of Berlin’s new coalition government.
Lübeck state prosecutors see things differently. On Monday, they announced an investigation into four doctors, aged between 61 and 81, for involvement in the unauthorised vaccination centre.
Dr Stöcker may also face legal action for running an unlicensed vaccination campaign, which is considered a criminal offence under Germany’s Medicines Act.
Contacted by the Bild tabloid, Dr Stöcker said he had not submitted his vaccine for approval because the process would “take too long and cost millions”.
“We have a responsibility to the patients, not the state, but the police stopped everything,” said the 74-year-old.
In May 2020 Dr Stöcker claimed to have developed a traditional vaccine – without any external assistance – similar to that used against tetanus, using inactive pathogen cells to activate the body’s immune system.
The doctor says he tested the jab on himself and some 100 volunteers before rolling out the vaccinations around the country. In total, he claims some 20,000 people have received a dose of his vaccine.
“Some 2,000 of them are under observation, no side effects were noted to date,” he said. “There were virus breakthroughs in 10 people.”
On his website, he says his “Lubecavax”, a three-dose vaccine, has proven highly effective. Some 376 friends and colleagues were vaccinated with the substance during the summer, he wrote, and “97 per cent developed high concentrations of antibodies against coronavirus”.
“In our view the ‘Lübeck vaccine’ is safe, effective and presumably the most suitable vaccine for children,” he adds in a blog post. “Doctors have the right to mix together compounds that they believe will help people.”
In this assertion he is drawing on a 2000 German constitutional court ruling which forbade federal authorities from prohibiting an experimental treatment of two doctors using stem cells.
News of the rogue vaccination has horrified German medical authorities. The Paul Ehrlich Institute, which is responsible for approval of medicines and vaccines in Germany, said on Monday it had offered Dr Stöcker assistance with testing in September and December of last year, but that he had not responded to the institute’s offers.
The hurdles to vaccination licensing “are deliberately high”, the institute added, “to ensure the maximum possible security for participants in clinical trials”.
Christmas trees aren’t just for Christmas, at least for the Cork business with a pot-grown tree initiative that sees householders rent their tree in early December and bring it back to the farm in early January, to be cared for all year around.
Colm Crowley from Glanmire says his 5ft trees, which are rented out for €40 a year, are a very sustainable way to celebrate Christmas.
Customers can rent or buy a living Christmas tree in a pot from Cork Pot Grown Christmas Trees. The rented ones are then taken back to the farm in Rosscarbery, west Cork, after the festive season.
“I started off with small pot-grown trees and I started selling them for €10 or €15 and a lot of customers were coming in asking, ‘have you anything bigger?’ It got me thinking that there was a market for bigger pot-grown Christmas trees.
“With the pot-grown trees, they are never dead. They are always alive. They continue to take up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide oxygen as well,” he says.
“They come with a care leaflet. The water would be the big one: making sure they have enough water but not too much because too much would cause root rot,” he says.
“I found that pot-grown trees are very big in America and it has started spreading to Germany and the UK. I knew that Irish people would love it.”
It takes 12-14 years to grow a Christmas tree from seed, with a lot of work involved in pruning, shaping and making the tree perfect.
“It is only used for four weeks. With the pot growns, we get to use the tree over and over. That said, cut Christmas trees are also very environmentally friendly because when a tree is cut in November, another one or two are planted in spring. With the pot growns, between November and spring that cycle continues, so for those few months the Christmas trees continue to take the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and provide oxygen.”
As rental trees will continue to grow throughout the year, Crowley is anticipating customers not recognising their tree when it is returned to them the following Christmas.
‘Exact same tree’
“They send me pictures looking for the exact same tree,” he says.“With the rentals, you are getting the same Christmas tree you liked and picked out. But it will have continued to grow. There is a lovely smell – you are bringing a bit of forest in your house.”
Crowley says the real Christmas tree business has grown hugely since he first started selling, from his mother Margaret’s house in Ballinlough, Cork city, in 1998 before moving to bigger premises.
Last year was particularly buoyant for sales as families sought to create a festive atmosphere during the pandemic.
“Sales right across the country were probably up around 50 per cent. People wanted a bit of happiness. They needed cheering up.”
Customers are encouraged to name their trees, with the two most popular names being “Spruce Springsteen” and “Woody”.
The father of two adds that he couldn’t survive the December whirlwind without the hard work of wife Jacqui and mother-in-law Rose.