The Peruvian Coin that Shouldn’t Exist

From the moment humans decided that tiny bits of metal made more convenient currency than, say, chickens, people have been counterfeiting those bits of metal. Archaeologists who delve into the delightfully named field of numismatics (the study of currency) point out that such efforts are varied in their success. Spotting a fake isn’t always a matter of testing a coin’s composition. Sometimes you just need to check the date.

Such is the case of an 1899 Peruvian dinero (ten-cent piece) recently bought by the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima from a local dealer. The coin came in a batch of historical pieces that the university bought for its chemistry grad students to conduct tests on.

But then someone remembered that Peru didn’t mint a dinero in 1899. The students were studying a counterfeit coin.

“A field of opportunity”

As the economy of Peru struggled to recover from war in the late 19th century, the government concentrated on printing large denomination paper money, The New York Times explains. With a serious lack of silver coinage to go around, everyday citizens began using coins from neighboring nations, cutting their coins in half, and — apparently — counterfeiting them. Or as scientists who recently published a paper on the coin speculate, it was a historically contemporary ne’er-do-well from overseas who made the copy.

a graphic of coins side by side

The coin labeled (i) in this photo is counterfeit. The other coins are legitimate examples from roughly the same period. Photo: Luis Ortega-San-Martín and Fabiola Bravo-Hualpa


In the paper, the scientists describe studying the chemical composition of the coin. They eventually found that it contained metals and impurities suggesting it was not a recent counterfeit.

Primitive counterfeiting

“The refining methods were not as good as they are now,” Dr. Luis Ortega-San-Martin, an author of the paper, told The New York Times. Between the chemical composition and the wear on the coin, Ortega-San-Martin and his co-author Fabiola Bravo-Hualpa feel confident that someone produced the coin sometime around the turbulent years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

As to its overseas manufacture? That’s just an assumption, but it’s probably a sound one. Anyone going to the trouble of counterfeiting a dinero in Peru at the time would have been quite aware of the lack of coins minted in 1899. They would have made the date match a year that Peru minted coins. So it follows that the University’s newly acquired funny money came from a creative soul elsewhere.

“Someone saw a field of opportunity,” said Dr. Ortega. “[But] the counterfeiter probably didn’t realize that that coin didn’t exist.”

And Ortega knows that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. “There must be a few [more] around,” he said. So, if you happen to be a Peruvian coin collector, drop him a line. It’s just possible you have a wolf lurking among your s̶h̶e̶e̶p̶ alpacas.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).