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Coins of Panama: What You Might Not Know
By Dr. R.S. “Bart” Bartanowicz, Paul Green and David Plowman
June 18, 2012

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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This article’s title, “Coins of Panama” might be also be titled or rephrased to “Coins found, used and collected in Panama.” While these coins don’t make the headlines of World Coin News or Numismatic News, there are dedicated collectors of Panamanian coins such as the members of the Isthmian Collectors Club. Realistically, unless one is into world coins he or she might never have seen Panamanian coins, but they are indeed available. You can see them at many coins shows as well as on Internet auction sites. Here in the U.S., our exposure to foreign money is pretty much limited to Canadian and Mexican issues; conversely, the citizens of the Republic of Panama have been exposed to and used a large variety of coins from different parts of the world prior to and during their short history as a republic.

2012 Coins of the World 1901-2000: Central America
2012 Coins of the World 1901-2000: Central America

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World coin collectors and devotees of collecting Panama coins most likely know the following story. But let’s take a look at Panama before we delve into numismatics. A short geography and history course will help put things into perspective.

Geography and History

Panama is an isthmus, which, by definition, is a relatively narrow strip of land (with water on both sides) connecting two larger land areas. Looking at a map, one can see that Panama is the narrowest point of land connecting North and South America. On the western side, it faces the northern Pacific Ocean, and on the eastern side, it faces the Caribbean Sea leading to the Atlantic. Before European exploration, the Native Americans transited the jungles to both coasts trading and hunting.

The first European to explore Panama was Rodrigo de Bastides in 1501; however, it is Columbus who gets the credit. In 1502, Columbus claimed the land for Spain during his journey down the Caribbean coast of what is currently Central America. Much of Central America basically credits Columbus as being the first and most important representative of Spain to appear on their shores. Conversely, in Panama it is the Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa who is seen as the most important personage. On Sept. 1, 1513, Balboa began his trek from the Caribbean shores through the Darien Jungle, heading inland toward the “great or large waters” that the Native Americans had spoken about. On Sept. 25, 1513, from a hilltop he was the first white man to see the Pacific after crossing Panama by foot. It would take him another four days to actually set foot in the Pacific on Sept. 29.

Crossing Panama was dangerous and dreadful by any measure. As such, Balboa became an iconic figure in both Europe and Panama. On Nov. 21, 1821, Panama declared its independence from Spain, uniting with Colombia and becoming what was called a Department of Columbia. Some 80 years later in 1903, Panama declared its independence from Colombia.

Panama selected Balboa to grace the obverse of its coins. The reverse portrays the Panama shield, or coat of arms. The other iconic figure appearing on Panama’s coins (in 1935) is Urraca, the native tribal leader. Urraca fought against the Europeans and was never defeated. Urraca appears on the obverse of the 1-centesimos piece. Both men still adorn the coins of Panama to this day. Panama actually got its name from a local Indian fishing village, and Pedro Arias de Avila (known as Pedrarias) mentioned it in a letter to the king of Spain in 1516. Story has it that the name meant “many fish.” From the start, Panama was a favorite place for looting by pirates and others. The isthmus was a popular land route from the Atlantic to Pacific side. So early on Panama was on its way to becoming a crossroads where all sorts of goods became available, including different monies.

Following Balboa’s journey across the isthmus, the Spanish under Pedrarias built a roadway to transport the gold and silver from the conquered Indians of Mexico and Peru across the isthmus. This roadway, the “Old Camino Real” or “Royal Road,” picked up again in importance several hundred years later during the start of the 1849 California Gold Rush. The Camino Real was a short-cut as compared to ships sailing around the tip of South America, called Cape Horn. The other route across the “Wild West” was treacherous in terms of being physically taxing (fatigue and disease) as well as being fraught with danger. The trip involved weeks in a covered wagon trying to survive while not running afoul of hostile Native American tribes and trying to avoid the outlaws who were running afoul of everyone. The “Forty-Niners” were in a rush to the California gold fields, so the land journey across Panama probably seemed like the best option compared to the longer journey by sea. In 1855, after five difficult years of construction, the cross-isthmus Panama Railroad was opened. While the rail was still not an easy journey, it was no doubt considered luxurious when compared to the road.

Even with a railroad, the idea of a canal was seriously talked about. The narrow Panamanian Isthmus appeared to be the place best suited for a canal. With a canal, ocean-going vessels would no longer have to suffer the treacherous waters off of the southern tip of South America. The construction of the Panama Canal would open a new safe route, saving both money and time at sea. The canal idea gathered momentum. The great powers of the world wanted a quicker and shorter way to move goods and services, as well as military forces, across the world. The severe conditions of hacking through the jungle began to be looked upon as something possible with all the advances in machinery and engineering. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 proved that modern engineering could overcome difficult environmental and engineering challenges. (Of course, as we all know, the Panama Canal was much different. There was the danger of diseases such as yellow fever and a formidable jungle compared to the sea-level desert Suez Canal.) A French firm employing Count Ferdinand de Lesseps (who engineered the Suez Canal) received a contract to begin construction on a canal in 1876. The company failed in 1894 after numerous technical issues and a lack of adequate financing.

The United States, under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, pushed for a canal. Military interests were important, particularly after the difficulties of bringing the battleship, USS Oregon, from the Pacific around Cape Horn to Cuba during the 1898 Spanish-American War. In 1903, the U.S. had negotiated the Herran-Hay Treaty with Colombia to build a canal, but the Columbian Senate failed to ratify the treaty. Panama was disappointed because they saw the canal as an opportunity to advance the country economically. They decided to secede – with U.S. encouragement. Thus it was that Panama established itself on Nov. 3, 1903. The United States recognized the Republic some two weeks later on Nov. 18, 1903.

The Panama Canal would prove to be something that would set Panama apart from its neighbors in a variety of ways. The new nation, unlike its regional neighbors, would be welcoming significant numbers of people from other nations and serving as a financial center and purveyor of international goods and monies from all over the world. Of course, it also meant that foreigners (especially the United States) would have a great deal of influence in Panama.

Construction of the canal began in 1904 and employed some 40,000 workers. It was completed in 1914 at a cost of 380 million dollars. As they say, the rest is history.

Today the Republic of Panama is bound by Costa Rica to the West and Colombia to the East. The capital is Panama City, and the country has an approximate population of a little over 3.4 million people and some 29,157 square miles of territory. As you walk along present day Balboa in Panama City, you are looking at a modern skyline of a 21st century city.

The Panama Canal is a great source of national pride. The Panamanians have proven to the world that they can indeed operate the canal on their own – despite dire predictions to the contrary when the canal was turned over to Panama. There are also contrasts. You might take a step back in time by stepping on a bus in one of the towns on the Costa Rican border. You could find yourself seated next to someone holding a chicken. You might also be taken aback by the practice of travelers roping their dogs to the roof of the bus! All of a sudden the modern skyline hardly seems to tell the whole story.

Despite certain periods of unpleasantness between the United States and Panama, the ties between the countries are certainly substantial. American tourists are once again coming to Panama not only to view the canal but also to absorb local culture. Putting politics aside, modern Panama has a growing, prosperous economy and great possibilities especially brought about by the recent widening of the canal to accommodate super-sized ships.

The Coins of Panama

Following independence, Panama was quick to establish its monetary system. The first objective was to replace the Colombian peso. The Republic wanted its coins to be on parity with the U.S. so the coins would be of equal denomination and value. The denominations would vary over the years including denominations that would seem odd to us such as the 1/2, 1-1/4 and 2-1/2 centesimos pieces. Agreement was reached that the coins would be manufactured by the U.S. Mint. (While the U.S. has minted much of Panamas coins, over the years Panama has used private concerns as well as other foreign mints to produce their coins.) One should note that the coins were not minted on a year-to-year basis, and some were only minted for a short period. The initial silver denominations were 2-1/2, 5, 10, 25 and 50 centesimos. The diminutive 2-1/2 centesimos is the smallest coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint.

The first coins were dated 1904 and struck at the U.S. Mint but were not issued until Feb. 12, 1905. The treaty between the countries specified the fineness of coins and the denominations. Unfortunately, the size issue was not adequately addressed. By way of example, the 50-centesimo piece that was set at 90 percent silver was approximately the same size as the U.S. silver dollar.

In terms of currency, the decision was made to use U.S. dollars, which were officially called Balboas. This would mean that if someone wanted change for a 1-Balboa bill ($1 U.S.), two 50-centesimo pieces could be given in change.

This equality/parity problem was finally overcome in 1930 when resized silver coins in the denominations of 1/10, 1/4 and 1/2 Balboa were introduced, bringing them up to compatibility with U.S. coins in size and weight. Thus, for instance, a 1/2 (50 centesimo) Balboa was the same size and fineness as a U.S. half dollar. A 1-Balboa piece was introduced in 1931 that was the same fineness and weight as a U.S. silver dollar. Additionally, as mentioned, the 1-centesimo piece was introduced in 1935 bearing the likeness of Urraca. In 1966, the Republic followed the U.S. lead and changed the metal composition of its coins.

The design of the coins has for the most part used Balboa as the obverse and the Panama coat of Arms (designed by Nicanor Villalz and drawn by his brother, Sebastian) on the reverse.

A unique design is the 1-Balboa silver coin struck in 1931, 1934, 1947 and 1953. The obverse features Balboa. The reverse is a unique and artful design portraying an allegorical female of a Panamanian Lady Liberty. The reverse, designed by famed Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis, was recognized by the staff at the Philadelphia Mint as one of the most beautiful designs ever produced. For 1953, the 50th anniversary of the Republic, the 1 Balboa was struck at the Mexico City Mint. The legend was altered to reflect the 50th anniversary issue and the design was somewhat modified and shifted to accommodate the changes to the legend.

From time to time, the issue has come up as to what is the obverse and reverse on Panamanian coins, especially in the case of these 1 Balboa issues. Panamanians consider the Balboa portrait as the obverse. These four coins are highly sought after. Uncirculated issues (with the exception of 1947) are difficult to come by and are much appreciated when found.

Panamanian coins have been collected by U.S. employees of the Canal Zone and military personnel assigned to the various facilities in the Canal Zone. These coins have also been available as proofs in very small numbers such as some 10,000 sets in 1972. Proofs have been struck by the U.S. Mint and Franklin Mint as well as by other foreign countries. Experienced collectors appreciate the level of detail in these collectible coins.

Of course, Panamanians use their national coins in daily commerce. But as previously stated, they have also had coins from all over the world circulate in their economies, especially U.S. coins from the large American presence over the years.

What do Panamanians Collect and What Might You Collect?

A significant collection from Panama is likely to require the latest “Coin Market” guide found in Numismatic News as large numbers of U.S. coins have been in Panama for a century. A coin collector in Panama would be expected to have a collection of mostly Panamanian coins with perhaps some regional coins from neighbors such as Costa Rica or Honduras. The reality is that it might turn out to be a collection of U.S. coins.

Rumors of big collections circulate in any country in Central America. One rumor in Panama was that a complete Morgan dollar collection had been assembled from circulation. In fact, when you think of all the tourists coming to Panama starting in 1914 to watch the ships navigate their way through the Panama Canal, assembling a complete Morgan dollar collection (except for the 1895, which was a proof-only issue) would not be out of the question. As we said, it’s a rumor.

Perhaps the most extraordinary rumor from Panama was that the family of a man who worked on the construction of the Panama Canal had actually sold a rare and extremely valuable Panama-Pacific $50 gold commemorative to a jeweler. It sounds ridiculous, but realistically the average Panamanian family and especially one removed from the Canal Zone would be unlikely to collect coins. In fact, except for their knowledge of U.S. issues, they would not be much more likely to have a coin collection or awareness of coin values than a family living in Nicaragua or Guatemala. The idea that a worker, proud of his efforts, would have purchased one of the $50 commemoratives is still not out of the question and neither is the sale of a coin worth perhaps $25,000 even in circulated grades to a jewelry store for its gold value! That is possibly closer to the rule than the exception. With no information and no coin dealers nearby throughout Central America, the selling of silver and gold coins for their metal value is rather commonplace. While selling a Panama-Pacific $50 might be extreme, it is certainly a very possible situation. Even if this isn’t true, it makes a great story!

Panamanian citizens who are collectors probably have a rough road in assembling a collection of their own coins. Early silver coins were pretty much melted down or fashioned into jewelry. Another situation is that better issues might well have ended up in the hands of U.S. collectors working in the area. Whatever the situation, the coins of Panama are basically a one-century collection. As you peruse Krause Publications’ Standard Catalog of World Coins, you will see mintages in the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands. There are also large mintages in the millions. This can be both good and bad – depending on whether or not you have the desired coins.

There are certainly excellent issues in the early mintages. Truly nice examples of some of the first issues from 1904 are better coins than many realize. If one wants to put together a nice set of “representative coins,” there are several must-haves such as the diminutive 2-1/2 centesimos silver piece known as the “Panama Pill” or “Panama Pearl.” They are available but not necessarily in abundance. This 1904 issue will run in the range of $25 to $35 in About Uncirculated. Another choice would be the 1904-05 50-centesimos issue. These coins are pricey and in Extremely Fine run about $125 for the 1904 issue and $250 for the 1905 issue.

Leaping ahead to the 1930s and beyond, the 1947 1 Balboa featuring the artistry of famed Panamanian artist Roberto Lewis on the reverse is an excellent value, running about $60 in AU-58. The 1/2 Balboa of 1947 would be another choice, running about $50 in AU-58. Finally, the 1-centesimo piece featuring Urraca is a must. There have been changes made to Urraca’s portrait over the years, but the first issues of 1935 and 1937 with small mintages of 200,000 coins each year are something that would be nice to have. The coins usually command about $30 to $40 in better grades of About Uncirculated. More recent issues can be had for a few dollars.

Of course, there are numerous other issues with different people on them and special themes, but the ones mentioned above would certainly constitute a nice representative and historic grouping. The first one or only one to buy? Consider the 1904 2-1/2 centesimos Panama Pill.

One of the unfortunate episodes with Panamanian coinage is the great commemorative rush. Sensing a market for commemoratives, such as has taken place in the U.S., there was a flood of issues starting in the 1960s that reached tsunami size in the 1970s. This was helped by an agreement with the Franklin Mint. It saw Panama issue any number of issues that, while called commemoratives, should probably have been called money-raisers. (Does this sound similar to some earlier U.S. commemorative programs?)

For a brief period, it was going pretty well. Some of the coins like the Panama Treaty 10 Balboas have a reasonable purpose, but others like the 20-Balboa silver piece measuring 61 mm were really just a way to get premium prices for silver. In fact, the 20 Balboa with its large size really was an interesting coin, being dubbed “hockey pucks” by some. Compared with the historic 1904 small 2-1/2 centesimo Panama Pill, it seemed to represent the opposite extreme in terms of size for coins of Panama. In reality, the 20 Balboa was never really taken seriously as a coin that might circulate or even be generally available in Panama. That said, a lot of the coins were sold until the whole fad basically ran out of steam as the United States reentered the market with commemoratives and bullion coins in the 1980s.

Under the circumstances, if you go to Panama and attempt to find interesting deals on coins, you are likely to run into an odd assortment of old and new from the U.S. and Panama and other places as well. What might you find? Certainly Spanish colonial issues, French coins, British, Central and South American, Asian coins and of course U.S. coins. You will see coins used as jewelry or made into other adornments. How these coins arrived in Panama is something that sparks the imagination. It’s the sort of unusual mixture Panama seems to foster.

The total of the above is that Panamanian coins can be elusive, and perhaps the reality is that the bulk of the better issues reside here in the United States. Hunting the stalls and markets in Panama remains a popular local activity because you never know what you might find, and it usually will be cheap.

If only the coins could talk, what stories they might tell!


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On August 25, 2012 Angel Pe? said
Nice article. I am a panamanian and a small panamanian coin collector. Relating to the face value of the Balboa vs the US Dollar; It has being my understanding that from the year 1904 until 1930 value set was 1 Balboa = 2 US Dollars. Until an agreement was reached in 1930 to make the value par.
May do you good to prove me wrong as there is written references for this and perhaps other sources are wrong?

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