21. May 2015 08:00
To keep and protect things after they are acquired
is no less a virtue than to acquire them in various ways
On June 24, 2015, Künker auctions a small series of portugalöser from the city of Hamburg. They are strongly associated with both the fight of a Hanseatic city against currency manipulations and the founding of the first Giro bank in Germany.
March 2, 1619, was the date when the Hamburg Giro Bank opened its doors. That was motivated by serious monetary problems the commercial city was facing. It had become almost impossible for an honest merchant to do sound business, with the money constantly diminishing in value due to currency manipulations during the Tipper and See-saw Time. That prompted the idea to skip the cash when selling and buying goods and to transfer money cashless from one account to another through a trustworthy, neutral institution controlled by the state. The system was modelled on Venice with its Banco della Piazza di Rialto as well as on Amsterdam with its Wisselbank.
The ‘Hamburger Bank’ (= Bank of Hamburg) was the first of its kind in Germany and highly successful. It was thanks to this bank that Hamburg became soon the third important banking place in Europe.
By German standards of the time the Bank of Hamburg was revolutionary. Nevertheless, it was far away from our modern credit institutions. There was no bank overdraft, neither any interest on savings. Anyone who intended to open an account with the bank was required to physically hand in his good silver coins. Which silver coins were good was specified by the bank management. These coins were converted into a book currency, the mark banco. 27 mark banco equaled a fine mark silver, for centuries. The silver paid-in was deposited in the vault and served as security for all transactions made through the bank. The bank account provided the chance to transfer money to another account virtually, without coins changing hands in the process. That could be done only on working days between noon and 1 p.m., with the account holder turning personally to the bank’s accounting clerk and handing in what we would call a transfer.
The Bank of Hamburg was the institution which the city government officially appointed mint authority when it decided to resume the production of portugalöser in 1653. The portugalöser were heavy gold coins of stable value, in the weight of 10 ducats. Even at that time, this denomination had a very long tradition. The Portuguese had brought the gold, which they had imported from Africa, in this form to Europe. Hamburg used to mint coins based on the Portuguese model, exhibiting the city’s coat of arms. Now, these gold coins of similar weight, in their Baroque splendor, praised Hamburg as city and port, as a center of commerce and finance.
Our example from 1672 depicts the panorama of the city, with its six steeples and the heavy fortifications thanks to which Hamburg had survived the Thirty Years’ War unconquered. As protection of the city as well as the port, two divine hands hold an umbrella with the Hebrew name of God inscribed on it. God, as the coin’s message reads, would protect both the city and the goings-on in the port.
Much more important than this view of the port, is the message of the other side. There, Mercury is shown, protecting the trade with his snake-entwined staff. On his right-hand side there is the coat of arms of the city of Hamburg, on his left-hand side – of the same size and hence of similar importance – there is the book of account of the Bank of Hamburg. Debet, for debit, and Credit are written on the pages. Mercury is supported by day and night, embodied by sun god Apollo and moon goddess Artemis-Selene. They stand on boxes, chests, money bags brimful of coins. Keys lie on top of these containers. The source of this wealth is shown above, a ship setting out for distant countries, in order to bring the riches to Hamburg, where they would be safely kept by the Bank of Hamburg. The inscription fits the topic perfectly. It translates: ‘For to keep and protect things after they are acquired is no less a virtue than to acquire them in various ways.’
The Hamburg bankportugalöser were a popular gift at christenings and weddings because of their careful manufacturing and their stable value. To address them as ‘mere’ medals would be too short-sighted, though. With its name, the Bank of Hamburg guaranteed that the portugalöser indeed corresponded to 10 fine ducats in respect of their weight and their fineness. They could always be traded in for 10 ducats.
The Bank of Hamburg existed until 1875, thus outliving both the Venetian Banco and the Amsterdam Wisselbank. The bankportugalöser, however, continued to be issued, though not at the equivalent value of 10 ducats but of 100 mark instead.
Hamburg. Bankportugalöser of 100 mark 1894 commemorating
the 500th anniversary of the Union of Hamburg and Ritzebüttel Castle.
Auction Künker 264 (June 24/25, 2015).
Estimate: 1,500 euros.