The story behind the 1953 Jose Marti Centennial series
April 5, 2020
After the National Bank of Cuba was established by Law 13 of December 23, 1948, two commemorative series were issued, the 1952 emission to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Cuba, and a year later the 1953 emission to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jose Marti. Both emissions, although commemorative were intended for and were placed in circulation.
The 1953 Jose Marti commemorative emission consisted of three silver pieces and a brass 1 centavo. The silver pieces were issued in peso, 50 centavos (half peso) and 25 centavos (quarter peso), the last two being a departure from the 20 centavos and 40 centavos that had been used from 1915 to the year prior, 1952. Dr. Joaquin Martinez Saenz, President of the Banco Nacional de Cuba, entrusted the design of the coins to Dr. Esteban Valderrama, a renown Cuban portraitist and sculptor who was well-known for his Jose Marti portraits.
Dr. Valderrama sketched out multiple designs with the bust of Jose Marti on the obverse and the denomination on the reverse. The design that was sent to the Philadelphia mint was selected by the then President of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista y Zaldivar.
For the obverse design, Dr. Valderrama elected a version of the bust of Marti of his design, which was difficult due to the lack of profile drawings of Marti, with only one available to Dr. Valderrama by Venezuelan artist Cecilio Almeida Crespo. Dr. Valderrama intentionally departed from the traditional bust of Marti used in the 1915 and 1916 gold coins, electing instead an effigy of Marti in his preferred modest frockcoat and tie that Marti used as a teacher. The legend 1853 . CENTERNARIO DE MARTI . 1953 can be seen around, with a small star to the left of the bust.
Interestingly, the reverse of all three silver pieces was the same in the design proposed by Valderrama, similar to what came to be the reverse of just the 25 centavos piece, with the Phrygian cap with star on fasces, denomination on the right and weight and fineness on the left, REPUBLICA DE CUBA above and PATRIA Y LIBERTAD below.
The obverse of the brass centavo piece was identical to that of the silver pieces, but the reverse bears the triangle with the lone star as seen in the Cuban national flag, splitting the denomination (1 on left, C. on right) and 2.3 G. and 300M above, reflecting the weight and alloy composition of 300 parts of zinc and 700 parts of copper, and REPUBLICA DE CUBA above and PATRIA Y LIBERTAD below. Curiously, Dr. Valderrama mentioned in a 1953 interview that although he created the drawing for the centavo piece reverse, the actual design may have been created by Batista, then-President of Cuba.
Although as previously mentioned all three silver pieces carried the same reverse design, Dr. Valderrama had drawn an alternative design for the 25 centavos piece at the request of Dr. Martinez Saenz, which included the famous Marti phrase “Con todos y para el bien de todos” (with all and for the good of all) in five lines on a scroll. Due to time constraints, the original designs submitted to the Philadelphia mint, sharing the reverse design, were hastily approved by Dr. Valderrama during his visit to Philadelphia in 1952. However, he publicly invited General Batista to consider the alternative design in an open interview in Bohemia magazine in early 1953.
Starting in late 1952 the brass 1953 centavos pieces were being struck at the Philadelphia mint, followed by the 25 centavos pieces through May 1953, which created a 6 month window of opportunity to introduce changes to the design of the larger 50 centavos and peso pieces. Although the details of how the changes came to be are not clear to us, it is conceivable that Dr. Valderrama’s public and private invitations to consider the alternative design had an effect and avoided what would have otherwise been a monotonous reverse design in this series. The 50 centavos reverse design adopted the scroll design initially sketched out for the 25 centavos pieces, and the peso piece adopted a design based on an enlargement of the chief of the national shield.
Top grade NGC*
Top grade PCGS*
* As of publication of this post on April 4, 2020.
The official mintage figures for the 1953 Marti Centennial are summarized in the table above, ranging from 1,000,000 peso coins to 50,000,000 centavo pieces. All four coins in the series can be considered common, but they are surprisingly hard to find in gem uncirculated condition. Except for two 25 centavos examples graded at MS 66 by NGC, no other pieces from the 1953 series have been higher than MS 65 by either NGC or PCGS, one or two grades lower than what’s seen with the other First Republic series. Actually, the poor quality and condition of the 1953 Marti Centennial pieces drew early criticism from the public and the numismatic community, with the Cuban Numismatic Society officially protesting (see clip below). Contemporary studies from The Cuban Numismatic Society and by Thomas Lismore estimate that about or less than 4% of the coins directly from the mint bags (70 out 2,000 coins) were devoid of bag marks and scratches, which they attributed to the hastily produced coins, design flaws such as the low rim and poor quality of the coin blanks which showed brown spots.
We hope this article adds some dimension to an otherwise underappreciated series of Cuban coinage. Art, politics and history coming together in a truly remarkable numismatic story.
As usual, feel free to build with your own comments and/or insights, and to ask questions if we left any details out.
Q: Can you publish the text of the Cuban Numismatic Society protest?
A: While we don’t have a copy of the official letter of protest, we have a copy of the July, 1954 issue of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine in which the note of protest of the Cuban Numismatic Society on the poor condition of the 1952 and 1953 commemorative series was published: