When we think of coins we typically think of fairly small circular slabs of various types of medal. Some are slightly larger than others, have ridges on the edges, or even have a hole in the middle; what we don’t imagine is a large ‘plate’ of copper that weighs 1.5kg and measures 18.5 x 20cm. The Swedish riksdaler plate, was first minted in 1624 and was the currency of Sweden for several years.
From 1624, daler were issued in copper as well as silver. Because of the low value of copper, large plate money (plåtmynt) was issued. These were rectangular pieces of copper weighing, in some cases, several kilograms. (The largest one is worth 10 daler and weighs almost 20 kilograms (44 lb)). They circulated until 1776. As silver became scarce, the silver daler rose in value relative to the copper daler, with the exchange rate between the two eventually being set at a ratio of 3 to 1.
Use of copper for plate coinage began during the reign of Gustav II Adolf (1611-1632). The copper mine in Falun (Dalarna county) produced about 2/3 of the worlds copper at the time and the use of copper coinage was an attempt to control the price of copper to the advantage of Sweden.
There are no written accounts establishing exactly when mining operations at Falun Mine began. Archaeological and geological studies indicate, with considerable uncertainty, that mining operations started sometime around the year 1000. No significant activities had begun before 850, but the mine was definitely operating by 1080. Objects from the 10th century have been found containing copper from the mine. In the beginning, operations were of a small scale, with local farmers gathering ore, smelting it, and using the metal for household needs.
Around the time of Magnus III, king of Sweden from 1275 to 1290, a more professional operation began to take place. Nobles and foreign merchants from Lübeck had taken over from farmers. The merchants transported and sold the copper in Europe but also influenced the operations and developed the methods and technology used for mining. The first written document about the mine is from 1288; it records that, in exchange for an estate, the Bishop of Västerås acquired a 12.5% interest in the mine.
By the mid 14th century, the mine had grown into a vital national resource, and a large part of the revenues for the Swedish state in the coming centuries would be from the mine. The then king, Magnus IV, visited the area personally and drafted a charter for mining operations, ensuring the financial interest of the sovereign.
Sweden had a virtual monopoly on copper which it retained throughout the 17th century. The only other country with a comparable copper output was Japan, but European imports from Japan were insignificant. In 1690, Erik Odhelius, a prominent metallurgist, was dispatched by the King to survey the European metal market. Although copper production had already begun to decline by the time he made his report, something Odhelius made no secret of, he stated, “For the production of copper Sweden has always been like a mother, and although in many places within and without Europe some copper is extracted it counts for nothing next to the abundance of Swedish copper”.
By modern standards, however, the output was not large. Peak production barely reached 3,000 tonnes of copper per year, falling to less than 2,000 tonnes by 1665; from 1710–1720 it was barely 1,000 tonnes per year. Present worldwide copper production is 18.3 million tons per year
In 1643, the first plate money was issued in the denomination of 10 Daler SM. These plates were approximately 13 by 27 inches in size and weighed 43 pounds. Today, these first plates are rare and may only be found in museums. The Coinage Act of 1649 stipulated plates in denominations of 1, 2, 4 and 8 silver Dalers and after 1684 the denominations were 1/2, 1, 2 and 4 silver Dalers. Metal content also decreased over time such that 1 Daler SM weighed 3.5 pounds in 1660 and settled at 1.7 pounds in 1715. The last year plates were produced in large quantity was 1759 with some 2 Daler plates in 1760. There are also rare plates from 1768.
The plates have four corner stamps bearing the name or initials of the current monarch and the year of issue. The center stamp bears the denomination and the reverse is blank. Some plates have an additional stamp due to redenomination. Many plates show signs of the manufacturing process with hammer marks; the copper was formed into sheets of necessary thickness, cut to size with shears, and then stamped. This was hand work using large tools and gives each plate a unique character.
It is hard for most people to imagine using such coins in commerce. Illustrations of the era depict citizens with sacks of copper plates over their back or pulling a load of plates to the bank on a sled. This inconvenience was the catalyst for the creation of the world’s first bank notes. In the 1660’s, a bank was formed where plates could be deposited in return for a paper certificate of value. This paper money was an instrument which could be exchanged in commerce and the value repaid to the bearer in copper at the bank. This led to the creation of the world’s first central bank, Sveriges Riksbank (The National Bank of Sweden).
Today, around 11,000 pieces of plate money are known to exist across all years and denominations. Approximately 3,000 of these were recovered from the wreck of the trading ship Nicobar, which was discovered and salvaged in the 1980’s off the coast of southern Africa. On July 23, 1782 the Nicobar left Sweden with a load of recently undenominated plates to be traded at Danish posts on the Indian coast and the Nicobar Islands, east of India. On the way to the Cape of Good Hope it was forced to replenish on the west coast of Africa at False Bay, on May 20, 1783. On July 10, shortly after leaving False Bay, it was wrecked in a storm. Two hundred years later, local fishermen found the wreck.
Being such a numismatic oddity, plates are desired by collectors with widely varying interests. Prices range from a few hundred dollars for smaller sea water damaged examples to several thousand dollars for scarcer 4 Daler plates in nice condition.