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All Posts Tagged With: "History of Money"

An Example of Yap Island Stone Money to be Auctioned During ANA’s Boston Coin Show

Yap Island is part of the Federated States of Micronesia, and is notable for its stone money, known as Rai: large doughnut-shaped, carved disks of (usually) calcite, up to 4 m (12 ft) in diameter (most are much smaller). The smallest can be as little as 3.5 centimetres (1.4 in) in diameter. These stones were probably little used before 1800, and the last pieces were produced in 1931. Prior to traders arriving at Yap, the Island Chief controlled the stones.

There are five major types of monies: Mmbul, Gaw, Fe’ or Rai, Yar, and Reng, this last being only 0.3 m (1 ft) in diameter. Many of them were brought from other islands, as far as New Guinea, but most came in ancient times from Palau. Their value is based on both the stone’s size and its history. Historically the Yapese valued the disks because the material looks like quartz, and these were the shiniest objects around. Eventually the stones became legal tender and were even mandatory in some payments.

The stones’ value was kept high due to the difficulty and hazards involved in obtaining them. To quarry the stones, Yapese adventurers had to sail to distant islands and deal with local inhabitants who were sometimes hostile. Once quarried, the disks had to be transported back to Yap on rafts towed behind wind-powered canoes. The scarcity of the disks, and the effort and peril required to get them, made them valuable to the Yapese.

In 1871 David Dean O’Keefe, a sea Captain from Savannah, Georgia was shipwrecked on the island. During his 30 years on the island, he obtained much fame in the islands, and considerable fortune, by gaining control of the stone quarrying. His exploits were brought to light in a 1954 film starring Burt Lancaster called, His Majesty O’Keefe. O’Keefe then traded these stones with the Yapese for other commodities such as sea cucumbers and copra. Although some of the O’Keefe stones are larger than the canoe-transported stones, they are less valuable than the earlier stones due to the comparative ease in which they were obtained. Approximately 6,800 of them are scattered around the island.

As no more disks are being produced or imported, this money supply is fixed. The islanders know who owns which piece but do not necessarily move them when ownership changes. Their size and weight (the largest ones require 20 adult men to carry) make them very difficult to move around. Although today the United States dollar is the currency used for everyday transactions in Yap, the stone disks are still used for more traditional or ceremonial exchange. The stone disks may change ownership during marriages, transfers of land title, or as compensation for damages suffered by an aggrieved party. It is now illegal to remove the stones from Yap Island, with severe penalties for disturbing the stones.

The piece Heritage is offering in its Boston Sale is a premium example of Yap Stone money, in exceptional condition: smooth round calcite stone with center hole quarried on Babekldaop Island, in the Pelew group of Islands, and transferred back to the island of Yap, 40 lb., 5 oz., 15-1/8 inches in diameter.

This Yap Stone belongs to the Numismatic Association of Southern California and was donated to the club many years ago by a primitive money collector. It has been displayed at numerous coin shows in California since becoming the property of the club. The NASC , in an effort to raise money for operating expenses, reluctantly consigned this wonderful item to Heritage for auction at the ANA.

Heritage, in their ongoing support of numismatics, has waived the seller’s fee, and 100% of the hammer price of the Yap Stone will go directly to the Numismatic Association of Southern California. Estimate: $5,000 – $6,000.

Lot 21988 – 2010 August Boston, MA Signature ANA World Coin Auction #3010