Here's an article about the curious history of the Saudi silver one-riyal.
The Museum of Islamic Art yesterday announced that it has received a collection of 1,000 silver Saudi one-riyal coins from Saudi businessman Bassam Omar Salama.
The collection was among 3mn Saudi one-riyal coins minted in the United States in 1944 during World War II at the request by then Saudi king Abdul Aziz bin Abdurrahman al-Saud.
In a letter he sent to the museum on the occasion, Salama said he had received 3,000 silver Saudi one-riyal coins and was gifting 1,000 of them to the Museum of Islamic Art in recognition of its role in preserving rare Islamic collections.
Recalling the history of the rare treasure, Bassam said a cargo of 3mn silver Saudi one-riyal coins was shipped to the port of Ras Tannoura, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Regionm, during WWII.
But the ship that was transporting them, SS John Barry, never arrived.
Torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Arabian Sea more than 185km off Oman in August 1944, the ship broke in two and sank. She sank in waters so deep that no one thought she could ever be salvaged.
The treasure remained underwater until 1994 when a team of Bassam’s friends financed an operation to recover the treasure with the aid of the US government, which provided them with information about the ship and the cargo.
With the approval of Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, they established the Blue Water Company to recover the treasure, the Saudi businessman said.
Bassam added that in November 1994, using satellite and the state-of-the-art technology in the field of diving, the team recovered 1.4mn riyals from the total of 3mn riyals in an operation described by international media as the “strangest, biggest and deepest recovery operation in history
From the Wikipeedia entry on the SS John Barry:
The SS John Barry was a 7200-ton American liberty ship in World War II. The ship left its convoy under radio silence to go on a mission to Dhahran in Saudi Arabia when it was torpedoed 185 kilometers off the coast of Oman by the German submarine U-859 on 28 August 1944. Two crewmen were killed in the sinking and the survivors were rescued the next day.
The SS John Barry was carrying a cargo of 3 million American-minted Saudi one-riyal silver coins as an American payment associated with ARAMCO. The reason for this shipment (one of several during the war) was that Saudi Arabia did not use paper money at the time and this led to a war time shortage of currency with which to pay workers building new oil refineries and other US facilities at newly founded Dhahran.
Further information may be found in the 1995 book "Stalin's Silver" by John Beasant, published by Bloomsbury
There is more information in an article from the March/April 1997 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Minted in Philadelphia at Saudi Arabia's request, a cargo of three million silver Saudi one-riyal coins was shipped to the oil port of Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province, late in World War II. But the Liberty ship that was transporting them, the S. S. John Barry, never arrived. Torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Arabian Sea more than 185 kilometers (100 nautical miles) off Oman in August 1944, the John Barry sank in waters so deep that no one thought she could ever be reached.
Workers building the new refinery had to be paid; paper money was not yet in use in Saudi Arabia; and by 1943 the kingdom—and Aramco—had run short of riyal coins. The world economy was so unsettled that the riyals in circulation were valued more for their silver content than as a medium of exchange. Les Snyder, who was an Aramco employee in Dhahran in 1944, recalled that the company had to "scrounge for local supplies of riyals," even sending him to Riyadh to buy coins from merchants there.
The currency shortage was finally resolved when the Saudi government, under the terms of the 1941 Lend-Lease Act, arranged to buy silver in the United States to be minted into riyals in Philadelphia. The first American minted coins arrived in Saudi Arabia in the autumn of 1943, marking the beginning of a new relationship between Washington and Riyadh, and by the end of the war a total of 49 million riyals had been shipped unscathed from the United States to Saudi Arabia. The only consignment lost was on the John Barry.
Hudson says that building the recovery equipment and raising the coins from such unprecedented depths was a victory in itself. "It was a great relief that we found the riyals. It gave us all a buzz," he says. "It was rewarding to see such an effort prove itself."
Financial rewards were harder to come by, however. Almost exactly a year after the recovery, on a rainy November night in Geneva, the coins were put up for auction by Sotheby's as a single lot. In spite of heavy advance publicity, they failed to attract a bid at a starting price of about eight million dollars.
Coin reference books list the value of uncirculated 1944 riyals as about $12 each, so the entire hoard, if each coin could be restored to mint condition, might be valued at $15.6 million. Sotheby's representatives, in pre-auction interviews, described the coins as representing a unique "slice of history—more valuable than just the coins themselves."
To read the complete article, see:
Saudi businessman gifts rare coins to museum
Wayne Homren, Editor
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