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Carnival Treasures

Secrets of a good doubloon catcher

by Susan Langenhennig, Times Picayune, West Bank bureau

As a child catching the parades rolling down St. Charles Avenue, Rafael Monzon and his three brothers learned the fine New Orleans art of scrounging for doubloons.

It's hard to catch doubloons in hand, so parade-goers often fall to the ground to scout for the shiny aluminum coins as they rain down in a shower of purple, green and gold from the floats. But Monzon realized the secret is to remain standing and quickly move your foot gently over the doubloon, covering it as it hits the ground.

"We learned to put your foot down over the doubloon, but not all the way down, because you didn't want to scratch it," he said.

The brothers were on a mission from their mother, a doubloon collector and antiques dealer. She wanted one of each variety of doubloon thrown by the krewes.

"Once she got her set, we kept the rest," Monzon said.

Decades later, Monzon, who was raised in Algiers and now lives in Crown Point, has inherited his mother's doubloon collection and expanded it way more than tenfold. Safely enclosed in protective plastic covers and organized in giant binders and bins, the more than 200,000 doubloons in his collection span the modern day Carnival history, from Rex and Comus commemorative pieces from the 1960s to a 2006 Alla krewe keepsake doubloon.

Some of the commemorative krewe doubloons, made of gold, silver and bronze, are worth hundreds of dollars, while others, like the aluminum variety tossed from floats, are only valuable to Monzon because he likes the design or the colors.

"Some are priceless simply because I'll never sell them," he said Monday. "To my wife, who doesn't like parades, they're all worthless."

Monzon will talk to the Crescent City Coin Club about doubloon collecting and the restoration of doubloons that were left in flood waters at its meeting Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, 3314 Richland Ave. in Metairie. Nonmembers are welcome to attend.

Some of Monzon's collection was flooded in Hurricane Rita, and he's developed a technique for cleaning the heavy commemorative doubloons made of silver, which weren't thrown during parades but instead were kept as krewe keepsakes. Pulling out a silver Krewe of Helios doubloon, he held it up, showing the dark black "Katrina gunk" covering the surface.

Far harder to remove than standard tarnish, Monzon soaked the silver in ammonia for 24 hours and then cleaned it with silver polish.

"Coin collectors don't shine their coins; they collect them in their natural state," said Monzon, who also collects coins. "But to a doubloon collector, that doesn't matter."

Katrina also presented an opportunity for Monzon and other collectors. Realizing that hundreds of residents were cleaning out their attics and closets after the hurricane, he asked trash haulers around town to keep an eye out for discarded doubloons.

"So this trash guy comes back with two big bags of Rex doubloons sorted by date," containing about 4,000 doubloons. Monzon sold one set of 44 consecutively dated doubloons for $56 on eBay.

"There's this joke, 'Why do New Orleans' houses sink? Because they have too many doubloons and beads in the attic,' " he said with a laugh.

An engineer, real estate investor and father of two, Monzon trades and sells doubloons just to support his hobby.

"My wife said not to spend any of our salaries," he joked.

Monzon started collecting as an adult, simply seeking doubloons with dragon designs, because he's partial to the mythic creature. Then he started seriously seeking out doubloons when his mother gave him her collection.

The rarest doubloons in his collection are silver Comus and Momus commemorative pieces, but his favorite doubloon is a 1969 piece from the Krewe of Pandora because he likes its artwork of a woman.

In 1960, Rex became the first to toss the modern aluminum doubloons, after artist H. Alvin Sharpe designed a piece for the krewe with the words "Pro Bono Publico" on one side and "Monarch of Merriment," on the other.

"Right after that, other krewes picked up on it," Monzon said, adding that some krewes created commemorative doubloons prior to the 1960s to give as ball favors or keepsakes.

While he treasures the early ones, he's also partial to the modern doubloons. Each Carnival, Monzon adds to his collection, purchasing one of each doubloon thrown by every krewe.

"It's an addiction," he said with a big grin.