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47. What’s in a Coin?


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12th August 2012. We’ve written about this sort of thing before – see Diary #16 – but make no apology for a recapitulation. For coins, rather obviously, are steeped in history; indeed, coins are History. And we like History very much, especially that of the mid-19th & early 20th Century. So who better to start with, than Napoleon III of France? (1808 – 1873; Emperor of France 1852 – 1870.) His biography, were it to be published today, disguised as a romantic historical novel, would be laughed at as utterly exaggerated & implausible even as fiction. Yet he lived exactly such a life. We just read history, and do not comment on it. The coin above, however, is a different matter. I bought it today at a Coin, Banknote & Antiquities fair in my home city of Birmingham. We went on impulse, having a free Sunday morning, without any intention of buying anything. But browsing around, the ‘collector’s instinct’ arose… It would be nice, we thought, to have a coin of Napoleon III, as we had just read a biography of his wife, the Empress Eugénie (1826 – 1920!) Were any to be found, preferably cheaply? Oh yes indeed! On the table before me as I write are 38 bronze coins (all of 5 or 10 centimes) dating between 1853 & 1862, most of which cost either 25p or 50p each. (US 40¢ - 80¢.) The one above was rather more expensive though – and would have been more so did not each side have a serious scratch across it. Still, the design embodies the ‘Pride of Empire’ superbly, does not it? The reverse has the letter ‘B’ at the foot, signifying that it was minted at Rouen; on the obverse (that’s ‘the front’ to you & me – I am not a coin collector!) we find the name BARRE under the bust. That is Albert Désiré Barre (1818 – 1878), who was the chief engraver of the Paris Mint at the time. To the left of the date we see the head of a dog – which was the ‘sign manual’ of Barre; and to the right of the date is the device of a crossed hammer or pick & shovel that was the Rouen mint mark from 1853-57. Examples of this 10 centime coin minted elsewhere bore other letters or combinations thereof…


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Here is the same denomination coin in 1865. We see that Napoleon III has been given a Laurel Wreath. This would have been due to his victories at the battles of Magenta and Solferino, gained in a short but bloody war fought in 1859 against Austria, over the latter’s domination of northern Italy. French forces, allied with those of Piedmont-Sardinia, prevailed at Magenta on 4th June 1859. Three weeks later, the much larger Battle of Solferino took place, involving possibly up to 300,000 soldiers (see Wikipedia for both battles). This was also a victory, though costly, for the French and Piedmont-Sardinia; the slaughter and sufferings of the wounded were, as in any battle, terrible: but this led, directly and indirectly, to the founding of the International Red Cross movement, and to the Geneva Conventions on war. It was also the last major battle in world history, where both armies were led by the monarchs of the countries involved. Emperor Napoleon III led the French, and Emperor Franz Joseph (1830 – 1916) led the Austrians. And all this, from looking at an inexpensive coin! Prosaically, the ‘A’ on the reverse indicates it was minted at Paris… but though the bust still says ‘BARRE’, the symbol to the left of the date does not appear to be a dog’s head… this we will leave to the experts!


There are many enquiries to be found on-line, seeking the value of poor condition, low-denomination coins of Napoleon III. Their owners evidently expect (or hope) that they are probably rare & desirable. This is probably a tenuous survival of the immense reputation of Napoleon I? Undoubtedly, the value of a mint condition gold 20-franc piece of Napoleon III is another matter altogether! But for the rest, the bronze coins such as you see above, have little or no intrinsic value. On the other hand, extrinsically (I’ve always wanted to write that word!) they may serve powerfully to stimulate our interest in the historical period in which they were minted; not to mention their subsequent history – which, in the case of these coins, presumably terminated in 1870 with the Franco-Prussian War, the Paris Commune, and the Third Republic? But that is quite another story…





Page modified9th September 2012.