Union et Force: A coin of the French Republic, minted under Napoleon

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On September 22nd 1792 a new era began. This is due to the fact that on this very day the French Republic was founded. Everything was going to be new and logic: from the calendar, where a decade equaled 10 days, a day 10 hours, an hour 100 minutes, and a minute 100 seconds, to the meter and, not to forget, the kilogram.

Of course, the currency needed to be revolutionized, too. Though, not only because everybody was so convinced of the new decimal system. That was a side effect. Primarily, the economical situation needed to be consolidated. In 1789 assignats had been introduced. At first this paper money was received well, but then it lost value to the point where merchants were not willing to trade their goods for it anymore. A new currency, called “mandat territoriaux”, took its place in February of 1796, but suffered the same fate. With that, all business came to a halt. The Directory and its currency reform, which had been in planning since the summer of 1795, was standing with its back to the wall. The economic dissatisfaction let a new revolution become highly probable…

France. Consulate, 1799-1804. 5 franc gold pattern, year 10 (1801/02). The only known specimen in private hands will go over the auction block at the Künker Berlin-Auction under lot 499 on February 4th, 2016. The estimate is 125,000 euros.

A commission preparing the currency reform was founded. And this commission worked systematically. A statement released on the 28th of Thermidor of year 3 (for non-revolutionaries: July 29th, 1795), stated in its 4th paragraph what the future 5 franc piece was to look like: “As for the type, the silver pieces will bear the figure of Hercules, who unites Equality and Freedom, with the inscription of unity and power. On the reverse, two entwined branches will be engraved, oak and laurel, with the legend reading ‘French Republic’. In the center the denomination will be placed. In the exergue, in Arabic numbers, the year of the republican era will be displayed. On the edge, it will read ‘Garantie nationale’”.  
Dupré did create the agreed upon design as we see it on the pattern: A powerful Hercules in heroic nakedness, only clothed in the fur of the Nemean lion, stands between two female personifications. The figure to his right, characterized by carrying a staff with a Phrygian cap on top, represents Freedom. With one nude breast and loose hair she reminds the Amazon of Freedom Dupré had depicted on another medal. The figure to the left is holding an archipendulum, which stands for equality of all citizens. In the exergue, the name of the artist can be found. He was, at the same time, chief engraver at the Paris mint, and so bearing responsibility for the dies. This is represented by the small Artemis to the left of Freedom, whereas the rooster on the right of Equailty represents Charles-Pierre de l’Espine’s mint master sign.

You may wonder, why you are finding Hercules in the middle of the revolutionary allegories. The reason is simple: The Greek hero used to be a symbol of the French King. And after the downfall of Louis XVI this image was transferred to the French people. Henceforth, the people were the sovereign and therefore Hercules. It is in this context that one understands the legend better, which in today’s eyes, couldn’t be more aggressive: the unity of the French people creates a power, which withstands any enemy.

It was, in fact, mainly enemies, who paid for the French currency reform. On March 25th, 1797 the Italian army sent 51 Million in seized foreign currency to Paris. And another 21 Million came from other war zones. Because of that, the French mints had enough gold and silver to strike the new coins.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1812.

But the economical upturn was still not happening. To an up and coming general, who lead the troops of the Revolution from victory to victory, this presented an excellent opportunity. Through a coup d’état Napoleon Bonaparte made himself the first consul of the Republic on the 18th of Brumaire (November 9th, 1799). That made him a de facto autocrat, although publicly it wasn’t supposed to be perceived that way. This is why he waited almost 2 years before he changed the republican coin design of the 5 franc piece by putting up his own portrait.

Our gold pattern derives exactly from this transition period; from the French Revolution to the Napoleonic Empire. It is the only known specimen in private hands and up until now was located in the Napoleonic Museum of the Counts of Monaco. It was Louis II, the great-grandfather of now ruling Albert II, who had bought it for his collection. The historically highly interesting piece in perfect condition and with excellent pedigree is estimated at 125,000 euros.

Please read the CoinsWeekly preview of Künker’s upcoming Berlin Auction here.

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