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coins of the month - march 2017
The French monetary concours of 1848-49
On 3 May 1848 the Provisional Government in Paris defined the basic character of the new permanent Republican coinage but not its images. A competition (concours) was initiated with a deadline in September, then extended until the end of October. The emblem of the Republic was intended to be a head and not a full figure reminiscent of 1792. The red cap of liberty was banned, and the new image of the Republic was meant to be “wise, calm and strong”, not a hotheaded insurgent on a barricade, nor a socialist supporter of the right to work and of economic equality. A total of 31 engravers submitted at least one proposal for the three modules expected (20 francs for gold pieces, 5 francs for silver and 10 centimes for copper). None of the submitted proposals identified the Republic with Marianne and the red cap, so popular among the Parisian crowds.
Greek mythology played a dominant role in the proposals, with a triumph of depoliticized gods and goddesses (Ceres, the sun god Helios with a crown of sun rays by Farochon, and others less clearly identified), heroes (Hercules wearing the skin of a lion of Nemea by Gayard) and decorative young girls. Other entries were adorned with a crown of children (Barre), a helmet in the shape of a French rooster (Alard), plumed Greek helmets (Vauthier-Galle), crowns of flowers, leaves or of city walls (Vivier). The symbols of liberty, equality and fraternity were often represented by the artists as tiny little elements, invisible to the distracted eye and often reduced to mere accessories of jewelry, like earrings, diadems, necklaces or fibulas. Liberty was represented by tiny red berets, flying swallows, cypress trees or broken chains. Equality and fraternity instead were confined to the more conventional representations (levels and shaking hands).
The winner for gold coinage was Merley, with a profile of the goddess of agricultural abundance Ceres, whose head was crowned by fruits, wheat and leaves and left a tiny space for a Republican symbol. We have it here represented in a lead trial strike.
Eugène-André Oudiné won the competition for the five francs, with another version of the same Ceres, carrying, barely visible, the word “Concorde”. It was a classical profile, with a straight nose and puffy cheeks, without any red cap, but with flowers and grain. The project initially proposed by Oudiné included also the three republican symbols, which were replaced in the final design by a much more neutral star. We have represented here the coin in its later incarnation, under the Government of National Defence in 1870, when the newly born Third Republic reminted it during the war against Prussia and the German Empire.
The winner of the prize for copper coins, Domard, never had the pleasure to see them enter the production phase. He had produced another bland pretty female classical beauty, possibly inspired by Syracusan coins of the fourth century BC, but it was overburdened by an accumulation of small symbols, to the point of invisibility, overshadowed by a girly necklace decorated with little hearts.
The trial strikes of all participants enjoyed a substantial circulation despite their lack of political and competitive success. The dies had been returned to the artists, who recovered the fruits of their labour by having private issues of their artworks minted in various different metals and sold to merchants and collectors, regardless of how beautiful or disappointing all those variations on the subject were.
The triumph of the winners was anyway short lived, like everything in France at the time. The whole process was rapidly undone by the President of the Republic, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who displaced Ceres by introducing his own portrait in French coinage in 1852, after the coup d’état which extended his Presidency and one year later re-established the French Empire. Jacques-Jean Barre, who had been classed second for gold, silver and bronze in the 1848 concours, engraved as compensation the portrait of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte on the 5 francs piece in 1852.
The winners were:
- 20 francs, Merley Ceres, REPUBLIQUE * FRANÇAISE ? ; Tête de Cérès couronnée d'épis et de feuilles de chêne portant glands, le tout maintenu dans le noeud de ses cheveux fixés en chignon bas et noués d'un ruban aux extrémités descendant derrière la nuque. Cérès porte un niveau en boucle d'oreille et un collier de petites perles, le tout entre un faisceau de licteur surmonté d'une main de Justice à gauche et une branche de laurier à droite, une étoile à six rais dans le champ la couronnant ; signé L. MERLEY F. au-dessous contre le listel.
- Eugène-André Oudiné. REPUBLIQUE * FRANÇAISE ? ; Tête de la République à gauche en Cérès, déesse des moissons, portant un collier de perles, un double chignon et une couronne composite de blé, fleurs, olivier et olives, chêne et glands, nouée par un ruban descendant sur le cou et passant sur le front où est inscrit le mot CONCOR ; sous la tranche du cou le long du listel E. A. OUDINÉ. F.
Luca Einaudi, Centre for History and Economics