World Coins

Explaining a pair of French coin terms

The Research Desk column from Jan. 11, 2016, issue of Coin World:

The wide realm of French numismatics includes two specialized areas, coins of new and innovative design bearing the word ESSAI and pieces of massive thickness called “piéforts.”

“Essai” is translated as “pattern” or “trial” when it appears on designs or denominations that may not have been adopted for circulation.

“Piéfort” describes a coin struck on a planchet of greater thickness than that of circulating coins.

Piéforts are known from the 16th century, and historians believe these were “best foot forward” patterns deliberately struck on massive planchets to distinguish them from circulation pieces, publicize their designs to best advantage and demonstrate the skills of the Mint engravers who created them.

The great design competition or Concours of 1848 held to pick new coin designs for the Second Republic saw production of some spectacular double and triple-thick 5-franc patterns of remarkable beauty.

In the 20th century, the Paris Mint awakened to the boom in world coin collecting and began producing single piéforts and entire denominational sets for public sale. Charles DeGaulle’s Fifth Republic inaugurated economic reform with a new franc replacing the depreciated currency of the bankrupt Fourth Republic.

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It brought back the 1898 design of the last stable franc, La Semeuse, The Sower, created by the great engraver Louis Oscar Roty.

Roty was the mentor of American engraver-medalist Victor David Brenner, and his graceful franc presented the Republic in classic tunic sowing seed under a brilliant sunrise. The reverse bore an elegant olive branch and motto LIBERTÉ, EGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ.

The new 24.3-millimeter pure nickel coin was slightly larger than the 1890s silver coin, and its denomination featured a tall “1” unlike the stumpy digit of the older coinage.

Essai coins of the new franc were eagerly sought, and piéforts without the word ESSAI soon appeared. Fascinated collectors inevitably ask, “Aren’t these great rarities?” The piece shown is dated 1972 and bears cornucopia and owl privy marks. It is one of only 250 piéforts struck on 3.5-millimeter thick planchets with plain edges.

The low-mintage coin is by definition “rare,” but rarity is one thing, value quite another. Despite its small mintage, this 1972 piéfort franc catalogs at $25 or so.

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