World Coins

Waging war through coins: Fake silver targets Russia

This article comes from our April 2017 monthly issue of Coin World. Want to get all of our content, including special magazine exclusives? Subscribe today!

During the Seven Years’ War in the 1750s and 1760s, Frederick II (“the Great”) found himself battling Russia’s queen Elizabeth I. 

The Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763) might be understood as the first global war in history: all major European powers were involved and the conflict was fought on five continents. One of the major theaters of this war was East Prussia, where the goals of Russia’s Elizabeth I clashed with those of Prussia’s leader, King Frederick II (the Great). 

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Tempelhofer Münzenhaus-Berlin on April 6 is auctioning a comprehensive collection of coins related to Frederick the Great. One of those coins is a rare imitation made on behalf of Frederick in an attempt to sabotage his opponents. 

England and Portugal were joined with Prussia against Russia, France, Sweden and the House of Habsburg in Austria, among other alliances. Geographically speaking, East Prussia was an exclave in the Polish kingdom, but was under local control because the Polish ruler had waived his sovereign rights in 1657.

Elizabeth I sought and gained control of East Prussia, hoping to use the territory in a swap with Poland to expand the Russian Empire further west. 

Russia’s success in claiming East Prussia, ever tenuous, included the manufacture of local coinage at the Königsberg Mint between 1759 and 1762 (the Moscow Mint would later be called upon to meet demand for Prussian coinage). 

Though traditional denominations remained, the designs were changed to incorporate Elizabeth I and, on larger denominations, Latin legends. The reverse, on the other hand, remained Prussian: It features the crowned eagle with scepter and imperial orb. Furthermore, every denomination clearly states its value, and the gröscher even features a legend that explicitly declares it a coin of the Kingdom of Prussia.

Unlike the practice of some contemporaries when issuing new coins for territory claimed in war, Elizabeth I maintained the same level of silver in the coins as was in previous Prussian issues, and lesser value silver coinage was removed from circulation. 

Public counterfeiters, however, acting on behalf of King Frederick II, soon produced imitations of the of 18-gröscher coin, but with a considerably reduced silver content, in an effort to defraud the Russians, a foray into economic warfare. 

These imitations, produced in Berlin, are recognizable by their obverse legend. Instead of RUSS, they state RUSSIA or RUSSIAE.

The eventual death of Elizabeth I proved fortuitous for Frederick II, who found himself nearing defeat time and again before achieving a narrow victory. 

When the Russian ruler died, she was followed on the throne by Peter III, an ardent admirer of the Prussian king. Now possessing the power, Peter III immediately began peace negotiations, and an agreement was signed July 8, 1762. Although the next day, Peter III was dead thanks to a coup by his wife, East Prussia remained a component of Prussia. 

The April 6 auction offers a 1759 imitation 18-gröscher coin struck in Berlin to mimic the Russian coins struck for Prussia. 

The coin, graded Extremely Fine, has an estimate of €1,200 ($1,288 U.S.). 

That’s about 15 times the estimate for a similar, authentic coin of the same period also offered in the auction, meaning Frederick II and his imitation pieces get the last laugh. 

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