A familiar coin flashed before my eyes while watching the movie
version of Les Miserables this winter.
A scene that purports to show a pile of early 19th century French
gold coins shows no such thing.
The coins on the screen bear the profile of a bearded man in the
center of a circle of dots. I knew the coin immediately. I played with
the same type of coin as a child and treasure it now in my later years.
The movie’s “gold” coins were actually highly polished bronze
10-centime pieces of Napoleon III.
The coin was minted from 1852 to 1865, 20 and more years after the
1832 June Rebellion in Paris that ends the Victor Hugo story.
When I was a boy, my dad carried one in his pocket, though I
didn’t know what it was at the time. His father had kept the coin as a
pocket piece before him.
The reverse, with its eagle design, was worn nearly smooth from
almost a century of jangling in my grandfather’s and then my father’s
pockets, along with God knows how many Seated Liberty, Barber and
Indian Head coins.
I imagine my grandfather had the coin in his pocket when he worked
as a telegrapher in western Ohio at the turn of the last century,
perhaps picking it up from a passing immigrant on the railroad.
My father acquired it at the death of his father at the start of
the Great Depression.
I latched onto the coin before my father died 40 years ago, but
don’t recall exactly when.
I do remember dripping wax on it from a lighted candle as a child
to “preserve” it. It still has a slippery feel, so I guess the
Still visible on the obverse is the image of a bearded man within
a circle of dots. Also visible is the legend: NAPOLEON III EMPEREUR
and the date 1862.
That date, coincidentally, is the year Victor Hugo published the
book on which the play and movie are based.
Only the center part of the eagle and parts of a few scattered
letters are visible on the reverse. The single letter A is clearly
visible below the eagle.
Foreign coin catalogs were hard to come by in the 1950s and 1960s
when I was a child and provided only rudimentary information.
With the help of Fred Reinfeld’s Catalogue of the World’s Most
Popular Coins, I was able to puzzle out that the coin was a
French 10-centime piece. Later I was able to identify the A as the
Paris Mint mark.
The coin, which is worth no more than a dime, is a cherished part
of my collection, perhaps more valued than any other piece.
As collectors we prize coins that come with stories. And no
stories are as good as the ones that involve family.
Gerald Tebben is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel.