World Coins

Medal applauds French efforts to build Panama Canal

An 1880 silver medal from France celebrates the French efforts at building the Panama Canal, which ultimately were not successful.

Images courtesy of Stacks’ Bowers Galleries.

Commemorative coins and medals generally celebrate successful endeavors, but a silver medal that Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ Nov. 8 Baltimore auction offers was issued for a grand project that was, in hindsight, a failure.

The 1880 medal commemorates the French efforts to build the Panama Canal, an effort plagued by a shortage of engineering input to the original plans and deadly diseases that felled thousands of workers in the tropical climate. The French ultimately abandoned the project, which Americans completed a few decades later. 

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The idea of cutting across the isthmus of Panama had been a dream for centuries when the French, after successful Suez Canal efforts in flat and sandy Egypt, decided to make a go at it, under the direction of Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had led the Suez efforts.

The Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interoceanique formed in 1876 and two years later obtained permission from Colombia (which then owned Panama), and work began in earnest. 

In that context, the 1880 medal in the Stacks’ Bowers auction was issued.

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Famed French sculpture Louis Oscar Roty was commissioned to create the medal. The obverse shows Marianne, the allegorical embodiment of France, embracing two sea gods who clasp hands in welcome, surrounded by an inscription in French translating to “piercing the isthmus of Panama.” The reverse of the medal bears inscriptions suggesting that the medal was presented to subscribers (or investors) in the canal project, in early December 1880. 

The medal measures 34.5 millimeters in diameter and weighs 17.2 grams. 

The auction house describes the piece as Mint State with “attractive pearl-gray toning with abundant multicolor iridescence.”

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