Old World, New Ideas
Kevin D. Goldberg began collecting European coins as a Middle School student in suburban Philadelphia. Three decades later, he still collects European coins, but now in suburban Atlanta, where he teaches in the Department of History & Philosophy at Kennesaw State University. He earned his Ph.D. in European History from the University of California, Los Angeles, and was a postdoctoral fellow in the International Humanities at Brown University, 2011-2013. Kevin has been planning on expanding his collection beyond Europe for the past decade, but is only now getting around to it.
Frankfurt's Numismatic Past and Present
While a defense of Frankfurt’s worthiness as a tourist destination lies beyond the scope of this article, I do wish to call attention to the city’s importance in numismatics, past and present. Home to the European Central Bank, one of the largest monetary institutions in the world, Frankfurt is arguably the epicenter of global currency policy. Its Messe, the busiest in Europe, brings in almost $1 Billion in sales annually. Frankfurt is the wind that powers the EU’s and Germany’s economic sails.
Frankfurt is centrally positioned along a North-South and East-West crossroads in Europe, a privileged location that has for over a millennium attracted merchants, bankers, and hard specie. By the 1100s, Frankfurt had secured its reputation as a commerce-friendly town and had begun to benefit from the imperial privileges that would later allow it to prosper as a Free City, unencumbered by the squabbling of petty princes and noblemen. Even the Messe can be traced to this same century, with one its earliest documented mentions found in a Hebrew literary text written by Rabbi Eliezer ben Nathan of Mainz. Without question, the late middle ages were a boom time for this former Frankish fort on the Main River.
Frankfurt’s history as a coining city dates back about 700 years. The Holy Roman Emperor granted Frankfurt the right to mint small coins in 1346, though permission to mint a full gamut of silver and gold coinage (and, more importantly, to keep the revenue derived therefrom) was not gained until 1555. From the start, the city’s coins were in high demand because the mint had earned a reputation for not skimping on precious metal content, another factor which attracted traders to Frankfurt.
Although Frankfurt had established
itself as the preeminent commercial city in German territory by 1600, the city
council had to navigate an environment in which multiple currency types and
weights passed through town gates, especially at its by-then renowned Messe. In short, there were three general
currency systems to balance between 1400 and 1600; Rhenish, North-German, and
Bavarian-Swabian (South-German). The Rhenish contingency, led by the Archbishop
of Cologne, would soon falter, leaving North and South German currency
associations salivating at the prospect of greater alignment with Frankfurt’s mounting
wealth. The accounting system at Frankfurt was a concern for traders across the
continent, and the city became a hub for the vital, Europe-wide currency trade. In this fertile commercial field, the international banking houses of Metzler, Oppenheimer, and Rothschild (among others) would rise to international fortune.
The nineteenth century was no less dramatic for Frankfurt. Due to its reputation for progressive economics and politics, the city played host to the parliamentary crusaders of 1848. Revolutionaries from across the land attempted to unify Germany under a constitution and to liberalize the economy, in part by creating a common currency. The movement failed, but Frankfurt further solidified its reformist stance vis-à-vis the reactionary courts in Berlin and Munich. In fact, Frankfurt would stubbornly hold on as a Free City until its seizure by Prussia in 1866. Frankfurt’s coinage had come to an abrupt end, though the city's mint would still operate in the new German Empire.
Fortunately for collectors, Frankfurt’s coins capture the city’s former beauty and stateliness. The coins appeal to all types of collectors, including those seeking breadth with attractive small denominations as well as those desiring depth and a striking centerpiece for their showcase. While Frankfurt may be unfairly deemed not worth visiting today, collectors of German States coinage would be remiss overlooking its brilliant numismatic past.