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The Color of Money

Dr. Richard Doty
Curator, National Numismatic Collection
Smithsonian Institution

Everyone knows how coins look: copper coins are reddish-brown, gold and aluminum-bronze ones are yellow, and silver, aluminum, and stainless steel ones are white or grayish-white.



The color of a coin depends on its material, but it also depends on what that material has been through. For example, late third- and early fourth-century large Roman coins called follises or follei, stuck from copper with a thin surface plating of silver, sometimes bear hard, emerald-green encrustations. If you see such a coin, chances are good it was struck in Treveri (Trier, Germany), then buried not too far away. And ancient coins found in the Fayyum region of Egypt are often a bright robin's egg blue. I don't know why, they just are.

Modern coins rarely show such a chromatic range (although I know Morgan dollar collectors who go overboard about the sky-blue-pink coloration they occasionally encounter on cartwheels from rolls). The color of money is a personal choice, so I thought I'd show you one of my particular favorites.

It comes from a town in Bavaria called Landau. First mentioned in the early twelfth century, Landau was an up-and-coming place by 1300, sporting a monastery and membership in the Holy Roman Empire with free-city status. It was never known for coinage until the first years of the eighteenth century. But what it produced then was memorable.

Landau was in the crosshairs of the War of the Spanish Succession, as England, France, and Austria vied for control of the Spanish throne – and for the rest of Europe as well. Landau happened to be in the path of various contending armies; the town was besieged in 1702 and again in 1713 – once by the Austrians and once by the French.

Besieged or not, life had to go on. Money had to be found to pay loyal troops, to purchase supplies, etc. In common with many other places in similar circumstances during early modern times, Landau issued an emergency, siege coinage.

These were rough-and-ready media of exchange. They were rarely round, almost never beautiful – but that wasn't important. In practice, anything that could be cut into small, flattish pieces, valued in a recognized currency, and guaranteed by the issuing authorities was fair game. Landau's pieces, struck mostly in silver and rarely in gold, may not have been much to look at, but they did what they were intended to do.

The siege pieces struck by Austrian authorities came out towards the end of the war, in 1713. They bear the arms of Karl Alexander, prince of Württemberg, along with an abbreviated inscription PRO CÆS & IMP: – for the Kaiser and the Empire – along with a value (the weight of the metal, translated into local money), and four crowned royal ciphers, one at each corner. The coins were uniface, and every element was punched in by hand. The piece illustrated was worth two florin and eight kreuzer.

The French had had an earlier go, some eleven years previously. Their besieged leader (sporting the distinctly un-French name of Graf von Melac!) struck silver coins (simple affairs, as was only fitting in an emergency situation) in three denominations, 1 livre, 1 sol, and 2 livres, 2 sols, and 4 livres 4 sols. And here is where we return to the color of money. The Smithsonian has one of the middle-denomination pieces, whose appearance can only be described as Technicolor. Any cataloguer for any auction house would wax lyrical over the appearance of this coin – and for once he'd be right. Obviously made from a cut-off portion of a plate or bowl, the piece reminds us that war's about more than battles and countermarching armies, that there's a homely familiarity about it as well.

When I began making my first digital coin photos a decade ago, this was one of the first objects I shot. And it's still one of my favorites.

PCGS is a division of Collectors Universe, Inc. (NASDAQ: CLCT).

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