An Imp For A Centime

Many of my literary tastes were forged in an 8th grade English literature class. I find myself going back to many of those short stories, fond memories of classic and modern literature in little bits with some analysis and language learning involved. One particular tale blew my mind, and planted a seed that has lasted decades — regarding international money systems. I know, I tend to grab on to the boring parts, but bear with me a bit, here.

The story is The Bottle Imp, a short horror-thriller by Robert Louis Stevenson. Keawe, the main character, buys a ‘genie in a bottle,’ so to speak: a bottle imp, a trapped magical being who grants wishes, but with the trope of there being tragedy in the reward. One of the rules of the bottle imp is if you die with it in your posession, your soul is lost. The only way to part with the imp is to sell it, in coin, for less than it was purchased for. Its original purchase was an immeasurable fortune; by the time Keawe gets it, the price is down to $50. Through the story, the price drops and drops, a game of hot potato with the immortal soul as its prize, until Keawe buys back the bottle for a penny.

Here’s the twist: Keawe learns that there are French Polynesian coins worth less than a penny. A centime, he hears, is worth a fifth of a cent, so the hot-potato game goes on until an unlucky sailor ends up with the imp for a single centime, and resigns himself to Hell with nary a complaint.

I believe my teacher explained the centime like a pre-decimal British half-penny, part of a monetary system with many more subdivisions than the U.S. dollar, but she was incorrect: just as there are a hundred pennies to a dollar, there are a hundred centimes in a franc. The truth has more to do with my last article. Keawe exploits the difference in value of international currencies — let’s do the math here. If you’ll remember, the Stella was set at $4 because 20 francs was worth about $3.92. That makes a franc worth about nineteen-and-a-half cents. So, you divide a franc into a hundred parts, and what do you get? Each centime is worth slightly under a fifth of a penny, just as Keawe discovers.

So, you have to give Robert Louis Stevenson a bit of credit for defeating an ancient horror through the vagaries of international currency conversion. Once Keawe is down to a penny, he sells the imp for five centimes — which doesn’t break the rules, because five centimes is ever so slightly less than a U.S. penny in value. Unable to break the currency down even further, and with an odd number of transactions to be made, Keawe is guaranteed to end with a single centime in his pocket and the bottle in the hands of another.

If you want an idea of just how worthless the centime was, fast-forward to 1960 and the introduction of the “new franc”. The nouveau franc was worth 100 of the deprecated franc, making the pre-1960 centime worth 1/100th of a new centime. By the time the 1980s rolled around, even the new centime was removed from circulation due to further devaluation making the coin useless. That centime was worth 0.15 of a eurocent at the time of conversion, or even less than the centime-to-penny conversion of the late 19th century.

If you held on to your centimes since the 1890s, you’d actually make a tidy profit in the collector’s market. 19th century centimes sell for a few dollars at sites like eBay, and are less common than the ten- or fifty-centime coins of the early 20th century. The progressive devaluation of the franc from the late 19th century into the mid-20th century resulted in a variety of changes in designs and metal content, making for a much more interesting collection compared to a complete set of U.S. pennies or quarter-dollars of the same time period. Just make sure you keep a handful of centimes handy: you never know when your eternal soul might be on the line in your international currency exchanges.

Stella?!? STELLA!

This Friday, Stack’s Bowers Galleries will be selling a rare gold coin that invites a strong Stanley Kowalski imitation to say its name. The “Stella” was a ‘pattern coin’, a sample design minted in its intended form for the purpose of evaluating its monetary usage. The Stella came out in 1879, in the unusual $4 denomination, as a hope of improving international commerce.

Through the 19th century, currency had been slowly evolving from being valued by a coin’s weight in precious metals, to simply the denomination stamped on the front. Coins were still made of precious metals, of course, but as the ease of international travel shrunk the world, the wide variety of international currencies made it difficult to take your U.S. gold coins with to Europe and trust an easy or reliable exchange into the local funds.

The time was also one of other changes. The Metric Act of 1866 authorized the metric system as a legal system of measurement for transactions in the U.S., following the lead of many European countries. Ounces, rather than grams, were still how American money was measured, complicating things. About that same time, European countries were attempting to standardize their currencies in the proto-Euro Latin Monetary Union. Each country’s coins were close, but not quite a even trade, and some were silver, some gold, so the hopes were that a single common currency could help facilitate inter-country transactions.

The U.S. hoped to get in the game as well, by producing its own coins that overlap with the standardized European money. Through the 1860s and 1870s, a few varieties of coins were proposed, but in the mid 1870s Iowan John A Kasson, one of the promoters of the Metric Act of 1866, found a reasonable overlap between a European coin and the American dollar. The eight florin Austrian gold coin, the equivalent of twenty francs, was just under $4 U.S. in value. Kasson’s plan was to mint a $4 coin, whose value in precious metals would be listed on the coin’s face in metric weight, for the purpose of international trade.

Two designs were made of the Stella: a “flowing hair” version, like the one in the Stack’s Bowers auction, and the “coiled hair” design, which is rarer. The “flowing hair” Stella was designed by mint artist Charles E. Barber; the “coiled” by George T. Morgan. Both designs were quite similar, and both shared the same reverse. The reverse design is what gives the coin its name: the center of the coin is filled with a large star — a “stella” — thus giving the coin a casual name, like the “eagle” gold coins which came as portions of $10.  Being worth $4 means it could be divided in fourths into smaller denominations, like a dollar and the $10 gold eagle were.

The Stella started out as a small mint run to show the size and weight of the coin to the officials who would evaluate approving the coin. The Stella never made it into production, in either design, but as was the custom of the time it was possible to request the U.S. Mint to produce pretty much any design it had dies for, for the cost of precious metals and seignorage. The Flowing Hair Stella was used to produce about another four hundred coins at the request of various politicians, and those are the most commonly seen Stellas today.

Identifying the difference between the pattern Stellas and the collectible-run Stellas is difficult for the non-expert, but there are a few clues. The pattern Stellas are much more exact in weight, and are of a much higher quality striking than the second run of coins. The second run coins vary in weight a bit, and many have some visible striations, a ‘grain’ in the metal, left from the manufacturing process of the original planchette that was struck. The Flowing Hair Stellas also often have a bit more wear, because they were passed around by the politicians who purchased them (and legend has it that many of the coins found their way into the jewelry boxes of D.C. madames). The Stack’s Bowers coin is of very high quality, but they do not specifically say whether it was one of the original pattern strikes or a later minting.

Wire Money of Earth and Elsewhere

All I know of A Game of Thrones is that the series, which I cannot watch due to a lack of HBO and/or time to devote, looks totally awesome. As with most stories with a devoted set of followers, the replica-makers come up with some pretty amazing stuff. A small mint has produced a set of Game of Thrones money, and I was particularly taken by the Dothraki Puli. This is a “chain” of coins, minted from a single strip of precious metal and designed to be left together as one piece of money, or cut off smaller denominations as needed. I was surprised to see the note from the maker, which says these coins were based on a Russian coin style that was used for nearly a millennium.

The common method for minting a coin is to start with a planchet or flan. This is a disk of the right size and weight for the intended coin, punched from a rolled-flat sheet of precious metals or cast from a blank mold. The disk is then placed between two dies, and are pressed or pounded to leave an impression of the obverse and reverse on each side of the blank. This tends to be more accurate for creating uniform size and weight of coins, although sometimes in the past the coins were cast with their fronts and reverses from the start, but that varied and depended on the material. Bronze, for instance, was a bit too hard for die striking and were cast entirely.

Beginning around 980AD, minters in Russia came upon a novel method of minting coins. They found that it was easier to control the uniformity of thickness and quality by starting with a wire of the precious metal, then cut it into lengths of the right weight, and then strike the coin from those wire chunks. Although the wire was flattened before the die striking, it gave the ‘wire money’ a unique look, oblong with obvious blunt ends were the wire had been cut off. This unique shape earned these coins the name ‘fish scales’ in the Russian language. The simplicity of the process kept it in use until the 17th century and the introduction of modern minting processes, and the last of these coins were made in the early 1700s.

You’ll note that this is quite a bit different than the fanciful Game of Thrones coins above, which retained their wire-like form. Actual minters and financiers would realize a large flaw in the Thrones money quite readily if it were ever used in practice. The weight of a coin in precious metals is something that requires uniformity to ensure that the coin can be trusted to be an accurate payment. “Reeded” edges on coins are designed to foil coin-shavers, people who cut off small amounts off the edges of coins to collect the precious metal and then spend the now-smaller coins at face value. Now, take a look at the Game of Thrones coins. If you were to pull out your string of wire money, you could snip off the requested denomination slightly smaller than needed, and hope that the merchant doesn’t check the weight. Then, you take the extra-long end you just made, and trim it off a little smaller than it should be, too. Do that enough, you get to keep a bunch of the copper or silver while shortchanging the people you do business with. Even the ‘pieces of eight’ were not commonly actually cut into eight pieces, at least not in common money dealings. I suppose, on far-off Westeros, they may have a different way of dealing with these fancy currency, but here on Earth we’re less trusting of hand-cut coins. Although the Shire Post website doesn’t currently have any of their wire coins for sale, real antique Russian wire coins are actually quite plentiful, and can be purchased many places for just a few dollars each.

$7.4 Million Brasher Doubloon

18th Century US coins are quite difficult to find. The Mint wasn’t even established until the 1790s, and until that time coins were minted from precious metals by foreign countries or private mints, and valued based on weight. Ephraim Brasher was one of those early minters, and in 1787 he created what we call today the “Brasher Doubloon”. Weighing at about an ounce, just the gold in a Brasher Doubloon would be worth over a thousand dollars just by weight, but the rarity of coins from that era drives the value up. Just last month, one of Brasher’s Doubloons was sold by Blanchard & Co for a record-setting $7.4 million dollars.

This particular Brasher Doubloon is the rarest of the seven known to exist. The other six Doubloons are marked with Brasher’s ‘chop-mark’ on the wing, but this coin, known as the DuPont Specimen, was stamped in the center of the coin, over the eagle’s shield. Aside from being one of the rarest gold American coins know, this particular coin has had an adventurous life of its own. On October 6th, 1967, thieves stole the Doubloon, along with many other valuable coins, from the collection of millionaire Willis DuPont. Although many of the coins were not recovered for many years, the DuPont Brasher’s Doubloon was recovered only a year later during a sting operation in Miami.

Since then, this Brasher Doubloon has been living a quiet life, exchanging hands a few times, and increasing in value with each sale. It doesn’t make it the rarest or most valuable of Brasher’s coins, though: Brasher also made a Half-Doubloon, of which only one known example exists.