The Piastre in French Indochina

By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..

In 1847, after the Nguyễn dynasty of Vietnam had executed several members of the French Catholic missionary community for continued proselytizing after the criminalization of such actions, French Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly sailed into Tourane Bay (modern Đà Nẵng) and opened fire on the defending Vietnamese forces. When the smoke cleared after the “Bombardment of Tourane“, 40 defenders were dead, 90 were wounded, and 104 were missing. Eleven years later, the Nguyễn regime executed a couple of Spanish missionaries. Shortly thereafter, an allied force of Spanish and French ships sailed into Tourane and bombarded the city once again.

Prior to this era of French colonial domination, Vietnam had struck a series of large silver coins worth 7 Tien each that were aimed at competing with imported Spanish 8 Real coins. Called Dragons due to the reverse design, the first issuance of this type dates to the regnal year 13 (1832) of Emperor Minh Mang. These coins were struck on planchets weighing between 26.30 and 26.70 grams of silver, similar to the contemporary 8 Real. While the weight decreased steadily until the series was discontinued in 1883, similar coins were struck by Mang’s successors, Thiệu Trị and Tự Đức.

Vietnam Silver 7-Tien, Year 15 (1834). Baldwin’s AuctionsHong Kong Coin Auction 57, Lot 639 – 21/08/2014
Vietnam, silver 7-Tien, Year 15 (1834). Baldwin’s Auctions. Hong Kong Coin Auction 57, Lot 639 – 8/14/2014.
Vietnam (Annam), Tu Duc (1847-1883), silver 7 tien. St. James AuctionsAuction 37, Lot 805 – 27/06/2-16.
Vietnam, silver 7 tien, (1847-1883). St. James Auctions. Auction 37, Lot 805 – 6/27/2016.

Eventually, mere suzerainty was not enough for the colonial authorities, and the French eventually set up the Indochinese Union to govern the peninsula. After pouring massive amounts of money into the colony during the first several decades of direct rule, French Indochina was France’s only “fully self-financed and zero-cost colony” (Trân, 2022) by the outbreak of World War I. Much of this money came in the form of silver 1 Piastre de commerce coins, the first of which were struck in 1885 by the Paris Mint. These coins were the main denomination for the French-controlled areas, with each Piastre being divided into 100 cents, and each cent being worth between 2 and 6 sapèques depending on time and location.

These new French coins followed in the footsteps of the earlier Vietnamese 7 Tien dragon-type coins and competed with the still-circulating Mexican 8 Real coins. By 1885, the price of silver had begun depreciating rapidly and there was a need for a unified currency across Southeast Asia. The 1 Piastre coin, struck from 27.215 grams of 90% fine silver, was equivalent in metal value to its Spanish counterpart. In fact, the very name “Piastre” derives from the term “pieces of eight”. These early coins were fixed at an exchange rate of 1:5.37 silver francs. Created by the famed French sculptor and medalist Jean-August Barre, this design was highly symbolic, with a figure of Marianne (the French version of Lady Liberty) seated on a throne holding a fasces and wearing a radiate crown. To the left of her throne are several bundles of wheat and to the right an anchor. REPUBLIQUE FRANCE surrounds her. Ringing the reverse is the legend INDO-CHINE FRANÇAISE – TITRE 0,900. POIDS 27.215 GR. The Paris mint mark “A” can be found in the center of the design.

French Colony Proof Piastre 1885-A Genuine (Altered Surfaces) PCGS, Paris mint. Heritage AuctionsAuction 3065, Lot 30265 – 28/6/2018
French Colony Proof Piastre 1885-A Genuine (Altered Surfaces) PCGS, Paris mint Heritage Auctions
Auction 3065, Lot 30265 – 6/28/2018.

That first year, only 800,000 pieces were struck, making the inaugural issuance extremely rare. The year 1886 would be the high water mark for this first type, with a mintage of 3,216,000 million coins struck. However, on July 8, 1895, two important economic events occurred. Firstly, the French authorities banned the further importation of Mexican trade dollars. This protectionist regulation was followed by a modest reduction in the Piastre’s weight from 27.215 to 27 grams. The design, however, remained the same.

This new type was struck annually from 1895 to 1910, again in 1913, and was paused due to World War I. In 1921 and 1922, the Piastre was struck at the San Francisco Mint in the United States and the Heaton Mint in Birmingham, England – the only times these coins were struck anywhere other than Paris. These dates are distinguished by the mintmark located on the reverse: A for Paris, H for the Heaton Mint, and no mintmark for those struck in San Francisco. Production resumed in Paris in 1924 and continued until 1928.

French Indochina 1921 Piastre. Stack's Bowers Galleries2013 Hong Kong Auction, Lot 53434 – 19/08/2013
French Indochina 1921 Piastre. Stack’s Bowers Galleries. 2013 Hong Kong Auction, Lot 53434 – 19/08/2013.
French Indochina. Piastre, 1921-H. NGC MS-62. Stack's Bowers Galleries.
French Indochina. Piastre, 1921-H. NGC MS-62. Stack’s Bowers Galleries, Lot 53438 – 8/19/2013.

Two years later, the colonial economy hit the nadir of an economic depression, and on March 31, 1930, the value of the Piastre was inflated to a 1:10 ratio against the Franc. Additionally, when the new type was issued in 1931, the silver content was reduced dramatically by over one quarter – from 27 to 20 grams. Additionally, while 13,288,273 coins were struck in 1931 and 2,711,727 were produced in 1932, all were backdated to 1931. As a transitional issue, these 16 million coins saw the first substantial design change to the series since its inception in 1885. The brainchild of famed French engraver Edmond-Émile Lindauer, this new design was more in line with the contemporary Art Nouveau movement.

The obverse depicts a classical bust of Marianne facing left wearing a Phrygian cap with a laurel wreath. The legend REPUNLIQUE FRANCAISE runs just inside of an intricately detailed scalloped border. The reverse, a modernization of the previous type, depicts the denomination within a keyhole-shaped wreath influenced by local Southeast Asian motifs.

French Indochina 1 Piastre 1931. Katz Coins Notes & Supplies Corp.
French Indochina 1 Piastre 1931. Katz Coins Notes & Supplies Corp. eAuction, Lot 550 – 9/18/2022.

Interestingly, the Commission for the Modification of the New Piastre had considered creating a second, smaller Piastre. This coin would not only weigh 20 grams but would also be struck from 68% fine silver. There were fears, however, that this type would be rejected because other regional circulating coins were of finer quality. As a result, the new 20-gram 90% fine coin was issued. In an unusual move, a number of trial strikes were produced in order to test and adjust the new dies. These were all canceled either by being cut in half or being punched through. But because it was a trade dollar, the silver weight was essential to the coin’s value, and as a result of this reduction in weight, these new coins were not widely accepted by the local population and the type ceased production after only one year.

French Colony silver Cut Cancelled Trial Piastre, 1931 UNC, Paris mint, Auction 304329304. 11.12.2015.
French Colony silver Cut Cancelled Trial Piastre, 1931 UNC, Paris mint, Auction 3043, lot 29304 – 12/11/2015.
French Colony 1931 Trial Piastre. Image: Heritage Auctions.
French Colony 1931 Trial Piastre. Image: Heritage Auctions. Auction 3050, lot 37469, 12/8/2016.

It was also the last Piastre based on the silver standard before the colony transitioned to the gold standard. This was necessary due to the steep drop in price of silver on the international market; between 1926 and 1930, silver lost over 50% of its value (Taylor, 2016). The reduced Piastre was fixed at a value of 655 milligrams of gold, or an approximately 1:27 gold/silver ratio. The silver intended for further Piastre coins was instead shifted to the production of silver Yunnan-Burma trade tael coins. Often used explicitly in the opium trade with China, these coins are called “Opium” Taels and were struck from 1933 until 1944.

Kölner Münzkabinett Tyll Kroha Nachfolger UG. Kölner Münzkabinett Tyll Kroha Nachfolger UG
Auction 103, Lot 1249 – 6/30/2015.
Kölner Münzkabinett Tyll Kroha Nachfolger UG. Kölner Münzkabinett Tyll Kroha. Nachfolger UG
Auction 103, Lot 1249 – 6/30/2015.

When the Japanese invasion of 1940 brought war to the region yet again, the Piastre was re-set at an exchange rate of 0.976 Piastre to 1 Japanese Yen. As French officials retook control after the war, the Piaster was pegged to the Franc at the pre-war rate of 1:10. Yet by December 1945, the rate was raised to 1:17 Piaster/Franc to avoid possible devaluation. Nevertheless, this caused what is known as The Piastres Affair. As this new rate proved to be a substantial over-valuation (the true exchange rate was actually the original 1:10 ratio), this led to a rash of speculation. Both local Vietnamese and French colonials would buy as many Piastres on the black market at the 1:10 ratio as they could and then resell them to the French authorities at the official 1:17 rate, earning a profit of 7 franc per Piastre – a scheme as old as time.

It was in this atmosphere that the last Piaster type was issued. Struck in 1946 and 1947 from a cupro-nickel alloy, this was the only non-silver Piastre de commerce type. The coin, designed by the French medalist Pierre Turin, depicts Marianne as a head and shoulders bust, with her head facing to the right. While she wears the traditional Phrygian Cap, her hair is blowing over her ear and down her shoulder. Her right hand can be seen holding an olive branch. The reverse is dominated by two sprigs of rice below the denomination. Overall, the design is highly stylized.

1947 French Indochina Piastre Pattern. Stack’s Bowers GalleriesSeptember 2021 Hong Kong Auction, Lot 20144 – 27/9/2021
1947 French Indochina Piastre Pattern. Stack’s Bowers Galleries. September 2021 Hong Kong Auction, Lot 20144 – 27/9/2021

Government officials knew what this over-valuation meant and even claimed that it was a “financial reward to those who supported France’s colonial mission” (Marshall, 4). By 1952, these exchanges proved to be a massive drain on the treasury, and it was claimed that the French Government was losing 100 billion francs per year (320 billion USD adjusted for inflation) (Marshall, 7). Eventually, this proved to be too much for the economy to bear, and amidst growing scandal, the government devalued the Piastre back to the original 1:10 ratio on May 11, 1953, where it would remain until the Piastre was discontinued that same year.

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Marshall, 2014 –

Matsuoka, 1942 –

Taylor, 2016 –

Trân, 2022 –

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About the Author

Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).

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