By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
What makes modern money valuable? Simply put – belief. The whole modern financial system rests on the simple belief that the national government guarantees the value of an inherently valueless item.
However, when people lose faith in their governments, they will search out alternatives.
One such solution is notgeld, examples of which can be found throughout modern history, from the US Civil War in the 1860s to the Irish gun-money of the 1689 Williamite war.
The most notable usage, however, occurred in Germany at the end of the First World War and during the interwar period.
During the Great War Germany experienced severe economic issues and subsequent currency shortages needed to be filled by notgeld. This first issuance focused mainly on paper bill production. The bills showcased local municipalities’ and companies’ cultural heritage, artwork, and products.
After the war, Max Adolf Pfeiffer, director of the State Porcelain Factory at Meissen, adapted his firm’s factory for the production of porcelain notgeld for general circulation. The period’s metal shortage necessitated alternative coinage materials. Most cupro-nickel coinage had already made its last trip to state-owned smelters to aid the war effort. When coupled with the private hoarding of specie that typically accompanies difficult economic conditions, the shortage created the crucible in which Mr. Pfeiffer developed his idea.
The first stoneware coinage produced by the Philip Rosenthal & Co. porcelain factory of Selb in 1917 predated the more famous Meissen examples by several years (Kyjac, 26). The 10 pfennig tokens were solely intended for internal business and acted as company scrip. Meissen however, designed a notgeld series for general circulation.
Founded in the early 18th century, Meissen Porcelain quickly became the first manufacturer of true porcelain in Europe to compete with contemporary Asian producers. After 200 years, the company acquired a reputation for artistry and superb craftsmanship rivaling its competitors globally. The firm’s global dominance perfectly positioned it to commence the design and production of a seven-piece notgeld set ranging from 10 pfennigs to 5 marks. The Reichsbank rejected the idea of the non-state sanctioned currency in 1919.
The Reichsbank’s declaration notwithstanding, Meissen moved forward, with Mr. Pfeiffer entrusting Emile Paul Borner to create the designs. As requested by their clients, the production of specific designs for special events became available.
For example, on the 400th anniversary of the Diet of Worms, Borner designed a coin with the portrait of Martin Luther on the obverse. While it had a mintage of 154,000 and was arguably the most famous example of Meissen porcelain notgeld, this Martin Luther commemorative was only one of many. It is estimated that Borner created over one thousand designs in his career. Other common design motifs, such as architecture and agricultural products, translated nicely from standard German coinage to the Meissen notgeld.
Henry Seligmann’s department store in Hannover and the Meissen factory itself commissioned two notgeld examples of note. Seligmann’s examples featured a castle, symbolic of Hannover. The Meissen factory café coinage acted as company scrip to purchase coffee and appropriately depicted wheat and a coffee bean.
After developing initial designs, Meissen decided to use brown Böttger stoneware over the more common white bisque porcelain because the Böttger was stronger, easier to produce, and stain-resistant due to its coloring. Additionally, Böttger stoneware provided a more pleasing contrast to the gold gilding applied to a portion of the mintage.
Later the company did produce coins in white as well as black porcelain. Due to significantly lower production numbers, however, black examples are much harder to obtain.
In 1920, the company initially used plaster molds. Plaster molded notgeld can be identified by the coins’ thinness, rough surfaces, and finer lines (Kyjac, 27). Plaster molds fell out of use once production increased significantly in 1921. Instead, more durable steel molds became popular to produce a thicker, longer-lasting product (Kyjac, 27).
Overall, the porcelain coin’s poor durability led to its downfall. Like all ceramic products, porcelain notgeld was extremely brittle and general circulation abuse resulted in the coins’ easy chipping and complete destruction. In an attempt to mitigate their inherent fragility and protect the coins’ devices, the majority of the coins included raised rims and concave faces. Unfortunately, these measures proved ineffective and many circulated examples are chipped and cracked, with the damage affecting the design’s condition to various degrees.
Despite their shortcomings, these coins proved to be so popular that the Meissen Porcelain Company, a number of German cities and regions, contracted for notgeld production. The clients included the village of Boldixum, the City of Eisenach, the Free State of Saxony, and Meissen itself. The coins’ novelty and high artistic quality prompted numismatists to snap them up as collectibles. In fact, porcelain notgeld “served as currency but also as [a] collectors’ commodity with increased material value”. Collector activity removed so many coins from circulation that the company’s production could not meet demand. However, this acclaim was not universal.
Internationally, the Meissen notgeld received significant criticism.
One American magazine, The Numismatist, stated quite clearly that Borner’s designs had an “entire absence of artistic effect and a modeling that made them almost hideous”. While it is true that the quality of his designs varied greatly, this did not deter collectors. Actually, the gap between production and demand could not be closed and a subsequent shortage emerged.
Unfortunately for the Meissen Porcelain Company, their notgeld commissions were short-lived. In 1921, Saxony decided not to continue with ceramic notgeld, and then on July 17, 1922, the national German government banned the production of all notgeld types (Liddell, 196). By banning notgeld, the government attempted to bring more confidence back to the official national currency and reduce counterfeiting. This new policy proved unsuccessful, and by autumn 1922 the German economy was in free fall with hyperinflation dramatically devaluing the official currency. Astonishingly, in November 1923, the price of a single loaf of bread had risen to 201,000,000,000 marks from 163 in a single year.
Predictably, notgeld production began once again. As it turned out, the Meissen Porcelain Company had acquiesced to the 1922 ban and stopped their production of ceramic notgeld. They had reorganized their production line to meet different product demands, such as medals commemorating Martin Luther and war veterans as well as their standard tableware, and were unable and unwilling to restart production of their unique porcelain notgeld.
Thus this interesting phase of ceramic German notgeld drew to a close. Since many examples reached private collections with little wear, many uncirculated examples of Meissen notgeld are available at affordable prices. A standard brown porcelain coin sells for $15-$20, with gilt versions priced at $35-$50. The rarer standard white coins cost $20-$25, and their gilt counterparts go for $35-$50.
One of the rarest types, the black porcelain coins, costs $50-$100 if available at all since they do not come to market frequently. Finally, an originally packed seven-piece set commands $100-$150.
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Clare, John D. “Hyperinflation.” John D. Clare, John D. Clare, www.johndclare.net/Weimar_hyperinflation.htm.
“History: Porcelain Manufactory Meissen.” History | Porcelain Manufactory Meissen, www.meissen.com/en/geschichte.
Kyjac, Pavol. “NUMISMATIC CURIOSITIES FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE DEVELOPMENT OF MONEY.” BIATEC, vol. 12, no. 4, 2004.Národná banka Slovenska, http://www.nbs.sk/_img/Documents/BIATEC/BIA04_04/25_27.pdf
Langan, John. “Irish Gunmoney (1689-1690).” Irish Coinage, John Stafford-Langan, 16 June 2003, www.irishcoinage.com/GUNMONEY.HTM.
Liddell, Marcus Ward. “The Persistent Past: Notgeld and Proto-Fascist Sentiments in Antebellum Germany.” Journal of Undergraduate Research, 2014, pp. 191–238., sites.nd.edu/ujournal/files/2015/05/Liddell_14-15.pdf.
“Meissen, 1 Can of Coffee 1923. Meissen Porcelain 25mm Sch190a – VI (15165).” Rider Collections,
Price, Dorothy, and Camilla Smith. “Weimar’s Others: Art History, Alterity and Regionalism in Inter‐War Germany.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 12 Aug. 2019, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8365.12454
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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).