By Al Doyle for CoinWeek ….
In addition to serving as the primary gold coin in commerce for more than a century, the French 20-franc piece was the model for identically sized gold issues by other nations.
Why did Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Austria-Hungary strike their own versions of the “Napoleon”? Signed in 1865 and implemented the following year, the Latin Monetary Union was a more informal and less centralized predecessor of the current European Union. Unlike the EU, the LMU was founded on honest money.
Member nations signed on to simplify commerce across borders while maintaining their own currencies. That meant 20-unit gold coinage that contained .1867 ounce of the metal. LMU members originally struck silver coinage at a face value and weight of 15.5 to 1 as compared to gold, but the ratio was later adjusted as the value of silver declined in relation to the yellow metal.
Numismatists who like their coins to be as old as possible will want to acquire the Belgian 20 francs and the Italian 20 lire of the 1860s, as they are among the earliest non-French pieces made to Latin Monetary Unit specifications. They are relatively affordable – as in close to melt value in circulated grades – even in this era of high bullion prices.
The Papal States also spent some time in the LMU, and the 20 lire of 1866 to 1870 bearing the portrait of Pope Pius IX would be part of a set. Plan on spending well above spot, as there are a fair number of specialists in Vatican coinage along with devout Catholics who are part of the potential market for this piece.
Spain and Greece joined the LMU in 1868, and those nations contributed to the supply of 10- and 20-unit gold pieces. After a long history of striking escudo gold, the Spanish produced the 10 peseta containing .0933 ounce of gold in 1878 and 1879. The 20 peseta with the portrait of King Alfonso XIII debuted in 1887 and was struck sporadically until 1904. The 25 peseta of 1871 to 1885 weighed in along Latin Monetary Unit specifications as compared to the face value.
Greece made a run of 10 drachmai pieces in 1876 that was paired with a 20 drachmai of the same year. Both coins display a young-looking portrait of George I. A more mature profile of the king can be found on the 1884-dated 20 drachmai. Romania’s 20 lei of 1883 to 1890 is a lesser-known product of the era, while Serbia issued the 20 dinara in 1879 and 1882. Numismatists who like one-year type coins may want the 1882-dated 10-dinara gold piece.
Even though Austria-Hungary didn’t join the union, this sprawling (by European standards) nation issued coins that were designed for cross-border usage. The 4 florins/10 francs and 8 florins/20 francs of 1870 to 1892 aren’t difficult to find. German and Hungarian-language versions were produced. Modern restrikes from the Austrian Mint carry the 1892 date.
Switzerland may have been a relative latecomer to the Latin Monetary Union’s gold party, but the Swiss gold coins stuck with the format longer than other nations. The 20-franc Helvetia swiss gold coins of 1883 to 1896 was replaced by the “Vreneli” design of 1897 to 1949. A gold 10 franc debuted in 1911 and was struck until 1922.
The fractional Swiss gold coins are extremely popular, and the high mintage dates (1922, 1927, 1930, 1935 LB, 1947 & 1949) are often sold as bullion investments. However astute collectors has also started to collect the Swiss, French and Spanish gold coins from this period by date. Many dates have minatges below 100,000. very low certified population numbers, and are very difficult to locate.
The 1888 Swiss 20 franc had a minuscule mintage of just 4,224 coins, and is recognized by experts as the Key date in the Helvetia series. The key date for the Vreneli is often assumed to be the 1926 with the lowest mintage of just 50,000 pieces, when in fact the true key day is the 1904. This date is very difficult to find in anything over MS63.
Although prices have started to increase for the better date coins within these series, overall the premiums above the spot price of gold remain very low making the LMU gold coins a great numismatic value.
Even though the Latin Monetary Union wasn’t formally dissolved until 1927, the association was largely dormant by the start of World War I. That didn’t prevent Poland from striking the gold 10 and 20 zlotych of 1925. Both coins saw little if any exposure to circulation, which means a typical example is somewhere in the Mint State portion of the grading spectrum.
Albania issued a 10 franga gold piece in 1927, while the 20 franga of 1926 and 1927 feature different designs. The marriage of King Zog I and the 10th anniversary of his reign were honored with a pair of 20 franga pieces in 1938.
If larger (as in a half ounce or more) gold coinage at current spot prices is too expensive for the budget, take a look at the fractionals of the Latin Monetary Union. They offer a combination of history, reasonable prices and some stylish designs.