By Gerald Tebben
“Medals of confidence” designed by engraver Augustin Dupre and struck on steam presses by private mint master Matthew Bolton were wildly popular with the French people. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
Trade tokens tend to be simple affairs that make do for money in times of economic stress. During the French Revolution, though, nothing less than fine engraving, exactingly struck on large planchets would do.
When Monneron Brothers’ Paris banking house created its own bronze tokens in 1791 and 1792, it turned to two sterling names in numismatics: engraver Augustin Dupre and private mint master Matthew Boulton.
A decade earlier, Benjamin Franklin had commissioned Dupre, his neighbor in Paris, to create one of the best-known medals of the American Revolution, the Libertas Americana medal.
Dupre pulled out all stops for the larger Monneron pieces—silver-dollar-size 5-sol tokens. They bear a detailed engraving of the Festival of the Federation on the obverse and a statement of value on the reverse.
Capping a period of stormy relations between the crown and the populace, the people stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Revolutionaries and royalists forged a short-lived constitutional monarchy in the months that followed. They celebrated the establishment of this new government on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille with a massive festival. Participants swore allegiance to the nation, the law and the king.
France’s National Assembly outlawed the medal’s issuance. Violators were subject to fines and imprisonment. (Photo: Heritage Auctions)
Dupre’s design captures that moment with soldiers saluting the country’s new constitution above an altar adorned with a portrait of King Louis XVI. In 1791 the four Monneron brothers contracted with Boulton to strike “medals of confidence” on steam presses.
The pieces proved wildly popular, but on Sept. 3, 1792, France’s National Assembly outlawed their issuance. Violators were “subject to the penalty of being punished with 15 years in irons and confiscation of the money.”
None of the Monneron brothers were jailed over the tokens, but two were imprisoned on various charges during the 1790s.
After one of the brothers was imprisoned in 1792, Samuel Garbett, chairman of the Birmingham Commercial Committee in England, wrote to Boulton, “I was glad to see that Mr. Monneron was honorably liberated, but the French are so frantic that life is very precarious in the country.”
Life was so precarious that the king and thousands of his subjects were beheaded in the 1790s as the nation descended into a reign of terror.
Monneron tokens ceased circulating in 1793.
Today the pieces, which run only a few dollars in circulated condition, are a powerful link to a time when a great nation teetered on the edge of the abyss.
Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.
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