Napoleon (coin)

The Napoleon is the colloquial term for a former French gold coin. The coins were minted (at various times) in denominations of 5, 10, 20, 40, 50 and 100francs. This article will focus on the 20 franc coins issued during the reign of Napoleon, which are 21 mm in diameter, weigh 6.45 grams (gross weight) and, at 90% pure, contain 0.1867 troy ounces or 5.801 grams of pure gold. The coin was issued during the reign of Napoleon I and features his portrait on the obverse. The denomination (known as the Franc Germinal French franc#French Empire and Restoration) continued in use through the 19th century and later French gold coins in the same denomination were generally referred to as "Napoleons". Earlier French gold coins are referred to as Louis (the name of eighteen French Kings or écu) an old French word for shield.

A Napoleon from the latter part of 1803 a/k/a An. 12. N.B. the French Revolutionary calendar began in September with the Revolution and therefore each Revolutionary year falls into two Gregorian calendar years




The Napoleon is the colloquial term for a former French gold coin. The coins were originally minted in two denominations, 20 and 40 francs for Napoleon Bonaparte. The 20 franc coins are 21 mm in diameter (about the size of a U.S. five cent piece), weigh 6.45 grams (gross weight) and; at 90% pure, contain .1845 ounces or 5.801 grams of pure gold. The 40 franc coins are 26 mm in diameter, weigh 12.90 grams (gross weight) and; are 90% pure gold. The coins were issued during the reign of Napoleon I and feature his portrait, sometimes bare headed and other times wearing a laurel wreath (the ancient Roman symbol of supreme authority) and, depending upon the political status of France, the words on the front: either Bonaparte – Premier Consul (First Consul) or Napoléon Empereur (emperor). On the back: the legends read either "RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE" (the French Republic) or after 1809, "EMPIRE FRANÇAIS" (the French Empire). There was even a 20 Lire Napoleon minted under the auspices of the Kingdom of Italy, a country annexed by Napoleon I of France in 1805 as a result of the defeat of Austria (the former holder of the territories) at the Battle of Austerlitz.

A curious incongruity?

It is sometimes questioned how a nation as sophisticated as France, controlled by a great leader such as Napoleon could have overlooked the differences between a republic and empire and in so doing indicate on their coinage that their republic was ruled by an emperor. It further appears that this oversight was corrected with the coinage of 1809. However, this is incorrect. As was hinted to about the laurel wreath being a symbol borrowed from Roman history, so too was Napoleon's understanding of an Emperor.[1] Caesar was the Emperor of the Roman Republic and emperor was understood in ancient times as the "chief administrator". Napoleon wished to not to be called “Grand Elector,” which savored of Prussia, but “First Consul,” which carried the aroma of ancient Rome.[2] So Napoleon remained deaf to the appeals for Communal self-rule. Going back to the Roman Consular system, or to the intendant of the late Bourbons, he preferred to appoint – or to have the Interior Ministry appoint – to each département (county) a ruling prefect, to each arrondissement (ward) a sub-prefect, and to each commune (parish) a mayor; each appointee to be responsible to his superior, and ultimately to the central government.[3] The civil service – the total administrative body – in Napoleonic France was the least democratic and most efficient known in history, with the possible exception of ancient Rome.[4] When viewed in this context, there is no incongruity with Napoléon Empereur and "RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE."

Dates of usage of the "Napoléon" coins

The coin continued in use through the 19th century and later French gold coins in the same denomination were generally referred to a "Napoleons". In particular the coins of Napoleon I, were minted not only at the several French mints but also at the mints in the Italian territories: Genoa, Turino (1803 to 1813), Rome (1812 to 1813) and; the Netherlands: Utrecht (1812 to 1813), and; in the Swiss territories: Geneva. During the French occupation of these places, although the mints came under French administration and minted French Empire coins, it was otherwise business as usual as the incumbent mint masters remained in their posts, for example: Sarwaas in Utrecht, Paroletti in Turin and Mazzio in Rome.[5]

French coins minted in London?

Some coins of King Louis 18 were minted in London in 1815. The English were supportive of the return of the French king to power after he was deposed by Napoleon in 1815, during the famous Hundred Days.[5] The coins minted at London were purportedly authorized by Louis 18, himself and were used to pay British troops occupying parts of North Western France. Some coins found their way to Paris and were considered counterfeits by the monetary authorities there and then. There was a exchange of diplomatic letters between France and England and the activity was stopped. The English artist who engraved the London dies, Thomas Wyon, Jr. (1792–1817), a highly accomplished artist, was insulted when his dies which were low relief based on the French struck coins and the original engravings of London born French engraver Pierre Joseph Tiolier(1763–1819) were considered inferior.[6][7] Allegations also arose that the London Mint did not respect French law regarding fineness and tolerance with these coins and these facts have been offered for the early withdrawal of the coins from circulation. However, contemporaneous assays demonstrated adherence to the French law by the London minters. No coins were struck after 30 November 1815. See, Bordeaux, P., «La pièce de 20 francs de Louis XVIII frappée à Londres en 1815», Revue belge de Numismatique, Brussels, 1904; See also, Dyer, G.P., « L'Atelier Royal de Londres et la Frappe de Louis d'Or en 1815 », Revue numismatique (française) 6e serie, XVIII (1976), pp. 136–141.

French Mints of the time of Napoleon I[5]
Letter City Letter City Letter City
A Paris AA Metz B Rouen
BB Strasbourg CL Genoa D Lyon
G Geneva H La Rochelle I Limoges
K Bordeaux L Bayonne M Toulouse
M/A Marseille Q Perpignan R Orléans
T Nantes W Lille maast Utrecht
U Turin Crown/R Rome R London

First authorized by the Monetary Ordinance of 28 March 1803[8]

Napoleon left an impression on his era with his qualities as a General and a statesman. A worthy successor to Julius Caesar and Charlemagne, Napoleon tried to unify Europe and almost succeeded, especially in terms of the coinage.[9] The Napoleon coin was first authorized by a Monetary Ordinance of 28 March 1803 by the Premier Consul (First Consul) Napoleon Bonaparte. The 20 franc gold pieces which he authorized in 1803, became the model of all the coins of the Latin Monetary Union which circulated in Europe until 1914. The French coin carries the effigy, in profile, Napoleon, who would later become the French Emperor. The coins had the same value as the Louis, which bears the likeness of the pre-French Revolution King Louis XIV. For Napoleon, there were ostensibly seven types or varieties of the coins minted. In general the varieties differed in terms of obverse legend, reverse legends, portraiture, and calendaring system. For each variety, there was a new enabling statute or executive decree: 28 March 1803; 7 April 1803; 26 June 1804; 8 September 1805; 11 February 1807; 5 August 1807; and 22 October 1808. By extension, the term ‘‘Napoleon’’ is applied today to all the various types of 20 franc French gold pieces.

"The Euro before the Euro"

Although the portraits and legends changed with the political changes in France, the denomination remained in usage until the First World War under what was known as the Latin Monetary Union, the "Euro before the Euro", so-to-speak. Switzerland had 20 Swiss franc pieces, Spain had 20 peseta coins, Italy had 20 lira pieces, Belgium had 20 Belgian franc coins, and Greece had 20 drachma coins, all of which circulated and were accepted throughout Europe. Only for political reasons did the United Kingdom and the German Empire refuse to follow this direction. Attempts were even taken to explore the unification of the European currency with the American dollar, which explains the extremely rare U.S. pattern coins carrying $4 marking on the face and 25 franc markings on the reverse.

Obverse of the Bonaparte Premier Consul struck in 1803 at Paris, the first year of issue. Note the youthful portrait of Napoleon and compare to later issues reflecting contemporaneous appearances of the Emperor. Engravers: Jean-Pierre Droz (1746–1823) & Pierre-Joseph Tiolier (1763–1819)
Reverse of the same coin 1803 Paris (AN. 11 indicates the 11th year after the French Revolution or the latter part of 1803). A coin not often seen, 58,262 were minted, this example exhibits Extra Fine details for a 206 year old coin. The "A" denotes the Paris mint and the rooster denotes the mint master Charles-Pierre de l'Espine (1797–1821)

Distinguishing marks of the mint masters

The coins bear the signature of the master engraver responsible for the engraving of the coins' dies. In later times the engraver used a symbol to identify himself. The coins also bear the mark (a symbol, letter, or monogram) denoting the particular French (or French controlled) mint which struck the coin. These mint marks often signal the rarity of the issue, for example the Napoleon 20 franc gold coin struck in 1809 at Paris and marked with the letter "A" had an issue of 687,508 coins; in the same year at the mint at Bordeaux, marked with the letter "K" only 2,534 coins were struck; while the mint at Lille, marked with a "W" struck 16,911 coins. Over the years there were some twenty-three French mints not only in France but also in annexed or occupied countries, including Italy, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

The engravers

Droz, Jean-Pierre (1746–1823), was perhaps the most skillful and certainly the most famous engraver and medallist of his day. Born in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, Droz studied in Paris and won acclaim with his fine pattern piece known as the Écu de Calonne after the French finance minister. This coin was struck with an edge inscription using a six-segmented collar (virole brisée) of Droz’ own invention at the Paris Mint. After a brief tenure at Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham (Soho) Mint, Droz returned to France and in 1799 was appointed Keeper of the Coins and Medals at the Paris Mint, which post he held throughout the Napoleonic era. Meanwhile he was much in demand by other governments as a consultant. He struck patterns for Spain, the United States and his native Neuchâtel among others. In French coinage, the effigy of Napoleon as engraved by him appears both on the 20 and 40 franc gold pieces from 1804 through 1814. Droz was also responsible for the pattern of the 5 francs of the “Hundred Days” in 1815. Among his medallic work, the coronation medals for Napoleon in 1804 (“Medal Celebrating the Coronation of Napoleon I by Pope Pius VII at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris”) and several medals and jetons for the Bank of France are the most noteworthy.

Tiolier, Pierre Joseph [Tee oh \ yeah] (1763–1819), born in London, was appointed the engraver-general of the Paris Mint from 1803–16. Tiolier engraved the patterns for the Bonaparte-First Consul coins. Tiolier was trained by his brother-in-law, the notable, Benjamin Duvivier. Many improvements of the coining machinery took place during Tiolier's tenure at the mint. His many medals and coins attest to his high skill. Tiolier’s full signature appears on the dies he cut while coins bearing a "Tr" were from dies cut by others.

Wyon, Jr., Thomas (1792–1817)was an English medallist who died at the early age of 25. In both 1810 and again in 1811, he won the Society of Arts gold medal for medal engraving. In four short years from 1811–15 he rose at the Royal Mint from a probationer to chief engraver.

Notes on varieties of Napoleon coins

1806 & 1807 Slight modifications in the portrait make it possible to distinguish the 1807 type from the preceding 1806 type; in particular, the variation is in the space between the rim and the top of the head. The 1807 issues are remarkable because the design was decided during Napoleon's absence. When he returned to Paris he was surprised to discover the new coins which were the result of the engraver's diligence. This is also considered a transitional issue, that is a coin struck after an official series ends, or before an official series starts. It can also refer to a coin struck with either the obverse or the reverse of a discontinued or upcoming series. These coins are a transitional issue because they were minted just before the 1807/08 issues (with laurel crown). The term "tête de nègre" sometimes used for these coins is a colloquial descriptor applied because of the frizzy appearance of Napoleon's hair as that of an African man.

1813CL- Tiolier was responsible for the dies for the Napoleonic coinage of Genoa (15 November 1811 through 1814).

1813Flag- the coining of French coins at Utrecht began on 16 November 1812 and did not continue beyond 1813.

1815 – the beading for the 1815 issue consists of 100 beads rather than the 103 beads used from 1809 to 1814. The 1815 coins show a greater distance between the eyebrows and the points of the “N” in Napoleon which are 2.4 mm for 1815 compared to 1.5 mm for earlier strikes. It is unlikely that at the time of the Emperor’s return, Tiolier’s original 20 francs dies had been preserved and thus, the dies must have been re-cut for the Hundred Days (21 March 1815 through 14 July 1815). The 1815 issue constitutes a discrete variety and the dies, signed Tr, were cut by Droz.

1815R (London) was struck in a lower relief, therefore, examples are difficult to find in better quality, yielding what is known as "condition rarities". On the obverse, the portrait is unsigned by the engraver, Wyon. On the edge, the word “SALVUM” appears to begin with the letter “Z” and the word “FAC” is not separated by a dot from the word “REGEM.” On the reverse, the date is flanked by a fleur de lye, which was not a mark of any mint director, and the letter “R” which was not assigned to any French mint. The issue was considered counterfeit at the time of issue; however, it was authorized by Louis XVIII, in exile, and used for the payment of British troops serving in France.

“Coins, a reflection of the political events of 1814–1815”

In 1814 when Louis XVIII ascended to the throne of France, France changed its flag. Its coins, however, were merely modified to carry the kings portrait. There was a possibility that in modifying the coinage, Louis XVIII could have broken the reforms of the Revolution and returned to the duodecimal system and the livres of the Old Regime. But the new coins were struck with the same weight and fineness envisaged by Napoleon in the law of the 7 germinal year XI, with one effigy (Louis XVIII) replacing another (Napoleon I).[10]

List of 20 franc French coin issues

All issues are 90% fine gold, have a nominal net weight of 6.45 grams and, have a diameter of 21 mm.[5]

Date Mintage Obverse legend Reverse legend Edge Engraver Notes

1er consul

An XI to An XII 1,046,506 (XI= 58,262) Bonaparte premier consul République Française Dieu protège la France (God Protect France) Pierre Joseph Tiolier First year of issue
Napoléon An XII 428,143 Napoléon Empereur République Française Dieu protège la France Pierre Joseph Tiolier Intermediate bust
Napoléon An XIII and an XIV 673,878 Napoléon Empereur République Française Dieu protège la France Pierre Joseph Tiolier Bare head; Revolutionary calendar
Napoléon 1806 996,367 Napoléon Empereur République Française Dieu protège la France Pierre Joseph Tiolier Bare head; Gregorian calendar
Napoléon 1807 594,332 Napoléon Empereur République Française Dieu protège la France Pierre Joseph Tiolier Bare head; transition type
Napoléon 1807 to 1808 1,725,753 Napoléon Empereur République Française Dieu protège la France Pierre Joseph Tiolier Laurel crowned head; République Française
Napoléon 1809 to 1815 14,283,710 Napoléon Empereur Empire Français Dieu protège la France Pierre Joseph Tiolier Laurel crowned head; Empire Français – note coins were struck in 1815 for both Napoleon and Louis 18
Louis ⅩⅧ 1814 to 1815 5,634,709 Louis XVIII Roi de France (King of France) Pièce de 20 Francs DOMINE SALVUM FAC REGEM (God Save the King) Auguste François Michaut Uniformed bust – Some pieces were struck in London and are marked with an "R"
Louis ⅩⅧ 1824 to 1826 12,733,226 Louis XVIII Roi de France (King of France) Pièce de 20 Francs DOMINE SALVUM FAC REGEM Auguste François Michaut Bare bust
Charles Ⅹ

type 1

1825 to 1826 771,932 Charles X Roi de France (King of France) DOMINE SALVUM FAC REGEM Auguste François Michaut Signature fine
Charles Ⅹ

type 2

1827 to 1830 919,535 Charles X Roi de France (King of France) DOMINE SALVUM FAC REGEM Auguste François Michaut Signature bold

type 1

1830 to 1831 2,371,848 Louis Philippe I Roi des Français (King of the French) 20 francs Dieux protège la France Nicolas Pierre Tiolier Edge incused; this king held pro-Revolutionary ideals and therefore changed his royal title

type 2

1830 to 1831 included above Louis Philippe I Roi des Français 20 francs Dieux protège la France Nicolas Pierre Tiolier Edge raised/in relief
Louis-Philippe 1832 to 1848 6,761,231 Louis Philippe I Roi des Français 20 francs Dieux protège la France Joseph François Domard

2nd république

1848 to 1849 2,843,007 République Française Liberté Egalité Fraternité *** Dieux protège la France Mint master’s mark

2nd république

1849 to 1851 17,293,983 République Française Liberté Egalité Fraternité *** Dieux protège la France Louis Merley
Louis Napoléon Bonaparte 1852 9,857,428 Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte République Française ***** Dieu * protège * la * France Jean Jacques Barre
Napoléon Ⅲ 1853 to 1860 146,557,145 Napoléon III Empereur Empire Français ***** Dieu * protège * la * France Jean Jacques Barre Bare head
Napoléon Ⅲ 1861 to 1870 85,344,950 Napoléon III Empereur Empire Français ***** Dieu * protège * la * France Jean Jacques Barre Laural crowned head

3 rd république

1871 to 1898 86,101,594 République Française Liberté Egalité Fraternité *** Dieu protège la France (God Protect France) Mint mark

(Harvest goddess/Rooster)

1898 to 1914 117,448,888 République Française Liberté Egalité Fraternité see notes Jules Clément Chaplain Edge 1 (before 1905): *++* DIEU *+ PROTEGE+* LA FRANCE
Edge 2 (after 1905): *++* LIBERTE +* EGALITE +* FRATERNITE


See also

  • Louis (coin)
  • Napoléonides


  1. ^ Napoleonic Titles and Heraldry
  2. ^ Durant, W., Durant, A., The Age of Napoleon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1975, at page 162.
  3. ^ Durant, W., Durant, A., The Age of Napoleon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1975, at page 163.
  4. ^ Durant, W., Durant, A., The Age of Napoleon, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1975, at page 164.
  5. ^ a b c d e Diot, Prieur, Schmitt and Surde, LE FRANC III, les monnaies Françaises 1795–1999, Paris 1999
  6. ^ Bordeux, Paul, Pièces de 20 Francs de Louis XVIII Frappée à Londres en 1815, Revue belge de numismatique, Brussels (1904)."
  7. ^ Dyer, G.P., L’Atelier de Londres et la Frappe de Louis d’Or en 1815,Revue numismatique (française) 6e série, XVIII, Paris (1976), pp. 136–141.
  8. ^ Les changements de monnaies de Charlemagne à nos jours
  9. ^ The Coins of Napoleon
  10. ^ Desrousseax, Stéphane,«La monnaie, reflet des événements politiques de 1814–1815», CGB Bulletin Numismatique,N° 64, Paris, (Jul. 2007),p.24.

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