Article by Alexander Noran
Oftentimes at auction one sees, especially in the German States section of an auction catalog, a lot or two of ‘off metal strike’ ducats (or their denominational variants) being offered. Though a varied and interesting field quite popular with collectors, off-metal strike ducats seem to be one of those dark corners in numismatics where there exists much speculation, but very little else.
The majority of these coins are found struck in silver rather than gold, and also worthy of note is the fact that they tend to be coronation issues (such as those pictured above and at top). As was mentioned, they generally don’t seem to be particularly scarce, but are usually advertised as ‘patterns’ or ‘trial strikes.’ If this were actually the case, it would seem logical that they would not be seen offered nearly as often as they are – there are a few types, particularly from Austrian-affiliated states which come up with notable frequency. Trial or pattern pieces are struck for purposes of approval by the mint authority, or to test machinery, and thus would only result in mintages of a few pieces.
Another theory, which is more plausible, is that they were produced as presentation pieces. If one considers that the circle of recipients can potentially be rather large, this is entirely possible, but a niggle emerges when one considers that off-metal strike ducats are oftentimes seen with genuine circulation wear (shown above). On presentation pieces, one might expect to see cabinet wear, yielding a pleasing XF-AU, but some of the examples on the market are downright grotty. On the other hand, the thought that they might have been actually struck for circulation is discounted by the obvious danger of counterfeiting that having coins of the same design in different metals would bring. A clever individual need only gold wash or plate a coin with a metallic value of around 3 Kreuzer to produce a coin worth a whole ducat – a profit of roughly 119kr before the 1754 introduction of the Conventionsthaler, and around 251 thereafter (Edge, 218-9)!
For a better understanding of the actual ‘raison d’etre’ of these creations, it is perhaps best to turn to an old Swedish convention. The tradition, known as ‘largesse,’ generally involves the distribution of gifts or specie by the monarch on special occasions such as coronations, weddings, or funerals. The form that ‘largesse’ eventually took in Sweden through the course of the 16th and 17th centuries was the throwing of specially designed coins or medals into the assembled crowds – whether during the procession or at the event itself. An example of one of these pieces (a piefort Riksdaler) was offered in August 2015 by Heritage (lot#32403, illustrated below), the reverse design bearing a remarkable similarity to some of the pieces we have already seen.
Bearing this all in mind, and taking into account the availability and occasional wear seen on silver ducats, a similar practice to what was done in Sweden does not seem out of the question. Being distributed more widely, and more evenly across social classes, logically some would enter circulation due to the financial necessities of many individuals as well as their recognized silver content. What is more is that their being prepared en mass for the masses would account for their numbers. Much like maundy money, it is not difficult to imagine that these pieces were either kept as a souvenir of the occasion, sold on to interested persons, or alternatively spent at a rate proportional to their weight and content.
Though there are undoubtedly exceptions, as the field of silver ducats is so broad, it would seem reasonable to conclude that many types, particularly the more common ones, likely served as ‘democratic’ presentation pieces. This likely role adds to the numismatic and historical interest of these curious pieces, as they offer not only a glimpse into the political, social and economic realities of the time, but also the interaction between ruler and ruled, government and the governed. No matter what your focus, the multitude of designs, relative scarcity and quality of manufacture of these pieces make them a supremely rewarding field of collecting.
Cuhaj, George S. and Thomas Michael, eds. Unusual World Coins, 6th ed. Krause Publications, 2011.
Edge, Dexter. “Mozzart’s Fee for Cosi fan tutte,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association, 116. 1991. Pages 218-9.
Heritage Auctions. “Lot #3041,” ANA World and Ancient Coins Platinum Night Auction. Heritage Auctions, 2015.
Alexander Noran is chief numismatist at PCGM and foreign markets consultant for IAP Capital Group.