Rare WWII Franc Stirs Memories of French Valor|
March 24, 2010
Last year, from Aug. 5 to Sept. 24, the European auction house Compagnie Générale de Bourse (CGB) offered collectors the rare chance to own a Mint State 1943 French franc, born in far-off Algeria amid the darkest days of World War II. Bidders responded to CGB’s Monnaies 40 mail bid sale with a hammer price of €7,400. This was €400 above estimate and does not include a 12 percent buyer’s fee. Monnaies 40 featured coins exclusively from the collection of Bernard W. Southgate IV.
Noted numismatist Michel Prieur, co-manager of CGB/CGF, had much to say about this unusual French rarity, based on the Morlon design, but known to French collectors as the aluminum Graziani franc. This can be misleading. There are, for instance, more articles written about the coins of obscure Roman emperors who lived over 1,500 years before than there are about Graziani francs. But Monsieur Prieur insists that Graziani francs are no less important or fascinating. Why are they special?
“Because the Graziani franc is a legal tender coin and the very only legal tender coin struck by the Free French for France before the Nazis were defeated, and it is a type coin and it is one of the rarest types in franc coins 1795-2001, said Prieur. “Let’s put it this way: either you have a Graziani coin in your collection and you are at the top, or you don’t and, well, your collection is not at the top. The equivalent in rarity and historical importance, if a U.S. coin, would probably fetch $400,000 in BU.”
Obviously, Monsieur Prieur thinks rather highly of Graziani francs.
Enter the Southgate Collection
Bernard W. Southgate IV is a retired bankruptcy attorney currently living in southwest Florida. His interest in French literature and history inspired him to assemble a comprehensive collection of modern French coinage, officially dubbed the Platoad Collection. Platoad is not a French or Greek word. Nothing that humorless. Rather, Southgate named his immense group of coins in honor of a pet toad owned by his daughter, Victoria Southgate.
The collector had hoped someone in the family would continue the collection after him, but, to his amazement and disappointment, no family member shared his “peculiar” interest in French coins. It was decided that “rather than have them wait until my departure to decide what to do with so large a collection, it would be best for me to arrange for its sale,” said Southgate. “CGB/CGF is the only numismatic group that I considered. I have had a fairly longtime relationship with Monsieur Prieur and found him knowledgeable, of unimpeachable integrity and shares my reverence for la gloire de la France.”
The CGB auctioneers noted this was the first time “that French numismatists managed to bring back from the USA such an important and complete French collection.” Besides the Graziani franc, graded MS-63,1 some other Platoad Collection highlights included a toned MS-64 1859-A Napoleon III 2 francs, one of 886 minted, and an EF-58 1939 Turin 20 francs. The collection was particularly strong in Louis XVI regal coinage and almost complete from 1848–2001, a rare feat for any collector.
Free France’s Fighting Franc
The circumstances behind the minting of the Graziani francs are a complicated mixture of war, politics and necessity.
“To understand the coin,” explained Southgate, “one must understand the French situation after the German occupation in 1940. France was defeated militarily, but one General, Charles De Gaulle, insisted and convinced the French people that the French army may have been defeated but France would never be defeated.”
The general accomplished this through his famous L’Appel du 18 Juin and later BBC radio broadcasts in London. Of course, it is one thing to be the voice of the Free French and the French Resistance, and quite another to actually lead them. Southgate pointed out that after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, “there were three main contenders for leadership of the Free French: Admiral Darlan, the favorite of Franklin Roosevelt (even though Darlan had been a high official in the Nazi puppet government of the Vichy State); General Giraud, who was favored by Churchill; and General Charles De Gaulle, who was overwhelmingly favored by the Free French army and the loyalist members of the French populist. Darlan was assassinated by a French royalist in December 1942 leaving De Gaulle and Giraud as the sole contenders. To mollify the Allies there was an agreement that the two generals share leadership. Giraud gracefully faded into the background.”
Eager to supply the Free French with coins of their own, De Gaulle urged the French Committee of National Liberation (FCNL) to issue an ordinance on Aug. 26, 1943, to mint coins based on the types of the Third Republic.
“This production, unfortunately for numismatics,” continued Southgate,2 “was limited to the production of a 1 franc piece as a pre-series in zinc and aluminum for lack of other metals, under the direction of Maurice Couve de Murville. A striking of pieces of 2 francs and 50 centimes was also proposed, all to be struck at a later date when their designs would have been established. The ordinance proposed striking the coins in aluminum-bronze. It was signed by General Charles De Gaulle, General Henri Giraud, Maurice Couve de Murville and J. Abadie…”
The last three signatories held the posts of Commissioner of Justice, National Education,3 and Public Health, respectively.
One of the central mysteries surrounding the Graziani francs concerns the identity of the shadowy engraver for whom the coins are named. According to Southgate, even his first name is unknown. He says Graziani, “rather than developing a new design, roughly copied the 1 franc piece by Morlon that had been struck in aluminum-bronze from 1931-1941 and then in aluminum in 1941 (and would be struck in aluminum from 1944-1959). The portrait of Marianne in the Graziani piece is usually characterized as “plus severe” than the Morlon coins. It is easily distinguishable.”
Of whom the Free France engraver was, Michel Prieur takes a surprisingly different approach.
“Actually, nobody knows for sure and Bernard Southgate’s quote that nobody knew the first name of Graziani might find its explanation in the following: to the best of my knowledge, Graziani has no first name because, unlike normal coin engravers, it is not a man, it is a company,” said Prieur. “There was in Algiers, during WWII, a Graziani company making military badges and I believe this is the Graziani which made the coins. Unfortunately, I never could find any confirmation and the company closed down in 1962, probably leaving all archives, if any remained from WWII, there.”
An observer might question why the Free France engraver placed the name of Morlon on the die instead of his own. Prieur has the answer: “It should be remembered that under the Marshall Pétain presidency, the Republic was abolished in France, replaced with an “État Français” (French State) that you will find so labeled on the Francisque issues along with the motto “Travail Famille Patrie” (Work, Family, Fatherland) to replace “Liberté Egalité Fraternité” (Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood).
“It was then of the utmost importance to show by all means, and especially the coins, that the French Republic was alive and well, keeping to the last detail the usual type of republican coins, hence keeping Morlon but, more important, keeping the mintmarks of the Monnaie de Paris!”
As is normal before any mass coin production, the dies were tested. We know this because a very intriguing trial strike of a Graziani franc has survived to the present. This test piece was struck on a 37 mm aluminum flan and was auctioned on March 1, 2008, by Bowers and Merena Auctions for $8,740. It was sold as part of the Carl F. Chirico Jr. Collection of World Pattern Coins.
We return to Southgate’s narrative. “Sometime in 1943 after the ordinance of Aug. 26, 17,000 pieces of 1 franc were struck in zinc at the Établissements Carnaud in Algiers. According to Droulers only about 10 of these are now known. When the zinc coin was found to be unsatisfactory, 4,000 coins were struck in aluminum at L’Atelier Industriel in Maison Blanche outside Algiers near the airport. According to Droulers, there are three known examples of this coin, the last one to appear at the Biennale d’Annecy in 1992. It is unlikely that Droulers was aware of my coin, so it may be the fourth.”
According to Prieur’s estimate, a little more than 15 of each metal are known. One of each type is in the Monnaie de Paris Collection. The CGB numismatist believes all those in private hands can be traced to 15 of each metal that separately surfaced on the market in 1983, under mysterious circumstances.
Despite the mintage numbers (their accuracy is uncertain), evidence suggests the coins were never released into circulation. It is possible that the project was scuttled when, according to Southgate, “The American authorities in French North Africa since their invasion opposed allowing De Gaulle or even their friend Giraud to strike coins, a prerogative of sovereignty.”
On CGB’s customer list, Prieur states there are “fifteen collectors living in Algeria, not to mention a hundred plus of Algerian birth living in France. No one ever came to us with a Graziani found in Algeria or even with a question about it.”
And yet, readers of the guidebook Le Franc (coauthored by Michel Prieur and Laurent Schmitt) will note that Graziani francs are priced in circulated grades, to which Prieur responded, “Yes. When I don’t know, I try to keep doors open.”
For such a classic rarity, wouldn’t one expect there to be Graziani forgeries?
“Of course!” Prieur exclaimed. “It is very common but not dangerous at all because nobody can change the die, which is different and because the weight is different beyond possible error: 1.84 for Grazianis and 1.3 for regular 1948 Morlons. These counterfeits are made with a regular Morlon 1948 with the final ‘8’ changed into a ‘3.’”5
According to Southgate, not all the Graziani francs are the same.
“My coin is distinguishable from the other Graziani pieces by graffiti on the reverse consisting of four hairline scratches in the form of crossing parallel lines.”
Prieur was of the opinion that the marks were created inside the mint workshop.
This author has several personal observations to make as well. Close-up photos indicate the Chirico trial piece was likely struck from a different die pair than the one used to strike the Southgate coin. One notable difference on the trial strike is the forked bottom serifs on several of the letters in “LIBERTE - EGALITE.” This characteristic is mostly missing on the Southgate coin and other specimens so far examined, including a zinc Graziani. This suggests that the font was later corrected by the engraver, which raises the question whether the zinc Grazianis were indeed struck first.
Compared with a second aluminum Graziani franc, the obverse of the Southgate specimen matches, but not the reverse. This observation indicates that at least one obverse die outlived its mate. Was it changed due to premature breakage or normal wear and tear? If the latter case, then it is likely that many Graziani francs were minted as the mintage numbers suggest – possibly even more, given that aluminum is a soft metal and would help ensure long die life.
Where and how did Southgate obtain such a classic rarity? He explains:
The first known owner, Victor Gadoury, was born in Canada and died in Monaco at the age of 53.6 For several years beginning in the 1970s he published the only comprehensive catalog of modern French coins. New editions continue to be printed, but beginning in 1995 a more informative book, Le Franc, was published. It is now in its eighth edition. A few years after Gadoury’s death his personal collection was sold at auction by Claude Burgan. There is no record of this coin having been subsequently offered for sale, but I think I can piece together its history to the present. In 2002 Alain Weil had an auction of the Michel Bonhomme collection. It included many of the coins that were Gadoury coins in the Burgan sale. For some reason my coin was not listed. I had made several successful bids. However, I had made two bids that were the highest but the coin [i.e. a different coin] was sold to someone else. When I complained to Monsieur Weil, he checked his records and found that his computer has omitted my bids. He apologized and offered as a consolation to sell me the rarer 1 franc aluminum. I obviously accepted. Thus it appears that the provenance of the coin is from Gadoury (as a collector) to Claude Burgan (dealer) to Michel Bonhomme (collector) to Alain Weil (dealer) to me.
Soon after Monnaies 40 ended, Michel Prieur offered a few thoughts on its outcome, and the Graziani franc in particular: “The results are fair but nothing impressive ... six bidders when this coin is missing from all collections, but a handful is about 5,994 away from what it should be. ... and €7400 is the price it is worth to day but what a pity for such a great coin! The winning bidder offered €12,599 [his maximum bid], which makes some more sense but still ...”
If we can be sure of one thing, there was no pomp or ceremony in the minting of Graziani francs. If anything, they were designed with an engraving tool in one hand and a grenade in another, and with heads thrown back whenever the buzz of an aircraft approached. Michel Prieur sums it up neatly:
“As Bernard Southgate wrote, French Africa at the time was in a complete turmoil and power fights were fierce because the obvious interest of the post-war potential powers was anybody but De Gaulle. It was obvious it would be France first under his leadership and the three powers at Yalta had no interest whatsoever in a ‘France first’ state of mind in the Elysée Palace.
“Hence, priorities were not symbols and preservation of historical memories but raw war and power struggles...
“Just remember the atmosphere in the Casablanca movie with Bogart and Bergman ... do you think they cared about future memories? No, action was today and if there was a tomorrow, fine, but most probably there was no tomorrow to expect. Coins and banknotes were to be spent, fast, not studied ...”
1. CGB uses a French version of the Sheldon grading system. In practice, it is more conservative for the higher grades and less for the lower.
2. Southgate’s main source for the history of the Graziani francs is “Arcanes et errances des monnaies métalliques de l’avant-guerre à la libération” (Mysteries and ramblings of metallic coins from the pre-war period to the Libération) by Frédéric Droulers, in Numismatique et Change, September 2002.
3. Twenty-five years later, Couve de Murville (1907-1999) would become Prime Minister of France for about a year. According to his obituary in The Independent, he became Financial Commissioner to the FCNL in June 1943.
4. Prieur is referring to grams.
5. CGB published a forged Graziani aluminum 1 franc in No. 54 of its newsletter, Bulletin Numismatique, page 7: http://www.cgb.fr/bn/pdf/bn054.pdf. Also, a fake Graziani aluminum 2 francs (!) in No. 62, page 7: http://www.cgb.fr/bn/pdf/bn062.pdf.
6. Actually, Victor Gadoury (1939-1994) passed away at age 55. American collectors might remember him from a few references in Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins.
Editions Gadoury, founded by Gadoury in 1973 and now headed by Francesco Pastrone, continues to publish new editions of Monnaies Francaises and many other titles. Its Web site is http://www.gadoury.com.
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On April 19, 2010 Taillard Michel
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