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Enlightening trip to France offered new coinage system, collectibles
By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
December 08, 2017

My wife and I recently spent two weeks in Southwest France. While there, we visited cities such as Toulouse, Albi, and Carcassonne, as well as smaller towns and villages. Although I didn’t buy any numismatic rarities, I bought or considered buying Monnaie de Paris souvenirs, looked at old coins in museums, and made observations about the circulating money. In this column, I’ll talk about all three.

At each of the tourist venues we visited, La Monnaie De Paris had installed a vending machine for a mint-produced souvenir of the site. The cost of each was two euros (about $2.50) for a golden round 34 mm in diameter.

These souvenirs are made of Nordic Gold, which is a gold-colored copper alloy. It’s also used in the manufacture of three of the eight denominations of euros. The eight denominations are one, two, five, 10, 20, and 50 cents, plus one and two euros pieces. The 10, 20, and 50 cent pieces are struck on Nordic Gold planchets.

The three smallest denominations are minted in copper-covered steel. The two largest denominations employ a bi-metal technology. The two metals are different colors: The center one looks like nickel, the outer ring like brass or gold.

Although I found it tempting to purchase these souvenirs at each of the places we visited, in the end I bought only one such “coin.” This was at the Chateau de Queribus, which is a medieval ruin “…on top of the highest peak for miles around,” according to Wikipedia.

We visited the site on one of the last days of our trip, and you might wonder why I chose to get the souvenir at this attraction after I had passed on all the others. The reason is that our visit to QuÇribus involved what my wife and I considered an arduous climb up to the castle ruin and then an even more difficult ascent up stone steps holding onto a thick rope in place of a bannister. In other words, after risking life and limb to attain the summit of the castle, I felt I owed myself the purchase of the coin-like souvenir. Of course, after buying the souvenir I immediately began to regret passing on all the others. Looking at the online site for Monnaie des Paris, I learned that this souvenir program began in 1996 and that more than 20 years later, the mint has produced more than 400 such souvenirs.

Fortunately for the collector, they don’t appear to be all that expensive. On eBay, I found more than 150 listings with prices beginning at $4.99 with free shipping. Of course, if you’re at the actual source, like I was, then they would be less than half the price of the ones on eBay.

As we toured the southwestern part of France, we went into a number of museums. The first of these that had coins was the museum of the Abbey Saint-Michael in Gaillac. Another was in the Chateau de Foix. Although I took pictures of the coins, I was unable to translate any of the information about them.

As my wife and I were walking back to our hotel from a restaurant in Albi where we had dinner, we happened upon a small coin shop, Albi Numismatique. With some knowledge of French and the ability to recognize cognates, it was pretty easy to tell a lot about Albi Numismatique’s business.

For example, I know that the words “Achat et Vente” mean “buy and sell,” and that “Estimation” means they’ll tell you what your coins are worth. It’s easy to surmise that “Monnaies anciennes” means “ancient coins.” And I feel pretty sure that “DÇbris d’or et d’argent” means that they will buy scrap (or junk) gold and silver.

My wife took a picture of the coins in the window, and they were mainly large silver (argent) pieces. Of course, the shop was closed, as we were coming from a rather late dinner, and I never got a chance to visit the area again.

When we travel to another country, I often find myself comparing the circulating coins of the country we’re visiting with our circulating coins. In the U.S., I find that there are really just three circulating coins: the quarter, dime, and nickel. You can often get half dollars and dollar coins at the bank, if you ask for them, but they don’t really circulate.

As for the cent, it tends to circulate between a change drawer at a store and a large jar or can in your closet or on a shelf.

On a trip to England in 2016, I found that most venues took credit cards, so I didn’t have all that much experience with the circulating coins. In France, however, I discovered that many places didn’t accept credit cards and even at some that did, the lack of Internet access prevented the charge from going through. In other words, I handled a lot of coins.

Because I had need of a lot of change in France, I returned with a pocket full of it. In terms of diversity, I got back with six of the eight coins the French use, missing only the one-cent piece and the two euro.

Each coin used in countries of the European Union has a common side, which gives the denomination and has a map of the EU countries. The other side is called the national side, and it has an image of relevance to the country of origin. On French coins, the image is that of “the sower,” which is supposed to be the pattern for the obverse of our Walking Liberty half dollar.

It didn’t surprise me to find that I didn’t have any of the one-cent pieces, as I didn’t get them in change very often, and I tended to donate them to buskers if at all possible. Like our cent, they’re essentially worthless.

As for the two-euro piece, the reason I didn’t return with any is that that particular coin was the most useful coin at all. The second most useful coin was the one-euro piece. It’s noteworthy that the paper money of the EU begins with a five-euro note. If we dispensed with the dollar bill and the $2 bill (which doesn’t circulate anyway), then dollar coins and $2 coins would become very useful.

At any rate, it was fun to experience a more rational monetary system. It’s just a shame that I had to travel thousands of miles to encounter it.

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