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MEDALS OF CONFIDENCE - THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONARY TOKENS OF THE MONNERON BROTHERS

 

by Mish Webster

Monnerons Issued!

Collectors of coins and tokens issued by Matthew Boulton’s famous Soho Mint near Birmingham will no doubt have had opportunity to examine the impressive French medallic tokens struck there in the early 1790s for the family business known as the Frères Monneron (the Monneron Brothers.) The economic turmoil, which followed the French Revolution of 1789, and Matthew Boulton’s ability to produce high-quality coinage on his steam-operated coining presses at Soho, combined to produce some of the most beautiful tokens ever issued.

At the onset of the revolution, the French economy was already virtually bankrupt following the enormous expense of France’s support for America in its War of Independence against Great Britain. Though the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 marked the end of absolute monarchy in France and the dawning of a new society based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, the old ancien régime coinage of Louis XVI continued to be struck until 1792.

 

After 1789, Louis XVI initially remained a monarch in the form of constitutional King of the French. A new constitutional coinage in copper or bell-metal, silver and gold followed in 1791, circulating alongside the ancien régime pieces. In spite of the 1791 issue however, France, like Britain, suffered from an acute lack of specie – a situation exacerbated by the economic problems of the time. A short-term solution was attempted by the introduction of a new circulating medium of exchange - the notorious assignats - paper money backed by confiscated church properties and land. Produced in vast quantities, the assignats eventually depreciated to the point of worthlessness and, as a result, the French were to distrust paper money for many years to come (this was in fact France’s second attempt to introduce paper money backed by land rather than gold and silver – John Law’s previous attempt at the beginning of the 18th century had also met with disaster.) And so, it was against this uncertain economic background that the tokens of the Monneron Brothers appeared.

The brothers themselves were descended from a family of Huguenot lawyers, originally from Annonay in Ardèche. Their father Antoine, was a government advocate, who had bought the rights to receive the infamous gabelle or salt tax for the town of Annonay. The gabelle was a very unpopular tax imposed on salt in pre-Revolutionary France – the right to collect and keep this tax would be granted to a collector in return for a sum of money paid to the Royal treasury. The Monneron family fortune was therefore already considerable when Antoine sent three of his sons to make their fortunes in the French colonies.

 

The eldest son, Charles-Claude-Ange Monneron, (1735-1804), began his career as an assistant merchant in the Compagnie des Indes (Company of the Indies) in 1767. He became state prosecutor for the French Indian Settlements during the government of Joseph François Dupleix, and in 1769 was made an advisor to the Superior Council at Pondicherry. Further promotion followed in 1784 to the posts of Commissary General of the Naval Ports and Arsenals, and Financial Organiser of the French Indian Settlements. In 1785, he was sent to the Île de France (modern-day Mauritius), as the Administrator General. Returning to France, he was elected deputy of the Third Estate for Annonay in the Estates General on 29 March 1789 (in pre-revolutionary France, the middle and working classes were known collectively as the Third Estate and were entitled to representation in the legislative assembly known as the Estates General). In 1794, he became a member of a commission charged with the task of overseeing the provision of supplies to the population of the new French republic.

 

Like his elder brother, Jean-Louis Monneron (1742-1805) joined the Compagnie des Indes as an agent in 1769. A successful merchant in Pondicherry, he quickly made a fortune and became a member of the prestigious Merchants' Lodge of the Île de France in 1771. Following the Revolution, France’s ruling Constituent Assembly made him deputy for the French Indian Settlements in 1789.

 

Pierre-Antoine Monneron (1747-1811) was a sea captain, who, in 1787, transported to France the sultan Tipu Sahib (a supporter of the French in India) and his entourage. In 1789, the Constituent Assembly made him deputy for the Île de France.

 

Finally, the youngest brother, Joseph-François-Augustin Monneron (1756-1824), unlike his three siblings, made his career in France. He remained for a time in Ardèche, before setting himself up as a Paris merchant in 1777. He quickly became the director of a tobacco factory and, from 1777 to 1789, was a member of the famous Merchants' Lodge of Reunited Friends. He soon developed a considerable business network, particularly amongst the international Huguenot community. He was elected deputy for Paris in 1791, and used his position to demand from the Legislative Assembly the setting up of primary schools and the punishment of priests who refused to submit to the law. He followed this up in January 1792, by launching a vigorous defence for the freedom of commerce with the colonies.

 

By 1791, Joseph-François-Augustin had founded a merchant bank in Paris backed financially by his brother Jean-Louis. Pierre-Antoine joined his two brothers and it is these three who became known as the Frères Monnerons. In the same year, Joseph-François-Augustin applied for and successfully obtained the right to strike copper token coinage. This right had however also been granted to other private individuals and it was perhaps to ensure the popularity of their own tokens over rival pieces that the Monneron Brothers chose designs from the greatest French engraver of the revolutionary era, Augustin Dupré (1748-1833). Born in Saint-Étienne, the birthplace of several notable engravers, Dupré had already made his name as a medallist of genius producing many fine medals commemorating the American War of Independence, before becoming the Engraver General of the French mints in 1791. Indeed it was he who had designed the official Constitutional issue of coinage struck from that year.

 

Having said all that, the first Monneron tokens to appear were in fact designed by another skilled French engraver, Rambert Dumarest (1760-1806). Like Dupré, Dumarest was born in Saint-Étienne. He travelled to England in the summer of 1790 to take up a post as engraver at the Soho Mint and designed two Monneron tokens during his year long stay there. These undated pieces bear portraits of two famous people whose influence had played a part in the Revolution - the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and the French military officer the Marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834).

Struck in copper, with 'Late Soho' specimens in white metal, and measuring 35 mm., the tokens are medallic in form and no denomination is mentioned on them. The only reference to their possible purpose is in the edge inscription, which reads “SE. VEND. A PARIS. CHEZ. MONNERON (PATENTÉ)” – to be sold at the Monneron’s, Paris (licensed). This statement, which presumably implies that the tokens could be sold back to the Monneron Brothers for their denominational value, was in fact to appear on some of the later denominational issues. The fact that the piece actually bears no face value makes one wonder whether these early Monneron tokens were ever intended for circulation. They may have been issued as trial pieces or even just sold as medals, giving another interpretation to the edge inscription. Certainly, the few I have seen for sale have all been in high grade, implying little or no circulation. Whatever the answer, they are now quite rare.

 

A further non-denominational piece was struck a little later in 1791 and commemorates Louis XVI’s acceptance of the new French Constitution on 14th September of that year. Again struck in copper and measuring 35 mm., it has also been produced in medallic style.

The obverse design by Dupré features Louis XVI standing to the right of a pedestal, which bears the revolutionary symbols of a fasces enclosing a spear surmounted by a Phrygian cap of liberty. His right hand rests on a tablet bearing the word “CONSTITUTION”. The tablet is supported by Minerva, representing Liberty, and between the two figures is another female holding a pair of scales representing Equality.

The legend reads “JE JURE D’ETRE FIDELE A LA NATION ET LA LOI” – I swear to be faithful to the nation and the law. The date of the oath appears in the exergue.

An otherwise almost identical piece features a different obverse legend: "ACCEPTATION DE LA CONSTITUTION PAR LOUIS XVI" - Acceptance of the Constitution by Louis XVI  - while in the exergue, the date is replaced by the inscription "MESSAGE DU ROI A L'ASSEM. NATIONALE LE 13 SEPT 1791" - Message from the King to the National Assembly, 13th September 1791

The reverses of both types bear the legend “MESSAGE DU ROI A L'ASS. NAT : CONSTTE. PRESIDT. JES. GME. THOURET” – the King’s message to the National Constitutional Assembly; President Jacques Guillaume Thouret. The central inscription reads “LE VŒU DU PEUPLE N'EST PLUS DOUTEUX POUR MOI : J'ACCEPTE LA CONSTITUTION. - 13 SEPTEMBRE L'AN III DE LA LIBERTÉ.” – the wish of the people is no longer in doubt for me : I accept the Constitution. – 13th September, Year 3 of Liberty. This statement is actually taken from the king’s speech delivered to the Constitutional Assembly on 13th September in which he agreed to accept the Constitution. The dating system is that of the French Constitutional Calendar, which counted the years from the fall of the Bastille on 14th July 1789. These were known as Years of Liberty - Les Ans de la Liberté and ran concurrently with the years of the traditional calendar, the first year being a short one running from 14th July 1789 to 31st December 1789. As with the earlier non-denominational pieces, the edge inscription reads “SE. VEND. A PARIS. CHEZ. MONNERON (PATENTÉ)”. Again, this token or medal is rare.

 

All tokens issued after the “Constitution” piece of 1791 were denominational and were struck at the Soho Mint. The mint’s owner, Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), had already been trying to procure an order for French official coinage through his agent in Paris, Dr. Francis Swediaur. Though this never came off, Swediaur’s investigations had brought him into contact with the Monneron Brothers. When the brothers expressed their desire to issue token coinage, Swediaur was in the perfect position to aid negotiations with Boulton and it was probably at about this time that the portrait tokens or medals described earlier were produced. It is tempting to believe that the portrait pieces may therefore have been struck by Boulton as examples to be shown to the Monnerons in the hope of securing a contract. If so, they were successful, and a contract to strike copper tokens valued at two sols and five sols was eventually drawn up for Boulton by John Motteux, a friend from the East India Company who acted as intermediary.

 

The first of these denominational copper tokens to be struck at Soho left the mint on 3rd November 1791. Valued at two sols and measuring 32 mm., they weighed in at twenty-seven to the pound and were followed later in the month by a small issue in silver and gilt. Like all the Monneron tokens that were to follow, this piece was designed by Augustin Dupré and is the most coin-like of the series.

Monneron 2 Sols, Reverse, Rambert Dumarest, Soho Mint, 1791/L'An III

Monneron 2 Sols, Obverse, Rambert Dumarest, Soho Mint, 1791/L'An III

The obverse bears a seated female figure representing France in the guise of Liberty surrounded by symbols of the Revolution. Her left arm is leaning on a tablet representing the Declaration of the Rights of Man: the tablet bears the inscription “DROITS DE L'HOMME ARTIC. V.” - Rights of Man, Article 5. In her right hand is a spear surmounted by a Phrygian cap and on a pillar behind her is a rooster. In the exergue is the inscription “L'AN III . DE LA LIBERTE”. The legend reads “LIBERTE SOUS LA LOI”  - Liberty under the law.

The reverse inscription reads “MEDAILLE DE CONFIANCE DE DEUX SOLS A ECHANGER CONTRE DES ASSIGNATS DE 50L ET AU DESSUS 1791”  - medal of confidence of two sols, to be exchanged for assignats of 50 livres or above, 1791. The term “medal of confidence” appears for the first time on this token and reflects the simple fact, readily recognised by the Monnerons, that a token is only worth its face value if it has the confidence of the people.

The surrounding legend reads “MONNERON FRERES NEGOCIANS A PARIS” – Monneron Brothers, merchants of Paris. The edge inscription gives the areas in which the token was valid and reads “BON POUR BORD MARSEIL. LYON ROUEN NANT ET STRASB.” – Good for Bordeaux, Marseilles, Lyon, Rouen, Nantes and Strasbourg.

 

Towards the end of 1791, a quantity of five sols copper pieces was also struck. These impressive medallic tokens measure 39.5 mm. across and weigh in at 32 grammes. The magnificent scene on the obverse commemorates the first anniversary of the Oath of the Federation, which was celebrated by the Festival of the Federation, held on the Champ de Mars in Paris on 14 July 1790 (hence that date in the exergue). The Festival, which included a mass held by the great French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), then the Bishop of Autun, also commemorated the taking of the Bastille and the bond, which united the nation with the king and the people. The Festival of the Federation image was originally designed by Dupré for an oval medallion, which was issued in 1790 to commemorate the event and it retains its oval form on the token.

Monneron 5 Sols, after Dupre: Serment du Roi, Soho Mint, 1792/L'An IV

The beautifully detailed engraving captures a scene, which was actually acted out during the Festival. It features Federal Guards offering a revolutionary salute to a female figure representing France. She sits beside an obelisk and holds a tablet bearing the words “CONSTITUTION DES FRANÇAIS”. Before her is a pedestal bearing the profile of Louis XVI and behind her is a shield bearing the royal coat-of-arms of three fleurs-de-lis. The engraver's signature “DUPRE.F.” (for Dupré fecit – “Dupré made this”) appears below the female figure, and beneath that are two crushed parchments symbolising the removal of privileges from the church and the nobility (one parchment bears the French word “DIME” meaning “tithe”, while the other bears the letters “PRIV” – the beginning of the French word privilèges). Above the image are the words “PACTE FEDERATIF”. The cogent legend reads “VIVRE LIBRES - OU MOURIR” - to live free or to die (this exhortation also appears, along with a Phrygian cap mounted on a spear, on the flags flying above the soldiers’ heads). The date of the oath “XIIII JUILLET MDCCXC” appears in the exergue, replaced in later strikes by the revised form "14 JUILLET 1790"

 

Similarly to the two sols piece, the reverse of the five sols token bears the inscription “MEDAILLE DE CONFIANCE DE CINQ SOLS A ECHANGER CONTRE DES ASSIGNATS DE 50L. ET AU DESSUS. - L'AN III. DE LA LIBERTÉ”, as well as the surrounding legend “MONNERON FRERES NEGOCIANS A PARIS” with the date 1791 below. The edge inscription again gives the areas in which the token could be used and reads “DEPARTEMENTS . DE . PARIS . DE . RHONE . DE . LOIRE . ET DU . GARD.”.

 

The high production quality required of these large and heavy tokens caused Matthew Boulton considerable problems, which were exacerbated by his business rival Thomas Williams, the Anglesey copper magnate, who did his best to limit Boulton’s supply of copper. Nevertheless, the staff of the Soho Mint worked hard to improve production and by late January 1792, two presses were in operation striking forty-five of the five sols tokens per minute. Though this was a slight reduction when compared to the usual striking speed, it lessened wear and tear on the machinery and actually increased production. A problem with recoil of the press arm due to the weight and size of the tokens was overcome by the use of a double air pump. In spite of the best efforts of Boulton and his staff however, the problems persisted as is witnessed in the following report made by Boulton to the Monneron Brothers in February 1792:

 

The great force which I find [must be used] to strike the 5 sous pieces has broke, bent, & deranged, most of the parts of the press’s ……But this is not the only misfortune for this day one of the great Bars or Ballances of the Press broke & with the great weight, that is fixed upon the ends of it, fell down & has very much hurt one of my best Workmen & I fear hath broke his arm, this happend within this half hour. I have sent for a Surgeon -

Monneron 5 Sols, after Dupre: Serment du Roi, Soho Mint, 1792/L'An IV

In spite of his troubles, the contract was an important one and Boulton continued with production. The first five sols tokens to be struck in 1792 bore a slightly different reverse inscription: the expression “A ECHANGER” was changed to “REMBOURSABLE” – reimbursable.

 

Interestingly, the first of these tokens to be issued in 1792 bear the incorrect French Constitutional Calendar date of year 3 of Liberty (1792 was in fact year 4). At the time, there was some confusion amongst the French people about when the years of Liberty should begin. Some people treated them as beginning on 1st January, while others believed they should start on the 14th July, as that was the date when the first year began. The problem was solved on 2nd January 1792, when the French Legislative Assembly issued a decree formally adopting 1st January as the start of the Constitutional year. It would appear therefore that the 1792 first issue of five sols tokens was either struck very early in the year or, and it seems more likely, was actually struck at the end of 1791 and post-dated. When a further issue was struck a little later in 1792, they bore the correct year 4 of Liberty date.

Monneron 5 Sols, Reverse, 3rd type statement of value, Soho Mint, 1792/L'An IV

Later in the year, yet a further issue was struck with another reverse inscription reflecting a change in French law concerning paper money. The resulting inscription contains no reference to assignats and reads “MEDAILLE QUI SE VEND CINQ SOLS A PARIS CHEZ MONNERON [PATENTÉ]” – medal which is to be sold for five sols in Paris at the Monnerons’ (licensed) Some were struck bearing the number “5” rather than the word “CINQ”. The surrounding legend was also changed to read “REVOLUTION FRANÇAISE”. Furthermore, in what was clearly a plea for public acceptance, the edge inscription was altered to read “LA CONFIANCE AUGMENTE LA VALEUR” – confidence increases value.

A similar issue of the two sols tokens was also struck reflecting the legal change and with the new edge inscription.

 

The 1792 tokens all show a slight reduction in weight – a reflection of the financial problems, which the Monneron Brothers were beginning to experience at this time. In fact, by March 1792, they were facing bankruptcy and Pierre-Antoine had fled the business. His brother Joseph-François-Augustin however remained at the helm and managed to keep the company going.

A final issue of five sols tokens was struck in 1792 bearing a different design by Dupré. The new tokens feature an image of the legendary hero Hercules. Originally designed back in 1776 as a jeton for an organisation known as Les Six Corps des Marchands (a group of Parisian merchants and a forerunner of today’s Chambers of Commerce), the design shows Hercules seated on the skin of the Nemean lion with his club by his side. Behind him is the base of a pillar and before him is the sea bearing five tiny sailing ships. He is unsuccessfully attempting to break a fasces over his knee – a symbolic act demonstrating strength in unity. In the exergue below him is the date “L’AN IV DE LA LIBERTÉ.”. The legend reads “LES FRANÇAIS UNIS SONT INVINCIBLES” – the French united are invincible. The reverse is identical to that of the last Festival of the Federation issue. A small number of one sol pieces was also struck bearing the Hercules design, but it is uncertain whether these tokens were ever put into circulation. Whether they were trial pieces or later mid-19th century strikes produced for collectors is open to debate.

 

A little later, a revised Hercules obverse appeared on two varieties of two sols pieces commemorating the deposition of Louis XVI and the birth of the first French Republic (which introduced yet another new calendar) on 21st and 22nd September 1792. On the obverse, common to both varieties, the Hercules figure has been subtly altered and, instead of bending a fasces over his knee, he is breaking a royal sceptre. A broken royal crown can be seen at his feet and an owl (the symbol of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom) stands on a pedestal behind him. The legend reads “LA SAGESSE GUIDE SA FORCE” – wisdom guides his strength; and the inscription in the exergue reads “LA FIN DU DESPOTISME” – the end of despotism. The first variety bears the same reverse inscription as the previous Liberty issue. The second variety however bears a new reverse featuring a pyramid surrounded by the legend “RESPUBLICA GALLICA ANNO. Imo..” – first year of the Republic of Gaul. Again, only a small number of these tokens were struck and they are generally considered to be trial rather than circulation pieces.

 

On 3rd May 1792, the French Legislative Assembly introduced a new law forbidding the striking of privately produced tokens. A further decree in September forbade the marketing of these pieces [ see Monnerons Banned!] and, on 1st September, the Soho Mint received orders to cease production of the Monneron tokens. Apparently, eight days later, a new instruction was received to recommence production and, under Boulton’s orders, all remaining copper blanks were struck up. Unfortunately, the new instruction turned out to be false information and production of the tokens then ceased for good. By the end of the year the Monneron tokens had ceased to circulate in France.

 

In his book 'The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money,' Richard Doty records the total number of Monneron tokens struck as 3,675,289 two sols and 3,886,194 five sols (about 1,371,00 of the two sols and 22,000 of the fives were subsequently melted down). The Monneron Brothers token-issuing venture had lasted less than twelve months, yet it resulted in some of the highest quality tokens ever produced.

 

Bibliography

Les Collections Monétaires: Monnaies de la Révolution Française by Bruno Collin and Jean Indrigo: Direction des Monnaies et Médailles, Paris, 1989

Graveurs Stéphanois sous la Révolution: Musée d’Art et d’Industrie Saint-Étienne, 1989.

Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama: Penguin Books 1989.

Monnaies de Nécessité Françaises by Victor Gadoury and Roland Elie: Victor Gadoury, Monaco 1990.

The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money by Richard Doty: Spink, London 1998.

 

Acknowledgements

sohomint.info is very grateful to Bill McKivor of The Copper Corner, Seattle, WA, for permission to use the illustrations marked with the skating gent. These pieces are from the Boulton family holdings.

Monnerons Banned!

Monnerons Banned!

Monnerons Banned!
Soho Mint
Monnerons Issued!
McKivor

The Acceptance of the Constitution by King Louis XVI

Obverse Engraved by Dupre, struck at Soho Mint

McKivor
UnknownCredit

Commemorative Medal for Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier,

Marquis de la Fayette

Engraved by Rambert Dumarest, struck at Soho Mint

Hover your cursor to see

the reverse of the medal

Commemorative Medal Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Engraved by Rambert Dumarest, struck at Soho Mint

Hover your cursor to see

the reverse of the medal

Hover your cursor to see

the reverse of the medal