Coin Collector



In the first of a new series on famous gold coins, we look at a relic from Belgium’s dark colonial past

In the first of a new series of articles focussing on the gold coins of Europe, coin writer Sebastian Wieschowsk­i, provides an introducti­on to these desirable and historical­ly intriguing pieces, beginning with a relic from Belgium’s dark colonial past

At the beginning of the 19th century, a confusing variety of currencies and denominati­ons prevailed throughout Europe. The German lands, for example, counted on thalers, guldens, and pennies, while francs, lira, drachmas, and various other local means of payment were circulatin­g all across the continent. But most currencies had one thing in common at the time: most circulatio­n coins were minted in gold and silver. This increased the acceptance of coins in other countries.

The preliminar­y highlight of this early form of a gold standard in the 19th century occurred in 1865 when France, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerlan­d merged and unified the sizes and weights of their national gold coins. The gold coins of the member states of the ‘Latin Monetary Union’ are traded close to the gold price nowadays and used by many investors as a substitute for modern investment coinage; the world of 19th-century gold coins holds many exciting surprises in store for collectors. And when looking at the golden beauties, it becomes clear that many states were not members of the Latin Coinion, but their coins were based on the standard of the LMU.

Not least because of the modern precious metal investment, historical gold coins have recently received broad interest, and while other collection areas such as Euro coins or pre-Euro issues have recently lost value, gold coins from the 19th and early 20th century maintain their worth. Some even achieve record prices at auctions. Even for beginners on a tight budget, there are inexpensiv­e gold pieces which are suitable as first steps in this exciting collecting area.

In this new series we present five gold coins from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which are not only interestin­g for investors because of their high gold content but are also sought after in the collector community thanks to their historical background.

Belgium: A place in the sun at all costs

With his desire for a ‘place in the sun’ the German Kaiser Wilhelm II was not alone, he was just one of the last European monarchs who could claim any patch of earth for themselves. Many states were far ahead of Germany in their colonizati­on and these global powerhouse­s often planted their flags in distant lands. To today’s observers, it might seem odd that palms, elephants and lions were to be seen on Belgian coins, yet this only reflected the ‘scramble’ for colonies in the 19th century.

The colonial plans of the Kingdom of Belgium, in particular, was pushed forward by one man: Leopold II was king of the Belgians between 1865 and 1909 and turned out to be instrument­al in extending the Belgian territory far beyond the European continent. One

could argue that it was a welcome pastime; at home the king had little to report. Belgium had a modern system of government and thanks to the process of state formation the king, as a constituti­onal monarch, had only limited powers. The government in Brussels knew that colonies could become a burden on the state budget and so the population in the small country did not appear to have an increased interest in an overseas branch.

Their ruler, however, had other ideas. In search of a suitable patch of soil, Leopold first made a find in Asia, but the project was rejected. At an internatio­nal conference in 1876, Leopold then selected the African continent as his playground, of course, for ‘purely philanthro­pic’ interest. Already at the time of the conquest, however, Leopold’s real intentions and morals were revealed. Leopold cheated hundreds of regional tribal chiefs with the help of his ambassador Henry Morton Stanley, born in Wales in 1841, and the man famous for uttering the line ‘Dr Livingston­e, I presume?’ whilst on expedition in what is now Tanzania. Stanley stated that his boss could steer the sun and, according to historical sources, expertly used a sleight-ofhand trick with a burning glass.

After the magic apparently convinced the provincial chieftains, Belgium was able to officially take possession of the Congo in 1884 as part of the ‘Congo Conference’ in Berlin. More precisely, the Internatio­nal Congo Society was the new owner and this was in possession of King Leopold, who now de facto became the owner of a whole African state with a territory that was seventy times the size of the motherland. From his private wallet, Leopold financed the developmen­t of public institutio­ns and had, for example, arranged for former slaves to be educated in schools.

But it wasn’t quite as straightfo­rward, or innocent. This educationa­l initiative served primarily as a showcase project for the sceptical population back in Belgium. In fact, a terror regime was establishe­d in the Congo, which ensured that the region’s population was shockingly halved over forty years. Field workers had their hands chopped off if their work was too slow; the term ‘Congo cruelty’ was born.

The Belgian gold coins of the time depicted nothing of this brutality, simply featuring a portrait of the monarch; Leopold is presented in a dignified pose looking to the right. The first series of gold coins according to the standards of the Latin Monetary Union was minted from 1867 to 1870 in millions. Thereafter, the rough representa­tion of the beard was replaced by a much more detailed variant; the hair was obviously of significan­ce to the king. Depending on the year, between 2.2 and 5.9 million pieces of the second series exist, only the 1882 issue is comparativ­ely rare, with about half a million pieces.

After that, Belgium concentrat­ed on the production of silver coins, because the Latin Monetary standards were not limited to the coinage of gold coins and the Belgian state needed more and more cash to finance the king’s colonial plans. Leopold was thus also seen on silver coins until his death in 1909.

 ??  ?? The Belgian gold coins of the time feature a stoic portrait of the monarch, with no hint of the terrible brutality which had been suffered by the people of Congo as the Belgian Empire flexed its imperial muscles
The Belgian gold coins of the time feature a stoic portrait of the monarch, with no hint of the terrible brutality which had been suffered by the people of Congo as the Belgian Empire flexed its imperial muscles

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom