It’s been said that vintage coins are “history in your hands.” They are tangible relics of bygone eras with fascinating backstories. In particular, some coins have a direct connection to landmark events, wars, revolutions, and famous rulers. Perhaps the best examples are 19th century French gold coins. From 1840 through 1900, the county underwent a surprise coup d’état, regained its status as an empire, had its famous leader deposed, and then returned to being a republic. All of these episodes are directly reflected on French 20 Franc gold coins from this period. They boast beautiful designs, intriguing symbolism, and some of the richest heritage of any vintage gold coin.
The 1840s and early 1850s were tumultuous for France. After being a monarchy for several decades, the country experienced a revolution in 1848. Citizens revolted against King Louis-Philipe and adopted a new form of republican government. Immediately, France’s 20 Franc coin was modified to reflect this new governance. Gone were the portraits of Louis-Philipe; his likeness was replaced by an angel writing the French constitution. This symbolized the belief that the republic had divine support and approval. The reverse of the coin featured the motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” which translates to “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood.” The republic wanted to make clear that France was operating under a new democratic philosophy.
This French Republic did not last long. Its president, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, was term-limited by the Constitution and could not seek re-election. Much like his uncle, the famous Napoleon I, Louis-Napoleon was rather ambitious. Rather than step down, he instead staged a coup d’état and designated himself President for life! He didn’t stop there; Louis-Napoleon then dissolved the republic and declared France to be an empire again. Of course, Louis-Napoleon named himself Emperor and adopted the royal title of Napoleon III.
Just like earlier French rulers, Napoleon III insisted that he appear on the country’s coinage. The 20 Franc gold coin was immediately redesigned with his portrait on the obverse, surrounded by the inscription “NAPOLEON III EMPEREUR.” He also retained a divine element on the new 20 Franc. While subtle, the edge is engraved with the motto “DIEU PROTEGE LA FRANCE” (God protects France). This was meant to suggest that Napoleon III was also receiving the divine support claimed by the now-defunct Republic.
Napoleon III’s first decade was chaotic and turbulent. He imposed hard censorship on the press, imprisoned his opponents, and entered into a series of unpopular wars. Nonetheless, Napoleon III wanted to project an image of success. He demanded a redesign of his portrait on the 20 Franc gold coin, this time opting to show himself with a laureate wreath on his head. In ancient Europe, this symbolized victory and honor. Some believe that this image was meant to associate Napoleon III with the great emperors of the Roman empire.
Ultimately symbolism only works so well; Napoleon III found himself on the losing end of a war with Prussia. The Emperor was captured and eventually exiled to England, where he passed away in 1873. Upon learning of Napoleon III’s defeat, the Second French Empire of 1852-1870 was declared over. France switched back to being a republic—a status it maintained until World War II. With the republic having been restored, the angel design of 1848-1849 was brought back for the 20 Franc gold coin. This iconic motif remained in use by the French Republic from 1871 through 1898.
The gold 20 Franc was redesigned once more in 1899, but the theme of nationalistic symbolism continued. This latest version of the coin featured Marianne, a mascot of the republic, on the obverse. Much like Lady Liberty on American coins, Marianne serves as an icon of democracy and freedom. The mythical character of Marianne was first conceived in 1792 during the French Revolution, but she did not appear on a French gold coin until 1899. Since then, she has become a mainstay on French currency and even some newly-issued Euro coins depict her likeness.
The reverse of this coin featured an even older French symbol: the Gallic rooster. In ancient times, the land now known as France was called “Gallus” by the Romans. Amusingly, this was also the Latin word for “rooster.” The bird was soon associated with Gaul (i.e. the Roman territory that would become France) and developed into a national emblem. The French Republic embraced the rooster as a symbol; it was viewed as a reflection of the country’s watchfulness, readiness, and rich agricultural heritage. The 20 Franc gold coin with the rooster reverse was issued continuously until World War I broke out in 1914.
Today, we have a limited number of high-grade 20 Franc gold coins from this fascinating period of world history. Being over a century old, the coins of this era are often seen in well-worn condition. This is especially true for French 20 Francs, which was one of the most widely-used coins in the 19th century. Merchants and traders throughout the world used the coin. Most specimens grade just Very Fine (VF) or Extremely Fine (XF); Almost Uncirculated (AU) specimens can be a challenge to locate. After many months of searching, we’ve gathered together a select group of higher-end 20 Francs in excellent condition. All have been graded AU50 or better by NGC and are housed in fresh, new holders.
We can offer the following four historic 20 Franc gold coins in NGC AU50 or better:
1852-1860 20 Franc Napoleon Bare Head NGC About Uncirculated
1861-1870 20 Franc Napoleon Laureate NGC About Uncirculated
1871-1898 20 Franc Angel NGC About Uncirculated
1898-1914 20 Franc Rooster NGC About Uncirculated
You can add these enchanting coins to your collection at $295 each. Few gold coins can boast such a captivating story, let alone at such a reasonable price point. In addition to being a pleasure to own and hold, these 20 Franc gold coins are excellent conversation pieces. Few coins can rival these in terms of historical background and significance. The fact that they survived in excellent condition—and are now certified by NGC—only adds to their appeal.
Our quantities of these 20 Francs are limited. If you wish to take advantage of this unusual offering, we advise you to place your order soon. Unlike newly-minted coins, which can be replenished with ease, vintage coins like these can be difficult to replace. We cannot guarantee that more of these superior-quality French gold coins will be available again.