Review: An Illustrated Catalogue of the French Billon Coinage

Robert A. Vlack. An Illustrated Catalogue of the French Billon Coinage in the Americas. No place: C4 Publications, The Colonial Coin Collectors Club, 2004. Hb. 157 pp., b/w illus. $50.00. Distributed by Ray Williams, 924 Norway Avenue, Trenton, New Jersey, 08629, email: njraywms@optonline.net.

It is appropriate that the year marking the four hundredth anniversary of Samuel de Champlain’s first voyage to the New World and the establishment of the first French outpost on Île Sainte-Croix (Maine) should also see a new volume devoted to the main coinage employed by the later inhabitants of La Nouvelle France, the French colonial empire in North America.

Following a brief history of French North America and its endemic lack of hard currency, Robert Vlack introduces the six major issues and reissues of billon coinage produced in France between 1640 and 1764 (pp. 1-18). However, he also applies the reductionist approach to the circulating coinage of La Nouvelle France endorsed by Michael Hodder in 1994 (“An American Collector’s Guide to the Coins of Nouvelle France,” in J. Kleeberg, ed., Canada’s Money, COAC 8 (New York, 1994), pp. 2-35), thereby discounting the pièce de quinze deniers of 1641 as well as the douzains and sixains of 1658. Despite the listing of these coins in Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins (New York, 1988) (nos. 272-275) and their continued appearance in the most recent editions of the Charlton Standard Catalogue of Canadian Coins, there is in fact no evidence that these coins ever circulated in North America. Thus, the main discussion centers on the old sous marqués (douzains counterstamped with a fleur-de-lis) of 1640, the restruck douzains of 1692-1705, the mousquetaires of 1709-13, and the sous marqués of 1738-1764.

Readers will appreciate Vlack’s concise overview of the production of these coinages and the problems associated with their use in France and the colonies, such as revaluations, billonage profiteering, and the fear of devalued foreign billon coins flooding the French market. A table on page 15 illustrates very well the monotonous stream of revaluations of mousquetaires and pre-1705 sous marqués and douzains between June 1640 and the introduction of the new sous marqués in 1738. However, those interested in the old sous marqués of 1640, the earliest billon coinage to see service in La Nouvelle France, or the recoined douzains of 1692-1705, will be a little disappointed to discover that neither of these series are fully catalogued in the manner of the mousquetaires and sous marqués of the eighteenth century. Instead, for the old sous marqués, the author provides only a list of rulers, whose issues are known to have been the host coins for this major episode of counterstamping. The list is quite interesting, as it includes douzains dating back as early as the reign of Charles VI (1380-1422), as well as English groats, Papal douzinnas and Flemish sols, but it is no replacement for a catalogue with proper descriptions of the individual types and issues of the host coins. Also notable is Vlack’s inability to locate a single old sou marqué made from a 1618 douzain of Louis XIII, despite Breen’s statement (Encyclopedia, p. 47) that this is the most common host. Considering the vast material at the author’s disposal, including the collection of the Bank of Canada, it seems likely that Breen has simply retailed an erroneous statement first made by Louis Ciani (Les monnaies royals françaises de Hughes Capet à Louis XVI (Paris, 1929), p. 379) and that the Encyclopedia should be corrected on this count. As for the recoined douzains of 1692-1705, Vlack divides them into four classes based on the use of host coins or new planchets. Each class is furnished with a single illustration. He leaves the proper cataloguing of this extensive and complex coinage, “up to the collector as a major challenge.” (p. 13). The absence of these coins from the catalogue may perhaps also be forgiven on the grounds that there is little evidence to indicate that they ever circulated in La Nouvelle France. It is possible that they too should be classed with the issues of 1641 and 1658, thus leaving only three billon series for French North America.

The study of the French billon coinage is a true study in economy. Not only was the composition of the alloy (silver, tin and copper) intended to give primarily base metal coins the appearance of more valuable silver, to the profit of the crown, but full value was also wrung out of the dies used to strike the coins through the recutting of dates and reuse of dies in subsequent years. Although overdates are rare for the mousquetaires and demi-mousquetaires, they are a fairly standard feature of the sous marqués struck at most French mints from 1738-64. In the catalogue, Vlack lists all the overdates known to him; amounting to some eighty date varieties, many of which are illustrated with enlargements. While the author has tried to be careful in his reading of overdates in order to avoid the creation of phantom varieties, there are a few listed and illustrated that will probably spark further discussion among collectors. For example, no.37b, a sou marqué from the Paris mint is described as having the date 1757/0, but the circle of the underdate seems too small for a zero and an apparent tail above the top of the seven suggests that the date should be more correctly read as 1757/6, an overdate variety already listed as no. 38d. The 1763/inverted 2 and 1763/curved 3/2 of nos. 47a and c, respectively, might also merit further investigation. Although not strictly an overdate, Vlack also illustrates (no. 253c from the mint of Strasbourg) what he describes as the S of the word SIT in the obverse inscription struck over an inverted 3. In fact, it looks more like the letter S has been converted from a number 8 punch. Something similar may be the case with no. 253c (not illustrated), which is said to have the letter S over an inverted 5.

The main catalogue lists 11 mousquetaires (nos. 1-11), 3 demi-mousquetaires (nos. 12-14), 278 sous marqués (nos. 15-292), and 45 demi-sous marqués (nos. 293-328). The descriptions of the demi-sous marqués of Montpellier, Perpignan, Bourges, and Aix-en-Provence are only provisional since no specimens or photographs were available to the author at the time of publication. The Montpellier and Perpignan issues may in fact be phantoms, as no mintage figures are available for them and they are known only through unverified report. Rarity estimates, based on an ascending scale of 1 to 8, as well as mintage figures (when known) accompany each catalogue entry. Illustrations within the catalogue are generally of high quality, although a very few images may be a little on the dark side. We can, however, sympathize with the difficulty of photographing some of the coins. Not for nothing were they later known as noirs, or “black doggs”, because of their worn and blackened appearance. Extreme rarities or otherwise unusual coins are illustrated within a box in order to draw the attention of the reader. These include a 1711 Lyon mousquetaire with an erroneous G (Poitiers?) mintmark (no. 4), a 1739 Paris sou marqué with barless-A mintmark (no. 18), a Paris/Lyon sou marqué hybrid of 1747 (no. 27), a lead obverse die trial for the 1738 Paris demi-sou marqué (no. 293), a 1781 Cayenne trois sous (no. 398), and a sou marqué counterstamped for use on Tobago (no. 440).

In addition to the official billon issues, the catalogue also includes a section on contemporary counterfeit mousquetaires (nos. 329-339) and counterfeit sous marqués copying the types of most of the French mints (nos. 340-370). Judging from the transformation of the jewels on the crown into mere dashes on a counterfeit mousquetaire (no. 335) and the tendency to corrupt the différents of mint directors and chief engravers on counterfeit sous marqués (see for example nos. 341, 343, 355-356, 358-362) it is tempting to think that the rare 1711-G mousquetaire (no. 4), with G mintmark in place of the usual D of Lyon and dashes in the crown, should be relocated to this section, as Vlack had originally considered.

As if the inclusion of the counterfeits did not make the catalogue of mousquetaires and sous marqués complete enough, a final section covers the counterstamping and recycling of these coinages after the fall of French North America for use in the West Indies as the so-called “stampees” (nos. 371-380). The related Cayenne deux sous (1780-1790) of French Guiana, which were often overstruck on sous marques, are also catalogued along with the counterstamps applied to them and the stampees by various British and Dutch colonies in the West Indies (nos. 381-459). Of some special interest are the sous marqués, deux sous, and stampees counterstamped by the British authorities on Tobago. Vlack argues that no. 441, a very rare French sou marqué bearing the elaborate Tobago counterstamp of TB over a script o, all within a rectangular frame represents the island’s earliest counterstamp, preceding those consisting only of letters. While he is almost certainly right to see this counterstamp as the precursor of the TBo letter punches (nos. 438-439, 442-450), it is difficult to be sure whether it may not have been preceded in turn by the TABAGO in rectangular punch found on stampees and Cayenne deux sous (nos. 451-452). The author places no. 441 at the beginning of Tobago’s counterstamping largely because of its early host coin, but there is actually no way to know how long the coin circulated in the West Indies before it received its counterstamp.

Despite the somewhat narrower focus on the billon issues of the eighteenth century than the general review suggested by the title, An Illustrated Catalogue of the French Billon Coinage in the Americas is an important and long overdue reference for anyone interested in the coins of French North America and the West Indies. Both the author and the Colonial Coin Collectors Club should be congratulated for providing a solid foundation for the further study of French coinage in the New World. Hopefully just as the bold example of Champlain blazed the trail for the colonization of La Nouvelle France four centuries ago, Robert Vlack’s more recent numismatic voyage of discovery will inspire others to take ship and chart new courses in the less traveled waters of North American colonial coinage under the French regime.

—Oliver D. Hoover