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Emergency money: a porcelain coin for bad days

Luisa Coscarelli

 

A close friend of mine recently got a new job as part of the marketing team at a company researching and selling coins. When we got together last weekend to catch up over a glass of wine, she told me about a curious coin she had come across – one made of porcelain! I was intrigued. Unfortunately she could not help me with pictures of the coin or much information, but encouraged me to have a look in museum collections; surely there must be a porcelain coin somewhere. The next day I started to research and found an example in the collection of the British Museum.

Porcelain Coin, Meissen porcelain manufacture, 1921, Meissen, Germany, porcelain (Böttgersteinzeug), Museum no. 1935,0401.3784, Image ⓒ British Museum, London.

Porcelain Coin, Meissen porcelain manufacture, 1921, Meissen, Germany, porcelain (Böttgersteinzeug), Museum no. 1935,0401.3784, Image ⓒ British Museum, London.

Having anticipated something quite old – I am not sure why – I was surprised to find that this coin dates to June of 1921. Porcelain coins were Notgeld (emergency money) issued in Germany shortly after the First World War. Coinage was running low at the time, due to a lack in material supplies, which is why cities and regions opted for the production of coins made of porcelain. This particular example was made in the Meissen porcelain manufacture as can be deduced from the front of the coin, as well as from the back. The two crossing swords are the symbol of the porcelain producer. Since the Meissen manufacture was a state owned company it must have been relatively straightforward to have the coins made there.[1]

This coin is decorated with a man playing the bagpipe and dancing to his music, a bouquet of flowers, and several inscriptions. The front of the coin holds the writing Ludwig Richter Fest | Meissen Juni 1921[2], while the back holds the somewhat cryptic inscription:

Not enough thanks were given to your joy, Ludwig Richter

But your youth’s children will give you thanks today

What these inscriptions refer to is not entirely clear. Ludwig Richter was a prominent nineteenth-century painter and worked as a drawing teacher at the Meissen manufacture from 1828 to 1836.[3] This coin appears to have been produced to commemorate a feast that was held in his honour in 1921 in Meissen. Therefore, the bagpiper might be one of his designs. However, I did not find evidence for this. It is unclear why the event was held. It does not relate to the anniversary of his birth, death, or his work for the Meissen manufacture. The Meissen manufacture might have wanted to add company history to the product and thus chose to honour the former drawing teacher Ludwig with the event and commemorative coin. The question is what these decorative details add to the coin – possibly some collector’s value?

The images of this coin from the collection of the British Museum is only reproduced in black and white, however, colour images can be found on various websites  that are dedicated to the sale of the coins. Having a look at the colour image the coins are not of the white glazed porcelain that one might expect, but a reddish-brown colour. This particular type of hard paste porcelain is known as Böttgersteinzeug. It was developed by Johann Friedrich Böttger, an employee of the Meissen manufacture and is known for this particular colour. Therefore, it is not only the sword symbol, or naming of the place of manufacture that give this coin’s maker away, but also its materiality, which is particular to the company. Apart from this addition of a marker of provenance, why would Meissen have chosen this particular material? The answer to this is unclear. Might the bronzy colour add the illusion of metal and connect the porcelain coin to its metal brother? This might reinforce the people’s sense of trust in the currency and thus enable the coin to circulate more smoothly.

Porcelain Coin (obverse), Meissen porcelain manufacture, 1921, Meissen, Germany, porcelain (Böttgersteinzeug), Museum no. 1935,0401.3784, Image ⓒ British Museum, London.

Porcelain Coin (obverse), Meissen porcelain manufacture, 1921, Meissen, Germany, porcelain (Böttgersteinzeug), Museum no. 1935,0401.3784, Image ⓒ British Museum, London.

Meissen was not the only place in Germany that produced these coins, and interestingly their introduction into the economy in order to come by the shortage of metal coins does not seem to have been their only function. The town of Gotha, located more or less in the middle of Germany, chose the local porcelain producer Fritz Pfeffer to make their porcelain coinage.[4] The decision to have the coins produced in the first place came from the mayor of the town Mr. Scheffler. He corresponded with Prof. Dr. Pick – a member of Gotha’s privy council – in secret about how and why this should be done. Scheffler wrote:

In order to rectify the current lack of small change the town will have porcelain money – 50 Pfennig pieces – made alongside the coins made of metal. Whether we will put them in circulation is unclear as of yet. We are sure, however, that the sale of the [porcelain] coins to collectors will be beneficial.[5]  

What the mayor is trying to express here is the possibility of porcelain coins being produced not as a means to replace and add to existing metal currency, but as a tool to create a sought after product that will attract collectors. Therefore, the mayor is aiming to create a source of income for the town. This insight into Scheffler’s intentions adds a truly fascinating component to these coins, and raises questions about how the unexpected, uncommon and unknown materiality of an object creates value. A particularly fascinating thought when talking about coins that have an intrinsic and economical value anyway.

 

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[1] http://oldbucks.com/pdf/PorcelainCoinsBG.pdf

[2] Ludwig Richter feast | Meissen June 1921

[3] http://www.adrian-ludwig-richter.de/ubersicht/zeitverlauf/zeitverlauf.html

[4] Frank Ringleb, ‘Zum Gothaer Porzellannotgeld 1920/21’, Erfurter Münzblätter, Erfurt XI/XII 2003/2004 (2010), pp. 99 – 111, (99).

[5] Ibid. (Authors translation).

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Luisa Coscarelli –

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.

© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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