by Al Doyle for CoinWeek ......
With gold parked well above $1550 an ounce, the option of buying pre-1933 $20 gold pieces or one-ounce gold Eagles or Maple Leafs is an impossible dream for some precious metals investors. Even if price isn't an issue, there is another reason for avoiding larger hunks of the yellow metal.
The positive aspect of low premiums above melt value for one-ounce gold products also comes with a lack of divisibility. A person can't take a hacksaw and divide the coin if they want to sell part of the ounce. For those who see gold as a potential barter item in economic hard times, the thought of flashing a full ounce of gold in such a scenario may be way too ostentatious for face to face encounters.
Fractional gold makes sense for a number of reasons, but these useful pieces often sell for much higher premiums than larger coins. Is there a way to obtain smaller units without paying the 9 to 15 percent above spot price that is common with popular issues in the 1/10 to 1/4-ounce range? How about old, historic, attractive and low premium all in the same package?
First struck in 1802, the earliest French 20 franc gold pieces don't carry the date in a way that would be recognized by the average person. AN (year) 11 was used to mark the length of Napoleon's reign over France. That practice continued until 1805.
Napoleon's portrait remained on the coin that still retains his name today (for many Frenchmen, the term "Napoleon" is synonymous with the 20 franc piece and gold ownership in general) until 1815. There were minor variations in the portrait. Pieces struck at various branch mints carry different lettered mint marks on the reverse.
Numismatists as well as history buffs often want to have a coin with Napoleon's image, which means there is always demand for pieces that are better looking than the typical well-worn survivor. That means a nice early 1800s 20 franc sells for more than a newer piece that can be had for bullion-related prices.
The series continued with the bust of Louis XVIII from 1816 to 1824. French rulers Charles X (1824-30) and Louis Phillipe (1830-48) also appeared on the 20 franc and other gold issues of the era. With the monarch's bust on the obverse and the denomination or coat of arms flanked by a wreath on the reverse with the date at the 6:00 position, the series wasn't the stuff of artistic genius yet, but those days were on the horizon.
The "Angel" obverse debuted in 1848 and was also struck in 1849. The design returned in 1871 and remained in production until 1898. Ceres (think cereal) appeared on the gold Napoleon from 1849 to 1851. The Roman goddess of agriculture wears an edible wreath, and the obverse includes a fasces and a stalk of grain. A similar portrait was used on the 20 centime postage stamp of 1849.
It was back to political leaders, as Napoleon III's image was placed on the 20 franc pieces of 1852 to 1870. Another development confirmed the coin's role as a significant player in the monetary system.
At .1867 ounce of gold, the .900 fine coin was ideal for commerce and conveniently sized for the person of average means. Unlike the U.S. $20s which were used in mainly as bank reserves and to settle major transactions, the 20 franc was a workhorse in daily circulation. After the Latin Monetary Union was formed in 1865, the French Napoleon was eventually duplicated by Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Austria-Hungary.
Think of the LMU as a less micromanaging and cumbersome predecessor to the current European Union. Unlike the EU, the Latin Monetary Union was based on honest money, although fluctuations in silver prices caused some problems. The various 20 franc pieces could and did circulate across borders, and the famed U.S. $4 Stella was a pattern designed to fit into the general dimensions of the European coinage system.
The familiar and eye-pleasing "rooster" reverse with a modified portrait of Ceres was struck from 1898 to 1914. There are no rare dates in this series, and some restrikes have been produced. Usually available in AU to uncirculated condition, the last of the French gold 20 franc pieces is proof that attractiveness in coins isn't limited to larger pieces.
What about buying the various coins of this size? Less than a fifth of an ounce of gold apiece makes one and two-unit purchases a realistic option for many collectors and bullion investors. The French Angel and rooster along with the Swiss 20 francs of the 1900s (a different design was struck from 1883 to 1896) are by far the most common designs. Shoppers might find the occasional VF Napoleon II or III, Italian 20 lire or Belgian 20 franc in a mixed lot of bullion.
Premiums are typically lower than the going rate for quarter-ounce Eagles, Maple Leafs and Austrian Philharmonics. One large wholesaler sells 20 francs for $6 to $9 per coin over spot, but a minimum purchase of 50 pieces is required. Beware of mass-market promoters who hype "Rare European gold!" with flashy flyers offering 20 franc gold coinage at inflated prices.
Although they are anything but scarce, a fair number of French 20 francs are unavailable for purchase. Why? Countless Frenchmen keep a few or a few dozen Napoleons close at hand as financial insurance. In this instance, hard metal under a soft mattress really can help a person sleep better.