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Monday, December 24, 2012

Gold Coins: Patterns, Essais, Medals

A "pattern" or "essai" is a coin that was submitted to the official state mint whose images were to be considered for general release as coins.

A Medal comes from the old Italian word "medalia" which means "Metal" or "coin"  Originally - in the early Renaissance - it was a coin produced by a mint other than the official state mint.  And it generally glorified Individuals of Means - while coins glorified images of Christ or Christ's representative on earth: the King.

As such Medals were the first Modern Artform - or the first Modern Coins - if we take Modern to mean "A conception of Individual Achievement as remarkable" - as opposed to the Medieval Conception of Man and his Achievement  as simply element and reflection of God's Collective.

It was not long (17th century) before top engravers (and families of engravers such were the Roettiers) were hired by official state mints where they produced both coins for general distribution and medals to commemorate individual and state achievement.

There are virtually no "patterns" or "essais" from this period.  And gold strike medals from this period are so very rare that they command prices easily comparable to the most valuable coins of the period.

But by the late 18th century the explosion of populations and world trade and the introduction of the steam engine had it made the use and quantity of coinage such that mints sprung up to produce coinage and medals in support of the Central Mint.

For example the Soho Mint of Mathew Boulton was founded in 1797 with a contract from the Central Mint to mint pennies and two-pennies.  But it soon began to mint Medals and tokens, and it produced a plethora of trial pieces, off metal strikes, and restrikes for collectors that have come to be called "patterns."  And many of these were created for export to British colonies such as India, Ceylon, Honduras, Australia etc.

At the time, of course, a Medal in Gold from the Royal Mint was far more expensive than a "pattern in gold" from a regional mint.

But as the sale of "Patterns, off metal strikes, restrikes" became lucrative for these regional mints the Royal mints followed suit and produced many such "Pattern strikes" that were never meant to be considered for general release coinage but simply used to raise money for the mints.  Some were commemorative - like the French essais of 1848, some were promotional like the various private mint "Pattern Shillings" and "Gold Strike Thalers" while some were simply minted to sate collector demand - like many of the British Indian restrikes.

As such, most of these non - circulating coins were functionally identical in purpose and nature to Medals. 

Now, because of the wiles of some very clever coin dealers there is a tremendous premium placed on "Off metal strikes, presentation pieces etc" that can be termed as "Patterns" instead of "Medals."  The word pattern or essai has lost all meaning other than to indicate a piece that "Should Command a tremendous premium."

And, like sheep, many collectors will shell out fantastic sums for these "Patterns" though they are often of little or no historical relevance and not nearly as rare or beautiful medals from the same mints and periods.

Of course true "patterns" that were submitted for consideration as general circulation pieces do exist.  Sometimes they are quite rare.  But these are certainly but a tiny percentage of all that has now come to be classified by wily dealers as such.

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