The Écu de Calonne

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The Écu de Calonne

Contrary to what the designation of this coin might lead one to believe at first glance, Calonne is not the name of the engraver of this illustrious and renowned écu.

In fact, it is that of the no less illustrious and no less renowned Controller-General of Finances and French Minister of State under Louis XVI Charles Alexandre de Calonne, who was behind the creation of this eponymous écu.

Here comes the tale of a coin that never entered circulation.

A troubled period

At the end of 1783, when the French monarchy was in its final throes, the kingdom’s finances were in a bad way, and the Treasury was on the verge of bankruptcy, Louis XVI called upon the brilliant Charles Alexandre de Calonne to attempt to restore order to the chaos.

Here is what Louis XVI wrote about him in his memoirs:

 No one was perhaps more suitable to fill in these difficult times the place of Controller-General of Finances than Mr. de Calonne. Gifted with an easy work, with an extraordinarily fertile genius, he alone could find the resources that France, exhausted, demanded, less by the prodigalities of the Court than by the multiplied loans.  

Jacques Necker’s successor, Calonne already embodied a doctrinal opposition with which we are still familiar today: stimulus versus austerity. A supporter of the former, skillful and energetic, he launched major works, borrowed, and initiated a great monetary reform in 1785. His determination to improve the country’s finances appeared unshakable.

 Madam, if a thing is possible, consider it done; the impossible? That will be done. 

Thus responded Calonne to a question posed by Marie-Antoinette in 1784.

Had he been able to bring his plans to fruition, history might have been changed and – perhaps – the monarchy would have endured.

Unfortunately, the tax reform that he tried to initiate in order to rebalance the tax system never saw the light of day. The prospect of taxing the aristocracy and the Church on land caused such an outcry that it brought about his downfall.

On April 9, 1787, Calonne conceded defeat and ceded his office too.

The Écu de Calonne

The Écu de Calonne

In the series of great reforms which he had in mind, the minister envisioned a project for a silver écu worth 6 livres that he hoped to use to make the currency circulate.

Coin France

Louis XVI, Ecu de Calonne, Ecu, 1786, Paris, EF(40-45), Silver

It was thus with this aim that he had trials produced by the Monnaie de Paris over the course of 1786.

Unfortunately, he would leave office before the project reached completion, and the écu de Calonne never entered circulation. 

 

A talented young engraver

Jean-Pierre Droz, a young Swiss engraver, arrived in Paris at the tender age of just 18. He began to make a name for himself as a medallist in 1783 and subsequently offered his services to the Monnaie de Paris.

France Token

Louis XVI, Conseillers du Roi et Notaires, Droz, MS(60-62)

Consequently, at the age of 37, he found himself in charge of producing the first examples of the écu de Calonne. And, undeniably, the engraving of these trials demonstrates his extraordinary talent.

 

An unrivaled style

Indeed, in addition to its historical dimension, the écu de Calonne is also remarkable as far as its engraving is concerned.

Coin France

Louis XVI, Ecu de Calonne, Ecu, 1786, Paris, Very rare, AU(50-53)

The profile of Louis XVI, in the form of a laurel bust (a rare version without the laurels also exists), is of an unequaled finesse and quite simply sumptuous.

The reverse of the majority of the trials features two Ls elegantly facing each other beneath a crown and framing three fleur-de-lis.

The abandoned écu made such an impact that it was restruck in the 19th century during the Restoration.

 

Versions and rarity

As is frequently the case with trials, there are a number of versions of this écu.

Coin France

Louis XVI, Ecu de Calonne, 1786, Paris, Essai in Gold, MS(60-62)

Nowadays, there is only one known example of this gold version of the écu (remember the goal of the project was originally a silver écu).

Coin France

Louis XVI, Ecu de Calonne, 1786, Paris, Epreuve sur flan bruni

On this silver version, with medallic orientation on a burnished blank*, only the obverse is finalized.

*For neophytes, “medallic orientation” means that the reverse side is not upside down compared to the obverse side when the coin is turned. The burnished blank indicates that the blanks and coins have been polished to achieve a “mirror” effect on the coin.

We often focus on the reverse and the obverse, but the edge should also not be ignored.

Indeed, we can distinguish two strikes of this trial: one with 6 ferrules* and the other with 3. And thus, for the original striking of the écu, this one was divided into 6, making it possible to include an inscription around the edge.

Coin France

Louis XVI, Ecu de Calonne, Ecu, 1786, Paris, AU(55-58), Silver

*Again for neophytes, the “ferrule” is the collar which frames the diameter of the coin during striking and thus its edge. It is divided into several parts to frame the future coin.

Coin France

Directoire, Essai de frappe par Tournu, 5 Francs, 1797, Paris

An exemplary rarity

We surely don’t need to tell you that the specimens of this splendid trial are extremely rare, even unique, and often highly sought-after, be that for their rarity, their historical dimension, or for their state of conservation.

Please note that for those with more modest budgets there are also copies and reproductions available in the form of medals with the engraving of the mythical écu (much more recent, of course).

France Medal

Reproduction de l'Ecu de Calonne 1786, MS(65-70), Silver

 

Translation: Michael Wright

 

Iconography:

  • Portrait of Calonne by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (1784, Royal Collection)
  • "Archduchess Maria Antonia of Austria, the later Queen Marie Antoinette of France" by Joseph Ducreux (1769)

 

Sources :

Selection published on 25/03/2022
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