When German Coins Were Made of Dirt - Ron Guth on Coins 21
Ron Guth on Coins (2023)
German porcelain coins were made in Germany beginning in 1921 as substitutes for coins. You might ask yourself, why were coins made of porcelain in the first place. To understand that, you have to put yourself in Germany after World War I. Prior to World War I, Germany was one of the most powerful and wealthiest nations in the world. During World War I, much of Germany’s infrastructure was destroyed and most of its wealth was spent on executing the war. To make matters worse, the peace treaty that Germany was forced to sign after the war required Germany to pay extremely punitive war reparations to the winners. With the economy in ruins, Germany essentially shut down. From 1918 to 1923, hardly any coins were made for circulation. No 1 Pfennigs, no 2 Pfennigs, certainly no silver coins, just some base metal 5 and 10 Pfennigs, and aluminum 50 pfennigs – a denomination that had not been used since 1903. What coins Germany did produce were not enough to meet demand, so the people relied on substitute money.
How many of you have heard the term Notgeld? What does Notgeld mean? The word looks like a combination of NOT and GELD and you might be inclined to think that Notgeld means Not MONEY. In actuality, Not in German means Emergency. Thus, Notgeld means emergency money and that’s exactly what porcelain coins are. Other forms of German Notgeld include paper money and zinc and iron tokens. However, porcelain is a very unusual medium for a coinage and its pretty much unique to Germany.
So, why porcelain? To find the answer to that you have to look at the history of porcelain itself. Prior to the 1700’s, all of the world’s porcelain came from China. When Chinese porcelain first came to Europe, the people were awestruck by how delicate and beautiful it was, and every effort was made to copy it without much success. To make a long story short. A young man named Johann Boettger figured out a process and set up a factory in Meissen Germany, a factory which continues to produce fine porcelain even today. Porcelain collectors outside of numismatics are very familiar with Meissen porcelain and revere it for its high quality. Meissen was perfectly situated to capitalize on the need for emergency money. They had plenty of manufacturing capacity, centuries of experience, and the low cost of raw materials allowed for mass production.
The vast majority of German porcelain coins were made at the Meissen porcelain factory and they all bear the famous Meissen crossed swords hallmark. There are a very few porcelain coins from other manufacturers, but they are generally cruder in design. Porcelain coins were made for cities and municipalities throughout Germany, just as were the paper and metal notgeld. It is unclear whether Meissen had salesmen going from city to city promoting porcelain coins or if the cities went to Meissen, but either way, it seems that everyone got in on the action. In later years, the coins did not bear a denomination, so they are considered medals or tokens.
Prior to 1966, a fellow named Karl Scheuch began recording all of the different types and varieties of German porcelain coins. He published six volumes covering the monetary issues. Beginning in 1978, Karl Scheuch identified 2,340 different issues. Adding the afore-mentioned varieties nearly doubles the number of collectible examples, making this both a challenging and enjoyable area of numismatics. Fortunately for collectors today, prices remain low. Most of the common varieties are priced from $10-$25 each. Even the rarest varieties (those with mintages of 200 or less) can be purchased for under $100 each.
In recent years, PCGS began grading German porcelain coins and the prices for such pieces have begun to rise. My hope is that PCGS will form Registry Sets for these coins, resulting in increased visibility.
Recommended reading (the following book is out-of-print, so you’ll have to search for a copy online):
“Muenzen aus Porzellan und Ton” by Karl Scheuch
This book is required for the proper identification of porcelain coins. It is written in German, but even non-German speaking collectors will find it easy to use.