Familiarity Breeds Coinage

Posted on 2/1/2007

David Lange explores the commonalities and differences between U.S. coins and a variety of world coins.

David W. Lange

Though I'm known for my books and articles on the coinage of the United States of America, I've long placed equal importance on both USA and world coins in my own collecting. I do have my favorite countries, but I've found that most nations have issued at least a few coin types that are appealing to me for their imagery, their history, or both.

As I study world coins, one theme that keeps recurring is how much some of these pieces resemble USA coins of the same or different time periods. I'm not referring to those non-circulating precious metal coins issued under the name of either real or imagined countries that revive USA designs solely to maximize sales potential. I view such items as collectively commemorating just one event — the extraction of money from American collectors. Instead, I'm speaking of coins that were produced for more legitimate purposes, either as patterns or currency pieces for general circulation.

One particularly rich source for coins that carry design elements common to many USA coins is Latin America. For the first century or so following their independence from Spain in the 1820s, many countries of Central and South America took their inspiration from the example of liberty set by the USA. Numerous idealized female busts inscribed Libertad (Liberty) appear that are reminiscent of the United States coins made up to the 1830s (and even later for cents and half cents). Examples include the silver and gold coinage of Colombia and the copper coinage of Chile and Venezuela (the latter two countries even feature Liberty wearing a pileus, or liberty cap, as on American issues).

This exchange of imagery worked both ways. A bust of Libertad prepared in 1917 appeared on Colombian one-centavo, two-centavo, and five-centavo pieces dated 1918-66, many of which were struck at U.S. Mints. In 1942, the Philadelphia Mint produced a series of trial coins to test various substitute materials for bronze in the cent, and these trials featured that same bust of Libertad. The Seated Liberty of our silver coinage 1837-91 was not overlooked. A similar image appears on the silver pieces of Guatemala starting in 1873, while the silver coinage of Peru features a near-replica of this figure beginning in 1858. It survived until Peru switched over to base metals in 1935, only to be revived fifteen years later for a popular series of gold bullion coins that continued into production as recently as 1970.

I suppose it's only fair that several countries borrowed our Seated Liberty figure, as the USA had adapted it earlier from Great Britain's seated figure of Britannia. It was at the specific request of Mint Director Robert M. Patterson that artist Thomas Sully and engraver Christian Gobrecht collaborated on an American version of this familiar symbol of national sovereignty in 1835. It had been a fixture on many British coins for more than 150 years previous and even hearkened back to the seated figure of Roma that appeared on some coins of that ancient empire.

The borrowing of imagery seems to have been commonplace during the 19th Century, another example involving the bust of Ceres that appears on coins produced by France's short-lived Second Republic during 1849-51. The work of Eugene Andre Oudine, this handsome portrait was revived at the onset of the Third Republic in 1870. Though based on classical portraiture going back to ancient times, this modern interpretation was clearly the inspiration for various USA pattern coins dated 1877-79. A version of it by George T. Morgan was selected for the adopted silver dollar of 1878.

Another durable image of Liberty debuted on coins of the French Revolution. Augustin Dupre engraved this bust, which featured Liberte facing left with long, flowing hair and wearing a pileus folded forward at its top. Only vaguely similar to USA coins of the 1790s, this portrait reappeared on Liberian coins in 1847-62 and on a series of Liberian patterns in subsequent years, in each instance with a single star added to the cap. Engraver Robert Lovett, Jr. utilized yet another version of this bust for the Confederate pattern cent of 1861, this time with several small stars replacing the single large one. James B. Longacre adapted it for a number of USA pattern coins in the Standard Silver series of 1869-70, though he turned Liberty to face right and added two large stars in place of Lovett's small ones.

There are other examples of design similarity from one country to another, but perhaps my favorite instance concerns the Guatemalan one-peso and five-peso coins of 1923. Though certainly not copies of Victor D. Brenner's Lincoln cent, there's something about the style and arrangement of their design elements and legends that are eerily similar to our familiar cent. Hard to describe in words, you'll just have to see the coins to know what I mean. These were one-year-only coin types, as Guatemala authorized a coinage reform the following year. Though both have fairly low catalog values, they are actually quite scarce uncirculated, as my attempts to locate examples have proven.

David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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