The Copper Hogs

There are not many analogies to be drawn between coin collecting and football. In fact, they seem to make an impossible literary pair. But, like flipping a coin before kickoff, we have to start somewhere. Gold is the quarterback; it is the face of the franchise, the most valuable player, and oftentimes the paver of the road to riches. Silver is fun, flashy, and multi-purposed like a running back. It can move the sticks on a crucial 3rd and 4 or reach pay dirt when it counts most. Copper is a big fella up front, dependable and durable. It may not glitter, but it always does the little things right. For coin collectors, ordinary copper often goes unnoticed, circulated and overworked like many linemen. And like great linemen, large copper coins stand out from the crowd. These ogres are as impressive as any gold or silver coin, and can be an extremely rewarding part of any European coin collection.

Below, I highlight three unique large copper series, one each from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. There are hundreds if not thousands of series to choose from, especially for the period before 1800. The range narrows when availability and affordability are given consideration. The coins featured here are all striking examples of their period, relatively easy to find, reasonably priced, and most important, downright fun to collect.

When it comes to the 17th century, the choice is easy; Sweden. With approximately 2/3rd of total European copper output in the 1600s, Sweden was churning out monster-sized beauties at a frantic pace. The Swedish empire in the decades following the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was funded by the same copper that collectors still love today. Of course this was not the peaceful, democratic Sweden we know today. Rather, with possessions in present day Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, the Baltic Sea was virtually a Swedish lake! The recent liquidation of Eric P. Newman’s collection—awash with one of the most impressive inventories of Swedish numismedia ever compiled—has reinvigorated collector interest in these great coins.

Sweden 1676 1 Öre

Sweden 1676 1 Öre. 42g. 44mm.

While the famed Swedish plate money still garners headlines, the circulating copper coinage of the period is far more accessible and just as gratifying. The two most common and convenient ways to collect are by regent and mint. King Gustaf II Adolphus (r. 1611-1632), notorious for his bloodthirsty campaigns against Catholic Europe, and his daughter Queen Christina (r. 1632-1654), famous for abandoning her father’s militant Lutheranism, issued large 1 öre coins from the mints at Sater, Nyköping, Arboga, and Avesta. Both monarchs feature prominently in the annals of European history, and coins from both reigns have long been prized as historically significant. Because of rudimentary technology and the pressures of expediency during war, most are poorly struck. F-VF coins are frequently off center, clipped, and sometimes illegible, while higher grade examples reveal intricate ornamental detail and manifold variations.

There was an important transition with the accession to the throne of Carl XI (r. 1660-1697). With the treasury dwindling, the cost of empire surging and the world price of copper slumping, the Swedes explored ways to stay financially afloat. Although a dual copper/silver standard in Sweden had existed for decades, the 1660s marked the entrance into the market of silver-pegged copper coins. This meant that copper coins were now issued with a face value in silver. Thus, copper 1 öre S:M (meaning silver standard) coins from the reign of Carl XI were on average far larger than their predecessors in order to meet the silver-pegged value, often clearing 50g with diameters approaching 50mm! These issues, nearly all from the Avesta mint, are relatively common, generally have decent strikes, and often have an appealing, chocolate-colored surface. Unlike the coins of Gustaf II Adolphus and Queen Christina, these pieces can be obtained without a “monarch bump” in price, and remain some of the best values in 17th-century collecting.

Russia 1777 5 Kopek

Russia 1777 5 Kopek. 46.2g. 41mm.

The 18th century was another period of behemoth copper coins, including the classic Great Britain 1797 2 Pence and the very affordable 10 Reis set from Portugal. However, the most widely-collected large coppers seem to be the wonderful Russian 5 Kopeks issued by Catherine II (r. 1762-1796). These coins, a hair larger even than the 1 öre pieces of Carl XI, are still common but are no longer available at the bulk prices paid only a decade ago. Nevertheless, a high-mintage date from the mint at Ekaterinburg (EM) in VF-XF can still be had for under $50, while well-worn examples tend to fetch about $15-$20.

In addition to the impressive diameter and weight of these coins, they are extremely thick, oftentimes reaching around 4-5mm! The reverse features the majestic Romanov double-headed eagle, clutching scepter and orb, with a crest of St. George slaying the dragon. There is a substantial spike in value for non-EM mintmarks; these include MM (Moscow), TM (Feodesia, Crimea), KM (Kolyvan), CM (Sestroretsk), and also without mintmark. Specialist collectors are keen to pursue the unique Siberian 5 and 10 Kopek pieces, also from the reign of Catherine II. The Siberian reverse displays two long-tailed sables holding opposite sides of a crowned shield. These can be absolutely stunning, but caveat emptor, modern forgeries are seen with swelling regularity.

Output of large copper coins dwindled significantly in the 19th century as the quickening pace of commercial transactions made heavy, relatively low value specie increasingly problematic. One of the few areas in Europe where large coppers were still minted was on the Italian peninsula. Before unification in 1861, Italy consisted of separate states and territories, many with names still evocative today of Italian romance and beauty. The cumulative tumult of the 19th century, including the Napoleonic occupation of several Italian states, the republican revolts of 1848, and the meddling of Austria-Hungary south of the Alps forced the frequent redrawing of borders and left an indelible mark on Italian coinage.

Two Sicilies 1858 10 Tornesi

Two Sicilies 1858 10 Tornesi.
(Image courtesy of MA-Shops Online Coin Mall.)

Naples & Sicily (aka Two Sicilies) minted large coppers until 1859. Formed in 1816 with the merger of the separate Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, the Two Sicilies issued coinage until its own annexation into the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1860. Its largest copper was the Dieci (10) Tornesi, struck in 1819, 1825, and then with almost annual regularity between 1831 and 1859. Weighing in at about 32g with a diameter of just under 40mm, these were hefty coppers for this late a date. With its elegantly understated designs and varietal variation this is a great series for copper enthusiasts who want to break into European collecting without breaking the bank.

In coin collecting and on the offensive line, size matters, and these large European coppers should be clearing a path into your collection.