WHAT’S A PIEDFORT (OR PIEFORT) ?

You will see these terms come up in my world coin descriptions on occasion, as they are one of my favorite categories of rare world coins. I felt that an explanation would be beneficial, since most American collectors are not familiar with them.

While both spellings are commonly used throughout numismatic literature, Piedfort is a French word meaning “strong foot,” or “heavy measure.” Although I can’t say with 100% certainty, I assume both meanings refer to the fact that piedforts are always unusually thick, at least double and often triple the thickness of normal coins. As such, I find them really cool, almost irresistible; especially when struck in gold, as is often the case.

Piedforts (pronounced pee-a-fores—remember, it’s French) date back into the Middle Ages, although no one seems to know for sure why they came to be made as thick as they were. Most piedforts have come from sporadic, and very limited production throughout the centuries, mostly in Germany, France, Britain and Bohemia. Some are likely to be similar to patterns to test new designs; while most are believed to have been made for high level presentation purposes to dignitaries and visiting heads-of-state. An example of this occurred a few years back when British Chancellor Tony Blair was presented a set of German piedforts in honor of his visit to Germany. Interestingly, Blair chose to pay the British government the market value of the piedforts, enabling him to keep them personally.

The U.S. Mint has never officially issued Piedforts, despite extensive experimentation with patterns during the nineteenth century. The closest we have come would be the unique $20 Saint Gaudens gold pattern struck in 1907 on a double thick $10 Indian gold planchet. That piece has been off the market for several decades, serving as one of the centerpieces of an amazing Northeastern collection specializing in St. Gaudens. It quite likely is the most valuable U.S. coin in private hands.

Up until the last couple of decades Piedforts were generally produced in extraordinarily small numbers, if at all, and just for special purposes within the mints or for presentation outside the mints. Very few fell into collector’s hands, and those that did were generally impaired. Starting in 1982 the British Mint realized they could profit from making a small number of pieforts to sell to collectors, and since then the mintages have jumped into the several hundreds or more. Still pretty scarce, but not as rare as earlier issues. Like Britain, France and a handful of other countries also moved to take advantage of the collector market in recent years. You cannot compare piedforts made prior to 1982 for extremely limited purposes to contemporary issues being made for commercial purposes, because the latter, although scarce and limited, are more common.

Commercialization does have a benefit though for the older ultra-rare issues by making the collector market aware of their existence, and making them more attractive to collect, as they become instant rarities when trying to accumulate complete date sets. This is one of the main reasons, in addition to their overall sexiness, that I believe many rare Pieforts are extremely undervalued at current levels, and will benefit hugely from the growing international acceptance of certified coin grading, and population reports.

Additional information about piedforts from the British Royal Mint:

Twice the Weight, Double the Thickness
As their name suggests, Piedforts are closely associated with France where they can be traced back to the twelfth century. In England the striking of such pieces began later and was less frequent but medieval examples are known, notably the thick silver pennies of Edward I. Minting was not a centralised activity in England in the Middle Ages, coins being struck in other locations as well as London. It therefore seems likely that Piedforts were distributed to engravers at these different mints in order to show them what to copy. Making the pieces deliberately thick and heavy ensured they were not mixed unintentionally with ordinary coins. However, the striking of Piedforts ceased in Britain in the sixteenth century – a sixpence of 1588 being the last known specimen – but the tradition survived in France for at least another 150 years.

Thicker than normal coins (piedforts) were produced across Europe during the early modern period, particularly from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century, as part of the broader practice of striking prestige pieces.

At this time the exchange of valuable gifts between rulers and members of their entourage became an established courtly exercise. Within this context coins struck on thick blanks, together with other types of prestige pieces, were prepared on behalf of kings and noblemen primarily for the purposes of presentation and display. From Poland to the Spanish Netherlands, from Sweden to northern Italy, coins of this sort provided rulers with a convenient means of emphasising their wealth and power. There are, however, only a limited number of these unusually thick prestige pieces from England, most spectacularly the gold double-sovereigns of Henry VII which bore the same design as the sovereign.

The First UK Piedfort Available to the Public
It was not until the introduction of the 20p in 1982, that the Royal Mint made a Piedfort version of a UK coin available to the public.

Since 1982 the Royal Mint has continued to strike extremely limited numbers of Piedforts in sterling silver to premier Proof standard to commemorate special anniversaries or to celebrate a brand new design. The rarity and craftsmanship involved in producing these superior double-thickness coins will ensure that they are appreciated and treasured for generations to come.

www.royalmint.com