This is an attractive klippe (square or diamond-shaped), 1929 Hungarian silver 5 Pengo pattern coin in Proof condition. It features Saint Ladislaus on the obverse, a chivalrous Hungarian king who ruled in the late 11th century AD. The specimen is impressively large, weighing in at 50.3 grams (1.62 troy ounces) - almost double the weight of a U.S. silver dollar. Technically, this coin is an official government restrike that was issued by the Hungarian Communist regime in the 1960s. The total mintage was 1,084 pieces.
We live in an age of great abundance, a boon granted to us largely by the powers of mass production. But our current era of plenty also has drawbacks. You may be very proud of your shiny new iPhone, but it is hardly unique. Tens of millions of iPhones are in use worldwide and hundreds of thousands more roll off the assembly line every day. The same is true of your treasured BMW 3 series car; BMW typically churns out close to half a million units per year. They may be very nice - even luxurious - products, but they certainly aren't rare. Rarity - true rarity - is an unusual and precious thing in today's world of persistent industrial overcapacity. This shortage of scarcity in modern society is a primary reason why ultra rare pattern, trial, essai and piedfort coins are so treasured by knowledgeable collectors and investors alike.
A pattern, also sometimes called a trial, is a coin struck by a national mint as a specimen for test purposes. Patterns often have unique or experimental designs that are never adopted for mass circulation coinage. This factor makes these unusual coins quite desirable to astute collectors. Adding to their cachet is the fact that patterns generally have extremely limited production runs. Mintages for a trial coin can run anywhere from a mere handful of pieces, or even just a single known example, to perhaps a few thousand at most. This places patterns, as a class, among the rarest coins in existence. As an added bonus, these little known numismatic masterpieces are often found in near pristine condition due to their non-circulating status.
Patterns are commonly struck in what is called "off metal". This is the practice of using a different metal to strike the pattern coin than the mint would typically employ for its circulating counterpart. Every coinage metal under the sun can be found among pattern issues, including gold, silver, and all manner of aluminum, copper and nickel alloys, just to name a few. There really are no firm rules when it comes to the metals used for pattern or trial coins.
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The history of pattern coins stretches back centuries, with many different nations having extensive catalogues of trial pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. The French, in particular, have a strong tradition of issuing scores of different varieties of patterns. A French pattern coin is known as an "essai", which is derived from the Latin "exagium", meaning weighing. This Latin word is also the root of the English word "assay", meaning to test a metal for purity. French essai pieces are invariably very attractive and of the highest quality. Prices for investment grade foreign pattern coins generally range from around $250 to several thousand dollars per coin, depending on country of issue, condition, metal and other factors.
The United States has also issued a variety of trial coins since its inception, but most specimens available to collectors and investors today are from the 19th century. With its prodigious output of trial pieces, the U.S. is perhaps second only to France in its love of patterns. While tremendously beautiful, U.S. pattern coins are, to be blunt, expensive. However, quintessentially American style and historical importance combine with very high demand and extremely limited supply to make U.S. pattern issues some of the most desirable U.S. coins in the market. Don't expect to be able to acquire any U.S. pattern specimens for less than about $1,200 to $1,600 each. At the high-end, the sky is the limit with prices of tens of thousands of dollars being routine.
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Piedforts are another class of exclusive, non-standard coinage that is closely related to patterns and essais. A piedfort (pronounced "pee-ay-for" and occasionally misspelled as piefort) refers to a presentation coin specially struck from a flan of double thickness. Piedfort literally translates from the French as "heavy foot" or "strong foot", but really means something more akin to "heavy weight". Piedfort coins originated during the medieval period in Europe as presentation pieces given to diplomats, important officials and other VIPs. The practice of striking piedforts eventually died out but was later resurrected by France in the 19th century.
For shrewd coin collectors and investors, piedforts are truly a gift from the heavens. Mintages of modern piedforts (those struck within the last 200 years) usually range from perhaps a couple dozen to several thousand specimens. Commonly struck in off metals, silver, gold and even platinum piedforts give the discerning connoisseur plenty of precious metals from which to choose. These modern day numismatic gems are also struck with the greatest care, ensuring every detail of their design is boldly visible.
Being coins of double thickness, piedforts are also usually double weight as well. However, this weight relationship is only linear as long as the coin isn't an off metal strike. If the piedfort is a different metal than its circulating analogue, then the weight could be higher or lower than expected. For example, a 10 gram circulating coin composed of nickel (density of 8.9 g/cm3) that is struck as a sterling silver (density of 10.4 g/cm3) piedfort would have a weight of 23.4 grams (weight of nickel coin x (density of sterling silver/density of nickel) x 2 - to account for the piedfort's double thickness). As you can see, the weight stacks up quickly when piedforts are struck in precious metals! This extra thickness and heft, combined with their superlative striking, make precious metal piedfort coins uniquely attractive to both longtime collectors and coin novices alike.
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As with most things artistic, French piedfort coins came first. Starting in 1962, France began to regularly mint piedfort versions of its circulating coinage in their original metal as well as off metal silver and gold examples. From the outset, this remarkable series has received intense interest from farsighted coin connoisseurs. Vintage French piedforts usually have mintages that range from about 20 to 2,500. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, given their impressive attributes. Silver examples range from about $60 to $500 each, depending on the size of the coin. Unfortunately, France began abusing its commemorative coin program in the mid 1980s by issuing large numbers of commemorative varieties that were also struck as piedforts. Avoiding these over-issued commemorative French piedforts is advisable if investment performance is important to you.
Following France's example, in 1982 Great Britain began striking piedfort coins exclusively in sterling silver. Mintages for modern British silver piedforts are slightly higher than their French counterparts, with issuance generally fluctuating between a few thousand and 25,000. Don't let the slightly higher mintages deter you, as these piedforts are still incredibly rare relative to the mintages of circulating British coins. As an example, in 1983 the British Royal Mint issued only 10,000 sterling silver piedfort one pound coins versus over 443 million circulating nickel-brass examples. That comes out to a ratio of 1 piedfort for every 44,305 coins issued for circulation! Now that is rarity! Prices for British piedforts are even lower than for French piedforts, ranging from a mere $30 to about $150 per coin. Unfortunately, the British, like the French before them, have also recently over-issued commemorative coins and then duplicated them as piedforts. Once again, it is a good idea to exercise caution with modern British commemorative piedforts and instead concentrate on the piedforts of circulating issues.
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No serious discussion of piedforts would be complete without mentioning French gold piedforts. These coins are, without question, the magnum opus of contemporary piedforts. Many different examples of these noble specimens were issued from 1962 to the present. Struck in a fineness of 92% purity, vintage French gold piedfort coins are heavy, thick and undeniably impressive. French gold piedforts are among the rarest of all piedforts, with mintages usually below 500 specimens. The only downside to these kings among piedforts is their price. Due to their heavy weight and high gold content, prices start at about $500 and rapidly escalate for larger specimens to over $5,000. In spite of these higher prices, vintage French gold piedforts are overlooked by the market and represent exceptional value, especially considering their extremely low mintages.
When collecting or investing in patterns and piedforts, eye appeal is paramount. A good rule of thumb is that a trial or piedfort coin that looks good is good. Consequently, ugly, damaged or excessively worn specimens are undesirable and should be avoided. This is typically not a problem because these issues generally did not circulate, resulting in an excellent average state of preservation. Reproductions or fantasy issues are sometimes offered for sale as legitimate, original pattern coins. In order to avoid this pitfall, it is strongly recommended that the serious investor only buy pattern or trial pieces that have been certified by a major third party grading service like PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service), NGC (Numismatic Guaranty Corporation) or ANACS (American Numismatic Association Certification Service). Trials, essais and patterns certified by these companies carry a powerful implicit guarantee of authenticity. Such an assurance is easily worth the modest premium charged over non-certified examples. However, it isn't necessary to exclusively buy piedforts that have been certified. Contemporary piedfort issues often come with their original mint packaging intact, proving authenticity.
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One interesting market aspect of patterns and piedforts is that desirability, and therefore pricing, are intimately linked to country of issue. Any modern coin (circa post 1700 AD) issued by a country with a higher GDP (Gross Domestic Product) almost always has higher collector demand than a similar coin issued by a country with a lower GDP. This means that patterns produced by the United States, with its gargantuan GDP and large collector base, are invariably expensive. Patterns, essais and piedforts issued by Great Britain and France, with their more modest, but still sizable GDPs, also have robust collector demand and strong pricing, although not as high as U.S. trial coins. Emerging market countries with lower GDPs in Africa, South America and South Asia will naturally have both lower demand and prices for their patterns and piedforts.
Collecting rarity is an intoxicating thing. Once you've tasted the forbidden fruit of opulent exclusivity, it is impossible to return to a life without it. Ultra rare pattern, trial, essai and piedfort coins are a gateway to rarity that is surprisingly attainable for the average person. While prices vary wildly, one can begin collecting or investing in these underappreciated works of art for as little as $100. Stunningly beautiful pattern and piedfort coins are pure rarity crystallized in the palm of your hand.