Paris – Russia
1836 Family Rouble Coins
One of the most desirable and important coins of 19th-century Russia has come through the grading room in our European office in Paris: the famous Family Rouble of 1836. Even more impressive is that we received two coins of two different types at the same time!
The Family Rouble is fascinating. Mistakenly called a “Rouble,” it is, in fact, a 1-1/2 Rouble and boasts a beautiful portrait of the ruling Tsar. It’s a real rarity with a mintage of only a couple hundred pieces. The historical background of the creation of the Family Rouble takes us on a journey through the major events in post-Napoleonic War Europe and Russia, as well as into the hobby of commemorative coin collecting.
The Russian army that chased Napoleon across Europe and restored peace on the continent in 1815 brought home many new ideas inspired by the French and American Revolutions. It wasn't long before these ideas broke out in a revolt – the Decembrist revolt – in December 1825, just after the sudden death of Tsar Alexander I. The elder brother Constantine, more liberal and supported by the rebels, resigned to become Tsar, leaving the throne to his younger brother Nicholas. Demanding a liberal reformation of Russian society and politics, the revolt was crushed by artillery fire. This was the first action of Nicholas I as the new Tsar of Russia, foreshadowing an autocratic reign that lasted for almost 30 years, from 1825 to 1855.
In 1835 as the country was preparing to celebrate the 10-year jubilee of the reign of Nicholas I., an important event occurred that started the tradition of commemorative coinage in Russia. The Russian Minister of Finance, Count Georg von Cancrin, received 15 different Bavarian commemorative Thalers from the Russian ambassador based in Munich, just two months before the beginning of the celebrations, and chose one. It was the 1828 Thaler depicting the family of the Bavarian King Louis I that caught the attention of the Minister because it seemed to be the most appropriate for the upcoming event, portraying the greatness and the strength of the imperial family.
He quickly sent the Thaler to the head of the mining department in charge of the mint to secretly prepare 1-1/2 Rouble dies in secret for a Russian version of this commemorative coin – the future "Family Rouble." On the Bavarian piece, the obverse holds the portrait of the ruler, Nicholas I, and the reverse features eight portraits, including those featuring his wife Alexandra Feodorovna in the center surrounded by the busts of their seven children.
But why such a strange denomination, 1-1/2 Rouble? And why a double denomination with the value in Polish Zloty?
After the defeat of Napoleon, the 1815 Congress of Vienna redefined the geography of Europe, where Russia gained the Duchy of Warsaw. This part of Poland maintained its right to have its own constitution and monetary system based on the Zloty. The only change was that the system became decimal-based, just like the Russian one, with the largest silver denomination being 10 Zlotych for 31 grams replacing the German-like Thaler of 28 grams. On the territory of the Russian Empire, the 10 Zlotych piece was the largest silver coin in circulation. The double denomination in Zloty and Roubles appeared on the coins only from 1833, just two years after the November Uprising in Warsaw against the Russian Empire, showing the will of the Tsar not just to facilitate commerce, but to limit even more the autonomy of Poland.
According to these observations, it is logical that the value of 1-1/2 Roubles was chosen for the size of the coin, the 1 Rouble coin being too small for such an important commemorative issue – only 20.73 grams and 35.5 millimeters versus 31 grams and 40 millimeters. The size and weight of the original Bavarian model (28 grams and 38 millimeters) could also easily influence the choice of a larger planchet. At the same time, the use of the Polish denomination would bear a political message on the unity of the Russian Empire and the Duchy of Warsaw.
The first issue was struck and presented to the Tsar in December 1835. Nicholas I was pleased with the result, except for the portrait of his wife, who appeared older on the coin than in real life. New dies were soon made with a younger portrait of the Empress and without the medallions around the children's portraits. Approving this final design, the Tsar ordered 100 pieces from the mint, but unfortunately, the dies broke after minting only 50 coins. Recognizable by the long signature of the engraver under the Tsar's bust "Р.П.УТКИНЪ," this rare type was graded MS63 by PCGS. When it crossed the block at Numismatica Genevensis SA Auction 12, it realized a stunning $232,888 USD.
A third pair of dies was newly made to fulfill the Tsar's order with a much shorter engraver's signature "П.У." placed on the truncation.
Logically, only 50 more coins had to be struck with these new dies to reach the order of 100 by the Tsar, but the major catalogs list a mintage of 150. That brings us to a total of 200 coins minted for the second and third types. As mentioned in the registry from the Department of Mining and Salt Affairs for the year 1836, a total of 20 coins from the first 50 minted were sent to the mint for storage in case of need. Another50 were minted with the new dies of the third type and delivered to the Tsar under the responsibility of the Minister of Finance. In November 1837, the Minister wrote in his official report that the Tsar agreed to strike an extra 50 Family Roubles because of the high demand for this coin.
So, according to these documents, there would be a total of only 100 coins (not 150) that were minted of this third type in two separate deliveries in 1836 and 1837. This is the other piece received at PCGS that graded MS64+, becoming the second top pop for this third type of the Family Rouble. It inspired fervent bidding at Numismatica Genevensis SA Auction 12, with the hammer dropping at $182,260 USD.
Technically being restrikes, or Novodels to use the exact Russian term, these 50 extra pieces are not considered as such because there is no possibility to differentiate the 1836 from the 1837 issues. However, Novodels exist and are recognizable by the die break on the rim at 4 to 5 o'clock on the reverse, sometimes being very bad and going up to the 1 o'clock position. At one point, the mint had to engrave a new die without the engraver's initials to meet the high demand for restrikes.