Bullion Coin
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Basic Information

A bullion coin is a form of commodity money consisting of a coin struck (or more rarely carved) from a precious material. This will normally be a precious metal and historically this would typically mean gold or silver, although fantasy sources also include electrum1 and anachronisms such as platinum2 and copper3 currencies as well4. Other historical examples include coins made from jade in China - found currencies such as the cowrie shells used around the Indian Ocean may or may not fit the category. Any coinage of this sort may also be referred to as specie.

Noble metals tend to be a popular choice for coinage because they are easy to work, valuable without being useful for anything5 and resistant to spoilage (especially in the case of gold). Since they are also fairly scarce, inflation is also rarely a problem for a bullion based currency. Problems with such currencies tend to revolve around either debasement (often addressed by government guarantee6) or a lack of money supply (due to the scarcity of noble metals) … also, due to the very rigid money supply any large injection of specie will lead to unavoidable inflation7 - as the Spanish discovered when they poured new world gold and silver into their economy.

Of course, issuing coinage tends to require - and to some extent endorse - government. Whilst anyone can make hacksilver, or otherwise trade in bullion by weight, making and striking coins is a statement of central authority. This will often be reinforced by striking the issuing power's image or symbol onto the coin. Foreign coinage may sometimes be re-struck by a different nation if it becomes common currency.

Bullion coins are also vulnerable to "clipping" - that is, shaving off small amounts of metal from around the rim, which can then be accumulated from a number of coins until it amounts to a significant amount of valuable material. Done well this can be hard to tell from normal wear, and whilst penalties for being caught clipping were traditionally severe, they often ran into conflict with a persistent tendency to "make change" by cutting up coins into smaller fractions. Understandably a worn and potentially clipped coin would not be accepted at face value and so it was common for mints to withdraw an issue of coins at various intervals, melt them down and re-strike them … or for worn coins to be accepted at a discount by a mint for the same purpose (in the same sort of way that modern defaced currency can still be redeemed at a national bank). Improvements in coining technique - such as milled edges, complicated shapes and designs stretching to the rim all helped to resist clipping in later years.

Attitudes to foreign specii differ from place to place - in some, especially those with scare local currency, foreign coins may be accepted at or above face value (especially those known to be from a reputable source), in others they may be treated as bullion by mass, whilst still others will oblige them to be changed for local money (sometimes a sign of a debased local currency).

Note that most fRPGs massively undervalue precious metal currencies by European medieval standards - England only stuck one coin (the silver penny) for much of the Middle Ages, which was sufficient for most business; gold coins were vanishingly rare - even in the much more economically active Roman Empire8. The gold to silver value ratio (weight for weight) varied from around 1:2 (in ancient Egypt) to around 1:20 (in some parts of medieval Europe).

In a fiat currency, bullion coins are something of a rarity and may well trade massively above face value for their metal content. Buyers may accquire them for sentimental reasons, but more typically they buy as a hedge against inflation - this has been known to infuriate governments who are deliberately engaged in inflation and lead to heavy taxes or other restrictions on metal trading and even outright theft of private bullion stocks. Collecting gold coins when the currency isn't in trouble is sometimes a sign of a pessimistic outlook generally.

Historically, bullion coins were usually cold-pressed or hammered by a coin-stamper.


1. full source reference

Game and Story Use

  • Complicated coin systems are pretty much a modern artifact … complication caused by dealing with hundreds of different coin systems not so much.
  • When not being used as currency, many specie coins can do additional duty as jewelry and some are specifically designed for this function (and/or to be strung as a necklace for ease of handling).
  • When designing a fantasy economy, beware of undervaluing gold (unless it really is not all that precious) and anachronism (like platinum). Remember, if gold is relatively cheap, copper should be essentially worthless.
    • If you must have platinum coins, consider making them the product of a culture with superior metallurgy, either currently or historically … and thus increasing their relatively value still further.
    • Likewise, telling electrum from debased gold required pretty good metallurgy, which was beyond quite a few historical cultures … likewise red gold (gold contaminated with copper).
  • Where appropriate, a mint may actually melt and re-cast foreign coins rather than re-striking them.
  • The survivalist hording gold against the collapse of civilisation is a common trope … as is subverting the standard trope by pointing out that, come the apocalypse, gold may not be worth much.
  • In a minor collapse, however, gold coins can be very valuable indeed.
  • Bullion coins are still sometimes issued to aircrew and special forces who may need to pay - or bribe - remote peoples with limited interest in fiat currency. This is typically an alternative to a blood chit.
  • In some times and places, there may be non-financial objections to foreign coin - as well as the obligation to exchange noted above, foreign coins may have unacceptable political or religious images on them: for a real world example, consider the implications of attempting to spend a Nazi era gold reichmark … well, anywhere really, but doing so in Tel Aviv (or, come to think of it Berlin … actually, Berlin might be worse…) could be a bit lively. Any coinage, in fact, that will raise the question: "where the hell did you get this?".
  • The obligation to change coinage was a favourite treasure sink in old school fantasy RPGs - PCs were regularly expected to change their money into local legal tender on entering new cities (or at least nations, although for the sword-and-sorcery roots fiction the city state was a standard unit of business), with a percentage fee.
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