Recherchez la Femme | Newberry

Recherchez la Femme

You need to remember all those rules you learned in school. Look both ways before crossing the street. Don’t accept rides from strangers. Don’t believe everything you read. It’s just ordinary precaution; in the end, it’s up to you to decide what and whom to trust. I don’t want to blame it all on the woman in the case: many a man has succumbed to a pretty face. I want to go on record as saying I don’t feel it is entirely the woman’s fault. Particularly as she’s been dead since 1780.

This sort of thing has happened to me before. I had an adventurous novel called The Partisan Leader once, published in Virginia in 1856 by a man named James Caxton. The author’s name was Edward William Sidney. When I did a bit of research on it, I found that everything on the titlepage, barring the title itself, was a lie. The book was written by a man named Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, who published it in Washington, D.C. in 1836. It was political science fiction, and he felt it was better to conceal just about anything the authorities might be able to track. (No one seems to know who printed the thing; James Caxton was picked to honor William Caxton, the first English printer, and may or may not reflect the name of the real printer.)

Back to the woman in the case. From time to time non-book items come in to the Book Fair. A couple of people over the years have found this a useful way to get rid of their coin accumulations. These weren’t collections, you understand: it was just a matter of somebody finding an odd, old coin and saying “Better hang onto that” and then, thirty years later, saying “What am I ever going to do with this? Maybe Uncle Blogsy could use it to make some money for the Newberry.”

Some of these coins are old school, made of fairly solid silver or gold. Those are easy enough to sell. Some are REALLY old school, as in this coin showing a fairly busty monarch and the date 1780. It was, in fact, a silver thaler (or taler, as they’ve suddenly decided to spell it in Germany) and the hefty lady was Maria Theresa (shouldn’t they be spelling it Teresa, then?) of Austria.

The coin was worn, but I felt it ought to be worth Something online. Checking the auction websites to find a good starting price, I found out that you can’t trust a pretty face, be it the face of a coin or an empress. There are dozens of versions of the 1780 silver thaler because they have been minting them for over two centuries.

Those of us who think the date on a coin always means that’s when that penny was minted, and as soon as 2012 is over, they start punching out pennies dated 2013 have never heard of “trade coins”. Apparently Maria Theresa’s government had such a solid economy that her silver thaler became an icon in world trade. Merchants in Saudi Arabia trusted the coin with the cleavage; traders who sailed to Mexico could easily use Maria Theresa’s silver to buy goods. It was so trustworthy that new ones were minted every year—always with the 1780 date—in Austria, France, England, India, and Italy. The coin was so well known among traders in the South Pacific that during World War II the United States made thousands of counterfeit 1780 thalers to break the economy of Japanese-occupied islands. (How do you counterfeit a coin that’s being made in so many places by so many different governments? You neglect to put the silver in.)

Looking through the variants and markings and other points (coins can be as bad as books) I think this particular thaler was minted in Italy around 1856, the same year that The Partisan Leader was not really published. It’s worth something—not as much as if it was minted in 1780 but it is silver nonetheless—but I may just keep it around. It’ll serve to remind me of all those rules. Don’t accept candy from strangers. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t take any wooden thalers.

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