During my recent spring cleanup, I came upon an inherited piece of jewelry: a coin mounted in a bezel so it can be worn as a pendant. About the size of a quarter, it has a tree branch on one side and a woman in flowing robes on the other. My curiosity was ignited by its date: 1898. Why had this antique coin been passed down through the generations?
Searching for clues, I examined it in detail. On the side with the date, an olive branch is surrounded by the words “1 FRANC / LIBERTE / EGALITE / FRATERNITE”. On the other side, the words “O. Roty / REPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE” encircle the standing woman. Clearly it is a franc from France, proclaiming the country’s motto: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”. A search online revealed that Louis-Oscar Roty created the artwork for this coin, a depiction of a woman sowing seeds. The coin has become known as La Semeuse (The Sower).
The Sower is an allegory. Just like Uncle Sam represents the United States, the woman is Marianne, the embodiment of the French Republic and the personification of liberty and reason. She wears a distinctive hat (the cap of liberty), which is a republican symbol. She is sowing the ideas of freedom and democracy. Behind her the sun peeks above the horizon, the rays of the sun bringing enlightenment. In previous incarnations, Marianne had often worn a crown of sun rays on her head and it is this Goddess of Liberty that we recognize in the Statue of Liberty (which was a gift from France to the USA). Roty’s image appears on several denominations of French coins and stamps, and is the most widespread work of art in France.
The coin was issued every year from 1898 to 1920, part of the political period called the Third Republic (1870 – 1940). This period began with the defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War and ended with the invasion of the Nazis. In 1898, 15 million of these coins were minted. The Sower is 835 ‰ silver (less than the 925 ‰ of sterling silver) and weighs 5 grams.
Although it is too worn to have any numismatic merit, and its silver content is too small to have a real monetary worth, the coin dealer I visited did reveal a precious tidbit of information. In the past, coins were mounted as pendants because of an emotional value; it was common practice for a man to give a coin to his sweetheart as a love token and if she kept it, it meant she returned his affections. The date of the coin usually marked the time of the declaration. Aha! Could this be the reason the coin had been passed down in the family? Perhaps the provenance of the coin would provide more clues.
We inherited the coin from Great-great-aunt Mimi, my father-in-law’s favourite relative. She had always made him feel welcome and appreciated — vital contributions to his childhood, especially when his disinterested parents divorced and sent him away to boarding school.
Mimi was a kind and loving woman and an amazing character. She had been short and stocky, a natural athlete, a dark-haired beauty. Born into a Jewish Viennese family as Marianne Annemarie Pollak, at the age of 18 she was baptized into the Protestant church under the surname of Marjan. She became known as Mimi Marjan and took to the stage. In her early career in the 1920s, she and her younger sister performed as burlesque dancers — think giant feather headdresses and athletic dancing with lifts and poses. She then toured through France as an actress, and fell in love with a sweet-faced young French woman. Back in Vienna in the 1930s, Mimi and her sister opened a successful avant-garde cafe. At the onset of WWII, they passed it to a friend, and set about rescuing their elder brother (Willi – the subject of a previous series of articles) from the Nazis. They all escaped to England where the sisters, through a refugee program, found work as domestic servants. After the war, they returned to their Viennese cafe. Later, Mimi came to Canada for a few years and worked as a store clerk. She then returned to Europe and died in Vienna at the age of 93. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to meet her; I would have loved to hear her personal account of such an interesting era.
But, back to the coin. Mimi was born in 1901, three years after the coin was produced. I looked to the previous generation for coincidental dates. Checking the family documents, I discovered that Mimi’s parents wed in 1899. It is quite possible that they had been betrothed the year before. I doubt we will ever know for certain if this coin signifies their engagement. A great deal of information has been lost. Her father was killed when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938 and in June 1942 her mother was murdered at the Maly Trostinec, Belorussia extermination camp during the Shoah (Holocaust). We have one farewell letter from Mimi’s mother that indicates a suitcase of family documents had been sent to a relative in America. Whether it was ever retrieved by Mimi or her siblings is unknown. Was the coin in the suitcase? or did Mimi wear it as a token of her parents’ love when she fled her homeland in 1938?
The only loose end in this story is the fact the coin is French. We have no evidence that Mimi’s parents had any connection with France. We do know that Mimi did, however. Perhaps it was really Mimi herself who acquired the coin during her sojourn in France. It is a lovely coincidence that Mimi’s birth name is Marianne, just like the French Goddess of Liberty. Mimi also changed her surname to Marjan, which sounds almost the same as the French pronunciation of Marianne. Maybe the coin signifies the freedom and love Mimi found in France.
In any case, I now know this pendant fashioned from an insignificant old coin is actually a treasure that represents the ideals of freedom and equality, and the enduring nature of love. I wear it strung on silver links and clasped around my neck. It rests above my heart in memory of the 1920s flower-child, a trailblazer with a generous and loving soul.
This article was originally printed in the Bergen Newsand is being reprinted with permission.