The majority of gold ducats depicting Franz Joseph were issued from the early 1900s onwards. The 1 ducat coins dated 1915 are today being produced by the Austrian Mint as official restrikes.
The history of the ducat coin
It is no exaggeration to claim that the ducat is the world’s number one gold coin with regards to uniformity, and one of the top three most important classical coins ever to have been produced in Europe.However, contrary to what one might think, the ducat does not originate in Austria,but instead draws its heritage from medieval Italy. The birthplace of the gold ducat, whose uniformity would facilitate trade for over 700 years, was the Italian city of Venice. During the 12th and 13th centuries,Venice was a trading powerhouse and the dominant city-state along the coastal areas of the Adriatic Sea. To further the city’s trade and prominence, the ruling duke at the time began to mint a gold coin whose weight was set at 3.5grams with a determined gold purity of 98.6% (23.68 karat). Because “dukes”governed the city, the new coin was given the name “ducatus”, which is Latin for “dukedom”, hence the name of the present “ducat”.
The ducat’s gold content was a marketing campaign
From the start, the ducat became an immediate success.This outcome was partially attributed to Venice’s regional influence andfar-reaching trade, but it was the coin’s high purity that was responsible for its recognition and acceptance. The mere undertaking to purify gold to such a high degree was an accomplishment in itself at that time, and, as a result, the ducat emitted such a lustrous gold colour that it made other coinage look bleak in comparison. Apart from the Florentine florin that shared a similar standard andcompeted for trade dominance alongside the ducat, the other circulating coinageof the time was mostly made of silver or gold of lower purity. The fascinatingreason for making the ducat of such high purity was largely attributed to whatwe today would refer to as “marketing”. Pure gold, or 24 karat gold, is bynature extremely soft, and thus coins of such a high karat are not suitable ascirculating coinage since they easily become worn down. On the other hand, a goldcoin with a high fineness diffracts the beautiful and seductive colour of gold,an aspect that even to this day is treasured by many.
The gold ducat becomes the universal coin par excellence
The main purpose of the ducat was to spread Venice’sinfluence and that is exactly what it did. Ducats fostered trade andfacilitated the payment of goods throughout the Mediterranean Sea, reachingeven remote trading outposts in India, Africa and the Middle East. By the 15thcentury, the Venetian ducat had established itself as the internationalcurrency of choice. Its popularity became so pronounced that other nations andcity-states began mimicking the Venetian ducat by striking their own versions,albeit sometimes with a different design and shape, but adhering to thestandard uniformity of 3.5 grams and a gold fineness of 98.6 percent. Italian well-known city-states such as Rome,Genoa and Florence, other foreign cities such as Constantinople and Acre, aswell as most European nations, including Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands,Germany, and Russia, just to name a few, minted ducats at some time during theirhistory. In fact, since its inception, the ducat has been minted by more than250 different entities, including both public and private mints.
What is most intriguing is that the term “ducat”became associated with a unit of account, a direct result of the integrity ofthe Venetians, but also other entities, in keeping the weight and the purity ofthe ducat uniform throughout the ages. The City of Venice issued ducats with a similardesign for five centuries until conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797.
The ducat depicts thecoat of arms of the House of Habsburg
The Habsburg royal family, in some respects similar tothe ducat gold coin, was powerful in its reach and endurance through thecenturies. The family arose around the 10th century in connection with theconstruction of Habsburg castle in Aargau, Switzerland. By the late thirteen century, the family obtainedcommand of the Duchy of Austria, which they ruled for over 600 years until Austriabecame a republic in 1919. The Habsburgs were one of Europe’s most powerfulroyal houses, and, gaining influence through marriages and political alliances,they regularly ruled the Holy Roman Empire (a political entity that stretchedfrom Rome in Italy to northern parts of Germany) between the fifteen andeighteenth centuries. At the zenith of the family’s power, in addition to rulingthe heartland of Central Europe, territories belonging to the Habsburgsincluded Spain, parts of Italy, most of the Netherlands and possessions in theAmericas.
Following the fall of the Holy Roman Empire at thehands of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grand Army in the early 19th century,the Habsburgs, shrewd as they were, made a deal with Napoleon, pledging theiralliance and in return were given the right to pull back to their long-termstronghold in Austria. The Habsburg’s patiently consolidated their lands andpower by founding the Austrian Empire comprised of Austria and several vassalstates south and east of the country. Once Napoleon suffered his first majorloss with his disastrous campaign in Russia, the Habsburgs with other allies swiftlyturned against him and crushed the French former Grand Army in 1815. As one ofthe victors, the Habsburgs laid claim to additional territories that includedCroatia, northern parts of Italy (Lombardy-Venetia), and the region of whatwould today be considered West Austria. The enlarged Austrian Empire became thesecond largest geographical nation in Europe, over which the Habsburgs would rulefor the next century.
The ducat facilitated trade in the Austrian Empire
The first Austrian ducat was issued sometime in the early 16th century. Its prominence as a trade coin would become apparent with the enlargement of the Austrian Empire in 1816. Comprised of twelve different countries, the Austrian Empire was a multinational realm that contained Europe’s third largest population. It was a dynamic economy thatheavily depended on trade, a function that the Austrian gold ducat helped tofacilitate. However, the ducat was not the sole gold coin used in the AustrianEmpire at that time. Decimal coinage that contained a lower gold fineness, whichmade it more suitable for handling, was preferred for day-to-day affairs. Thesecoins circulated side by side with the ducat and included the Austrian goldgulden and crown, and the Hungarian gold forint. Nevertheless, Austrian ducatswere still the favoured gold coins for settling commerce transactionsthroughout the Austrian Empire and beyond.
The Franz Joseph ducat is the most treasured gold coin in Central Europe
Ducats carrying the design of Franz Joseph are themost famous version of the Austrian gold ducats. Its popularity stems from thefact that Franz Joseph was looked upon as a patriarchal authority that held the Empire together, drawing respect from his subjects. Franz Joseph ascended tothe throne in 1848, but his first two decades of reign would prove to be tumultuous,contradicting his reputation of being able to reign over the region with a firmgrip. At the Battle of Solferino in Italy in 1859, inexperienced in militarism,Franz Joseph allowed himself to command the troops and he lost the battleagainst the French and Italian armies, forcing him as a result to give upLombardy (the Milan region) to the allies. In 1866, he lost the Austro-Prussianwar, which meant he had to cede Austrian control of the Venetian region toPrussia’s ally, the Italian King Vittorio Emanuele. One short year later,nationalist sentiment in Hungary forced Franz Joseph to grant the countrygreater autonomy, creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the process. In spiteof these missteps, beginning with 1867 and onwards, he would rule peacefully andsuccessfully until his death in 1916.
During this period of concord, the Austro-Hungarian Empire prospered. Industry expanded, artistic and scientific segments ofsociety were thriving, especially in Austria, the infrastructure was beingmodernised, railroad networks, river channels and ports were being constructedthroughout the dual monarchy, Hungary became a leading source of food for the restof Europe, and the Empire as a whole became the world’s fourth largest machinemanufacturer. With incomes rising and trade flourishing, Franz Joseph’s reignbecame naturally associated with a time of “plenty”, boosting his popularity asa consequence. He was particularly popular among the more conservative layers of Austrian society, and he likewise drew a strong loyal following in Slovenia,Croatia, Hungary and in the Czech Republic. The act of handing out Franz Joseph ducats to the parents of a newborn child, to newlyweds, or as a memorable gift in general became a tradition which is still being practised in the former countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.