Family rouble 1836
Artefact of the month - May 2022
The ‘family rouble’ of the Emperor of Russia Nicholas I is one of the best-known and rarest Russian coins. It was modelled after the thaler that the King of Bavaria Louis I (from 1825 to 1848) had issued in 1828.
The story of the family rouble began in September 1835 when Prince Grigory Gagarin, the Russian ambassador in Germany, sent the thaler of Louis I to Count Igor Kankrin, the Russian Minister of Finance, to be added to the Hermitage collection. Kankrin took a liking to the coin and showed it to Nicholas I. He suggested that the Tsar have a similar commemorative coin minted with the Empress’s and their children’s portraits on it. The coin would be used to celebrate Nicholas’s 10th anniversary on the throne and also signal that the future of the Romanov dynasty would be secure. However, the intention was not to mint the coin as an ordinary currency, but as a gift from the Emperor to his inner circle and esteemed guests.
Nicholas approved the suggestion, and Saint Petersburg Mint die cutter and Imperial Academy of Arts graduate Pavel Utkin was tasked with cutting the dies. The first version of the family rouble was completed in late 1835. Only 46 specimens of this version were minted, 36 of which were handed to Kankrin for him to present them to the Emperor. Despite its name, the family rouble was minted on a flan dimensioned for 1.5 roubles to better highlight the portraits and make the coin more reminiscent of a medal. On the obverse, there is the Emperor’s profile. The text circling the coin only states the coin’s nominal value both in roubles and Polish zloty, and the year of minting: “1 ½ РУБЛЯ. 10 ZŁOT. 1835”. Below the ruler’s portrait, Utkin’s name is inscribed as "Р.П. УТКИНЪ". On the reverse, there is a portrait of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, surrounded by her children. The children pictured clockwise from the top are Alexander (II), Maria, Olga, Konstantin, Nicholas, Michael and Alexandra. The children’s portraits were copied from the tobacco tin of Count Golicyn.
Kankrin showed the coins to Emperor Nicholas who approved them in principle, with a few changes. He wanted to remove the circles copied from the Bavarian coin from around his children’s portraits. At the same time, he also requested that the portrait of his 36-year-old wife be made to look younger, since her double chin reminded him too much of his mother-in-law.
The draft of the coin with the changes requested by the Emperor were finished in early 1836. After observing the draft, Nicholas approved the changes on 2 February 1836 and ordered a hundred more specimens to be minted. However, the dies produced for this purpose broke down when only 50 specimens had been minted, so Utkin had to cut the dies for a third time. The third pair of dies was finished in late 1836, and minting the family rouble restarted towards the end of the year. This coin differs from the previous version in that Utkin’s name has been reduced to the initials “Р. У.” In the end, 150 specimens of the coin were minted at the Emperor’s request.
Once the third pair of dies broke down for good, the Saint Petersburg Mint produced a fourth pair later, in 1847, with Utkin’s initials missing from it completely. This was because Utkin’s eyesight had weakened with age, which is why the fourth pair was likely cut by one of his students or colleagues. The Saint Petersburg Mint hid the production of the fourth pair of dies, and the existence of the test coins minted with them, from collectors for over 50 years. Collectors only became aware of them with the publication of the list of Russian coins by V. Petrov in 1899.
Due to the great popularity among collectors, the coin was re-minted with the original (third-variant) dies after the original batch of 150 specimens. The reissues minted with the original dies are called novodel, and they should not be mistaken for the forgeries that occurred later. Regardless, the novodel are seen as a variant of their own since they were not included in the original issue and were minted after the year inscribed on the coin. In this case, the novodel were minted between 1837 and 1846. Typically, novodel can only be told apart from the original mints by the wear on the dies. The piece in the collections of the National Museum of Finland was acquired in 1959 from a Russian emigrant. The notable defect on the right edge on the reverse side of the coin, in particular, reveals that it is indeed a novodel.