Zurich Thaler, struck and overstruck in 1660? Numismatic Riddle about an allegedly bought Mayor and French Debts after the Mercenary Alliance had expired


Numismatists call a special thaler struck in Zurich in 1660 «Waserthaler». Its name refers to Heinrich Waser, mayor of Zurich who was thought to have betrayed his hometown. This was not true. We will tell you the full story.



This is a peculiar coin! The striking is somewhat awkward. It seems as if there was a second image, hidden underneath the first.

Actually, this Zurich thaler was overstruck on a coin that had been made earlier. That coin was a Zurich thaler dating from 1660. Strange! For what reason were newly manufactured coins, issued in 1660, struck a second time, in 1661, at considerable expense? Well, that might be due to a very special reason.

To get to the bottom of this, we have to go back in time, to old Zurich. On June 28, 1652, John Henry Waser was elected mayor of Zurich. Waser came from one of the town’s most noble families. He enjoyed a very good education and started to work for the Zurich government when he was 21 years old. Assistant of the township clerk, probationary judge, recorder, provincial governor of Kyburg – Waser learned the art of politics from the bottom up, which was a good thing and prepared him for his future duty: in his capacity as mayor, he had to resolve a very tricky problem.

In May 1651, the mercenary alliance with France had expired. That was a problem! On the one hand, France was a useful ally which acted as mediator between the Catholic and the Reformed cantons. On the other hand France owed the city of Zurich quite a lot of money. Zurich supplied the French army with mercenary soldiers on a regular basis. France, however, did not pay the soldiers as agreed.

Back then, some 9,000 inhabitants lived in the city of Zurich. Only 1,500 were entitled to express their political opinion. It was a small circle indeed that engaged in fierce discussions about possible ways to make France pay its dues.

Waser participated in the discussions as well. And as mayor, he was of course involved in the negotiations with France. He probably realized at some point that it was simply impossible for France to pay. At least, it could not make the payment in the amount requested by the citizens of Zurich.

Mazarin, the grey eminence behind the throne of juvenile Louis XIV, had quashed the Fronde revolts only recently. As a result, the state coffers were empty.

But France had other levers. The confederates possessed important trade privileges in the French Kingdom which France could easily revoke. Solothurn was the first city to give in. It renewed the alliance with France. The other Catholic cities followed. The Reformed cities likewise grew tired of supporting Zurich’s uncompromising policy. The discontent was further fueled by Mazarin rescinding the customs exemption for merchants of the Swiss Confederacy in Lyon, which affected Geneva in particular.

Let’s cut a long story short. Zurich had no other option. Waser was experienced enough to pursue a pragmatic policy that was backed by the council yet resented by those who wanted to force France to pay more money. In 1683, however, the new contract for a mercenary alliance with France was ratified. On this painting Waser is shown leading the delegation of the Swiss Confederacy and going known on his knee before Louis XIV. We know what Waser received as honorary gift from Louis XIV. He returned to Zurich with chains, medals and cash, all together worth 2,305 gulden.

The value of these gifts was determined by a valuer, the Zurich mint master, who had been officially appointed by the council. The council decided that Waser could keep the honorary presents. That, however, did not stop the gossip factory from working overtime. There were rumors about a barrel full of gold which a customs official in Mellingen claimed to have seen with his own eyes. Malicious gossip had it that the French King had used it to buy Waser.

These defaming allegations were disproved by a court. Waser, however, could not enjoy the acquittal for long. He died shortly after the rendition of the verdict.

What happened thereafter is a numismatic legend. The citizens of Zurich are said to have refused to accept the coins issued under Waser because they bore not only the date but a flower underneath that a viewer with imagination might have interpreted as French fleur-de-lis. The Zurich council had no other option than to overstrike these coins.

Is this story true? We don’t know. We have no written sources confirming that Waser’s coins were of ill repute.

What we do have, though, are the coins that are clearly overstrikes on the so-called waserthaler, using the original dies. Whether or not the numismatic legend harks back to such coins or, rather, a business-mined Zurich-based mint master took the original dies at a later date, in order to create an overstrike that matched the legend and thus served a collector’s need, we will never be able to tell.

But one thing is certain: no matter if we look at our own time or at 17th century-Zurich, voters of all eras tended – and still tend – to scapegoat politicians if they see their wishes and reality diverging.

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.

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