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The royal portrait in our wallet

When King Albert II decided to abdicate a few months ago, and was succeeded by his son Philippe, that did not only mean that Belgium had a new king, it also meant a change of coinage, because the Belgian euro coins carry a portrait of the king.  Royalty are the only Belgians to have been honoured by being depicted on a coin or banknote during their lifetime, so it is high time we took a close look at the royal portrait in this edition of ‘Spotlight’.

Minting coins, a royal prerogative

MuntenE [1]From the introduction of the Belgian franc in 1832, the right to mint coins was a royal prerogative. It is therefore not surprising that Belgium’s kings were depicted on the coins from the start. The first gold and silver coins showed the king wearing an oak wreath, the symbol of decisiveness, wisdom and sound judgment. The direction which Leopold I faces depends on the coins’ value. On the high-value gold coins he is looking towards the right, in the direction of the future. Conversely, on the silver coins he is looking towards the left, back to the past. The copper coins did not actually bear any portrait of the king, just his monogram. Although the oak wreath did not appear on the new coins in 1848, Kings Leopold I and II still faced in different directions according to the value of the coins. That practice was discontinued when coins depicting Albert I were issued in 1909. Since then the king has almost always been depicted in left profile, except on the zinc five franc coins bearing the portrait of King Leopold III, which circulated during the Second World War.

Face of the 5 Belgian franc coin, type 1986. © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [2]

Face of the 5 Belgian franc coin, type 1986. © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The kings were almost always portrayed in the same way: strictly in profile. By way of exception, a special design was produced by Jean-Paul Laenen in 1986 and 1987 for the 5 and 50 franc coins. His design treated the coin as a work of sculpture rather than a flat surface, giving a suggestion of depth in King Baudouin’s face. The rounded surface is divided into three equal parts, representing the federal state of Belgium.

Dutch inscriptions appeared on the coins from 1887 onwards, and from that date there were coins in circulation with Dutch or French inscriptions. That continued until 2002 when the Belgian franc gave way to the euro.  Another interesting point is that the face of the coin only showed the king’s portrait; the value was shown on the back. The reference to the monarchy was therefore clearly very important.

When King Baudouin died in 1993, the Royal Mint did not replace all the coins as was usual on the accession of a new king.  In view of the introduction of the euro, it seemed more sensible not to do that, so between 1993 and 2002 coins depicting King Baudouin were in circulation alongside coins depicting King Albert II.

Banknotes as an expression of patriotism

Since it was originally private banks that had the right to print and issue banknotes, it was only at a later date that royal portraits appeared on banknotes. The National Bank was founded in 1850 and had the monopoly right to issue banknotes from then on, but that did not immediately bring any change in the banknotes’ appearance. Throughout the 19th century, banknotes were mainly decorated with allegorical designs and were marked with their value.  The First World War changed that. In 1914 the National Bank placed the first banknotes in circulation bearing a medallion portrait of King Leopold I. A year later, the Société Générale issued similar banknotes depicting the first Queen Louise-Marie.
After the war, the National Series was issued, with portraits of the then King and Queen, Albert I and Elisabeth. These banknotes remained in use until the Second World War, which marked the real breakthrough for kings on bank notes. The three denominations of the Dynastic Series in circulation from 1944 depicted Kings Leopold I, Leopold II and Albert I. In 1950 followed the Centenary Series which again showed the same three kings. In other words,  Leopold III is the only Belgian king who has never been depicted on a banknote. Later came the familiar 20 and 50 franc notes,  with King Baudouin on the 20 franc note and the king together with Queen Fabiola on the 50 franc note. In 1992 the National Bank issued a 10 000 franc note which also depicted the king and queen. That banknote was taken out of circulation when the Bank decided in 1997 to issue a banknote showing the new king and queen,  Albert II and Paola. That went out of circulation in 2002 when the euro was introduced.

Face of the 10 000 Belgian franc note, type 1992. © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [3]

Face of the 10 000 Belgian franc note, type 1992. © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

The king depicted on the euro

National face of the Belgian 2 euro coin, type 2000. © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium [4]

National face of the Belgian 2 euro coin, type 2000. © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium

With the introduction of the euro, the king no longer appeared on the banknotes and a competition was held for the design of the national side of the euro coins in Belgium. The winning design shows King Albert II in profile. The accession of the new king on 21 July means that new coins will be issued. The official engraver at the Belgian Royal Mint, Luc Luyckx – who also designed the international side of the euro coins – has since submitted a number of designs to the new king. Once King Philippe has chosen his portrait, the coins will be issued in 2014.  However, this does not mean that all the coins will be changed: coins depicting Albert II will remain in circulation. When new coins are needed or have to be replaced, then the coins bearing the portrait of King Philippe will be issued. However, in the autumn of 2013 collectors will be able to buy a 20 euro silver commemorative coin from the Royal Mint.  This bears a double portrait of father and son, the abdicating king and the new king.

Laurence Verpoort
Museum guide


With thanks to Didier Vanoverbeek (Belgian Royal Mint) for his assistance.