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Volume 54, Number 1January/February 2003

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Tales of a Thaler

"The favourite coin in use in this part orf Arabia is the Maria Theresa dollar (riyal), the value of which is affected by the local demand. For the remoter parts of the interior little information is available; but it appears that the there Maria Theresa dollar is current almost everywhere."

–British Admiralty’s Handbook of Arabia 1, 1920 (Aden and Vicinty)

Written by Peter Harrigan

On Tuesday November 5, 2002, the operator of the lever press at the Austrian Mint in Vienna struck the final coin of a two-day minting. The almost 2000 proof coins, their cameo portraits frosted in relief against a mirror-bright background, were packed individually in glassine wrappers. Most of the remaining 12,974 coins, of normal "bright uncirculated" quality, were packed 500 to a burlap bag and prepared for dispatch to banks in Austria and Germany and to overseas coin dealers. The date on the newly struck coins was the same date that had appeared on these coins for 222 years: 1780.

"The mint received several orders from the USA and England that caught us with low stocks, so we had to schedule a striking," says Kerry Tattersall, marketing and sales director of the 800-year-old official national mint of the Republic of Austria. "We are always happy on the infrequent occasions when we mint this coin. It is to us our Aufhangerschild, our shingle, the sign hanging outside our premises. This is our oldest, most traditional and most famous coin in production, and we will never stop striking it."

That coin is the silver Maria Theresa thaler, pronounced tah-ler and known by numismatists and scholars simply as the MTT. Its design, luster and fine detail have earned it a reputation as one of the most beautiful coins in the world. Arabs have referred to it as abu nuqta ("the one with the dots"), abu tayr ("the one with birds") and abu reesh ("the one with feathers"), all allusions to features of its intricate design.

Another name, "Levantine thaler," points to one of the paths of its diffusion, as does the Arab misnomer, riyal fransawi ("French riyal"). The French, less flatteringly, called it "la grosse madame." Only riyal nimsawi ("Austrian riyal") referred both to the coin's true origin and to the fact that Arabs preferred the term riyal—from the Spanish silver real coin—to thaler or dollar.

First struck in Spain in the 15th century, the real had circulated widely in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, the Maria Theresa thaler had supplanted it and become one of the most widely circulated coins on the globe. Passed from hand to hand by traders, it spread across the eastern Mediterranean into Arabia, along both shores of the Red Sea, around the Horn of Africa, into (present-day) Ethiopia and Eritrea and down the coast of East Africa as far south as Lourenço Marques, the Portuguese port now known as Maputo in southern Mozambique, and the islands of Zanzibar and Madagascar. It crossed the Sahara from the Maghrib and reached into Java and as far east as China. To the west, it crossed the Atlantic and was known, though not as widely used, in both North and South America. In countries that had no currency of their own, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Ethiopia, the thaler survived well into the last century-as late as 1970 in Muscat and Oman. The rise, circulation and widespread appeal of the MTT at a time of shifting borders make it a remarkable early example of international money.

The origin of the term thaler goes back to the 16th century and the opening of silver deposits at St. Joachimsthal in Bohemia. Here the Counts of Schlick were given the right by the Habsburg court to mint coins in their own names, and their large silver coins became known as thalers (also often spelled taler), short for Joachims-thaler, "the ones from the St. Joachim valley." The Dutch picked up the word in the 17th century and called their own silver coins daalder, which English-speakers naturalized as "dollar." Meanwhile, thaler also became a generic name for any large silver coin.

Maria Theresa's thaler coin had its origins in the 16th century as well, when the first Habsburg thalers were minted in an empire that then included Central Europe, the Low Countries and Spain with its American dominions. Maria Theresa entered into the Habsburg inheritance in 1740 on the death of her father, Emperor Charles VI. Then an archduchess of 23, she was beautiful, talented, intelligent and multilingual. Though she had no experience of statecraft-her father, always believing that there would be a male heir, had given her no regnal responsibilities-she soon proved to be a skillful diplomat and ruler. She was crowned queen of Hungary in 1741 and queen of Bohemia two years later. In 1745 she arranged for the election of her husband, Prince Francis Stephen of Lorraine, as Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, and took the title of empress. Thereafter, Maria Theresa's thalers carried the Latin inscription IMP MARIA THERKSIA along with some of her other regnal titles, also abbreviated.

Maria Theresa reigned over the Habsburg Empire from Vienna for 40 years. At the outset, hers was a daunting inheritance: The state coffers were empty, and there was skepticism about her ability. In addition to the burdens of rule, she bore 16 children, including Marie-Antoinette, who would become queen of France. She was known to attend to and sign state papers during childbirth, and she was, it turned out, energetic and tenacious. Throughout her reign, she devoted herself to agrarian, educational and economic reforms.

She also picked the ablest of men to help her implement the changes. One of them was her treasury head, Count Johann von Fries. He was shrewd enough to promote the MTT abroad. From its first striking in 1741, there were many versions, including half-thalers and smaller denominations, but it was the full thaler coin that, at the insistence of the empress, was minted to the highest standards of design and with the most stringent control of its silver content. In 1753 she signed one of the first European coinage conventions, a treaty with Bavaria, which defined the silver content of the thaler and other coins and set exchange rates. As a result, the MTT won trust and soon became a major export, helping the balance of trade and paying for Austrians' appetite for imported coffee.

Empress Maria Theresa died in 1780, and MTTs since then have carried that date. By that year, the four Habsburg mints had struck more than 30 million thalers, more than any other coin of the time, with the possible exception of the Spanish dollar. She had literally coined a legacy, one that continued to proliferate beyond anything she herself might have imagined.

The minting records of two and a half centuries are not complete," says Tattersall, who searches for and acquires MTTs for the Austrian Mint's own museum and modestly admits to being a hobby historian with a small private collection. "But I have seen estimates of totals of around 400 million pieces produced from eight Habsburg or Austrian mints and from an additional six mints in Europe and one in Bombay."

By way of ports such as Genoa, Trieste, Livorno and Marseille, the MTTs made their way to Levantine, Egyptian and Red Sea ports along with consignments of metals, mirrors, Bohemian-glass bottles, clothing, trinkets, flint lighters, knives and razors, sealing wax and Leghorn and Florence silks. From trading centers like Suez, Jiddah, Suakin, Mokka and Massawa they diffused further still, re-exported-like many European goods-to the interior of Africa and Arabia and, by way of the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, to India, China and Southeast Asia. And Muslim pilgrims used them, an internationally recognized currency, as they traveled to and from the holy places.

Like a wire closing an electrical circuit, the MTT filled a need. Europe was endlessly interested in the vast and exotic plenty that the Middle East offered: spices, aromatics, coffee, gum Arabic, indigo, mother of pearl, tortoise shells, ostrich feathers, Arabian horses and more. And in Asia and the Arab world, there was an insatiable demand for silver, no small part of it linked to the use of the coin in dowry payments and jewelry.

It was jewelry that drew Clara Semple to her investigations of the Maria Theresa thaler. "The richness and diversity of Arabian jewelry was overwhelming," she says, recalling her first encounter with the coin in the women's market in Riyadh in 1968. "The MTT became a familiar sight as a component in the jewelry or as a pendant, sometimes heavily embossed with stones or fringed with bells and chains. In Yemeni markets I saw it used in exchange for goods and frequently employed as a standard weight," says Semple, who, for more than three decades, has researched, photographed, recorded and collected jewelry and tribal ornaments throughout the Islamic world. During her travels she often saw silversmiths throw thalers into crucibles to melt them down to make jewelry: "The MTT was not just in itself an essential component of jewelry; it was an ingredient."

As part of her research project on the MTT, Semple started to collect anecdotes and "thaler tales" from silversmiths and merchants, old consular reports, mint and bank records, and references to MTTs in travelers' accounts. "From the 18th century onward, most of those passing through the thaler realms—be they traders, diplomats or explorers—allude to it," she says. "A frequent complaint, of course, was their weight and the difficulty of transporting large quantities of MTTs by camel or mule across deserts and mountains."

And wherever it was used, the coin was subjected to careful scrutiny. "Locals would count the number of pearls on Maria Theresa's oval brooch, or check the feathers on the imperial eagle. (These were the features that the names abu nuqta and abu reesh refer to.) Recipients would reject coins out of hand if they did not precisely match the original 1780 strike," explains Semple.

The wide acceptability and inherent bullion value of the MTT made it as valuable in war as in trade, Semple's research reveals. For example, the 1867 expedition in which General Sir Robert Napier led 30,000 soldiers from India into the highlands of Ethiopia, to rescue the British consul and others taken hostage by Emperor Theodore, needed money to purchase supplies as it advanced into the interior, and "the only acceptable currency at the time was the MTT," says Semple. "So an urgent dispatch was sent to the mint in Vienna, and they obliged by minting five million MTTs. The coins were carried on the backs of thousands of mules, horses and elephants, along with munitions and supplies."

The Maria Theresa thaler was similarly enmeshed in political intrigue, hoarded in subterranean chambers and used by European governments in the purchase and rental of such strategic Arabian Sea and Red Sea ports as Aden and Massawa. The intrepid Dutch heiress Alexine Tinne, who explored the deserts of North Africa in the 19th century, was murdered in a Tuareg raid, supposedly on account of her conspicuous quantities of MTTs. And in 1935, Mussolini demanded the dies from Austria so Italy could mint the coin for use in the Italian campaign in Abyssinia. The Italians refused to provide thalers to Britain and France, who needed them for trade, so between 1936 and 1941 the London Mint, with the full agreement of the British government, turned out more than 14 million Maria Theresa thalers of its own.

"Initially it was the ethnographic aspect of jewelry, rather than the numismatic or economic aspects, that inspired my interest in the Maria Theresa thaler," Semple says. "However, there are so many other strands to the story- political, social, historical and esthetic-that I am now working on drawing them all together" in a book.

Almost as much as its high and reliable silver content, indeed, esthetics played a role in the coin's extraordinary success. The Maria Theresa thaler is an object of unusually intricate design and fine manufacture. Both faces and its inscribed edge seem to have projected an almost mesmeric appeal. Just four years before the death of Maria Theresa, economist Adam Smith alluded to the esthetic value of precious metals in his classic Wealth of Nations: "The principal merit...arises from their beauty, which renders them peculiarly fit for the ornaments of dress and furniture."

"As well as being used as ornaments, amulets and mounted in jewelry items, thalers were also the standard for dowry payments," says Semple. In Semple's own collection is a necklace that alternates thalers with coral and glass beads; there are pendants, an elaborate headband, and a wide leather and embroidery belt incorporating a clutch of layered thalers worn smooth with use. Thalers were also sewn into garments as decorative elements.

These adornments gave the wearer status, and some ascribed apotropaic value to them. "The amuletic value of the coins derived from both the effigy of the empress and the brilliant sheen, which some believed attracts the evil eye to the coin and away from the wearer," says Semple, who adds that, although the MTT was ubiquitous, "there was always a sense of mystery about its origins and the reasons for its being there, and this aura still remains."

Intrinsic value, esthetic appeal and the popularity of the MTT as trade or commodity money spurred its diffusion. The Maria Theresa thaler reached the Arabian Peninsula only a decade after it was first coined in Vienna, coming into the hands of coffee merchants in Aden and Mokka who supplied buyers in Austria via Trieste. Greek, Levantine, Turkish, Jewish and Armenian merchants also took thalers on their journeys to trading centers like Cairo, Alexandria, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, from where links maintained by Arab merchants extended south across the Sahara and into Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. MTTs began to circulate within the Ottoman Empire both as a means of hoarding bullion and as an accepted and semiofficial currency.

The Ottoman authorities did not encourage use of the MTT, but their own silver coinage, the mejidiye, was generally regarded as inferior. The fact that soldiers and others in Ottoman service received payments in mejidiye by weight rather than by count meant that clipped and damaged coins were still acceptable, and this, as well as shortages of supply, debased the currency. As Ottoman debt piled up, their mints decreased the silver content of the coins: Both the central treasury and provincial pashas took in "good" money—coins with a high silver content—melted them down and alloyed them, then minted new coins with the same nominal value but a lower silver content. The acceptability of Turkish specie coins was thus further undermined. By the mid-19th century, the Maria Theresa thaler had become the monetary standard in the Levant, where it remained legal tender until 1960.

There was no shortage of other coins to compete with both the mejidiye and the MTT. Mid-19th century merchants' records and gazetteers researched by Semple reveal money traders in Jiddah dealing in numerous gold and silver coins: French, English and German crowns; pillar, lion, cobb and Mexican dollars; ducatoons, Venetians, Stamboles, rubles, old and new abassees, old Seville estimates, gingelees, zermabobs, zelottas, Pope's coins and, when all else failed, plain bar silver. With the MTT, all were part of the cash piles of local money changers in Jiddah and other Arab ports.

In the Hijaz, the traditionally unfavorable trade balance meant that MTTs were exported in large quantities to pay for imported goods. The thalers found their way back to Europe and also to places as far away as Singapore. A British consular report of 1884 describes the movement of thalers: "The great balance of trade always existing against Jiddah necessitates large remittances of specie to India, Singapore, the Persian Gulf, Egypt and Europe. The total cannot be ascertained, but every steamer takes large amounts in various coins such as Maria Theresa dollars (the standard coin of Jiddah and the Red Sea)." Reports from some 50 years earlier reveal that nearly half of the yearly value of merchandise shipped from Jiddah to Suez was made up of MTTs, among jars of perfume oils and quantities of cinnamon, nutmeg, styrax resin, frankincense, gum Arabic, tobacco, ginger, pepper, muslin and shawls.

The MTT was for this time the most popular coin in the region. It was substantial to hold—which brought it yet another nickname, riyal kabir, the "big riyal"—well-made and always in good supply. The coin's unusual edging prevented clipping, a technique by which unscrupulous handlers trim and shave silver from coin edges.

Ghalib bin 'Awadh Al-Qu'ati, the last sultan of the Qu'ati "state in Hadhramawt, is a scholar of Arabian history. He too has recorded stories and memories of the Maria Theresa thaler in his former territories. "Whenever I ask elders about the coin's history, they invariably reply 'gadeem jiddan'-'it is very old.' Why did it spread and become so widely accepted? The reasons are complex. It took hold when Ottoman authority in the region was in decay," he explains, adding that this coincided with an intrusion of European powers and a rise in trade, including weapons smuggling by French, Italians and Austrians.

"Our people traveled abroad to Suez, the Hijaz, Ethiopia, India and Java," says Al-Qu'ati, who now lives in Jiddah. "They would often go by way of Jiddah, where they could board pilgrim ships. Many served rulers in India and elsewhere as soldiers, and acquired landholdings and wealth. Entrepreneurial families from Hadhramawt built up prosperous mercantile interests in Java, which became one of the easternmost MTT circulation areas."

Sharp fluctuations in the price of silver in the second half of the 19th century provided windfall profits in trading thalers, in addition to opportunities to move thalers into interior regions where they fetched a premium. After the growth in exports of silver to the Arab world, there was a surge in demand for silver in India. Shipments of bullion and coins via Aden quadrupled from 1850 to 1860. Then the US Civil War halted American cotton exports to Europe, and this led to more trade with Egypt, Sudan and India-paid invariably with thalers. But at the same time, other events foreshadowed the coin's eventual demise: Huge silver deposits were discovered in Nevada in 1859, and governments gradually offloaded silver, starting with the British adoption of the gold standard in 1821, followed by other European nations.

Furthermore, the second half of the 19th century was an era in which colonial powers reinforced their interests. Part of this involved introducing their own currencies, and this often involved suppressing the MTT. Thus, with British interest in Aden and Hadhramawt, the British Indian administration set the Indian rupee against the MTT, but with only limited success: "Whenever members of my grandfather's family traveled abroad, they would send trusted servants from Mukhala to Aden by dhow with chests of thalers to exchange into paper currency," says Al-Qu'ati. "But convenience aside, the thaler was always considered superior. When silver prices were high, it became worthwhile to send the coins to India for their bullion content. When prices fell, then the coins could easily be hoarded by burying them, and there was always internal demand for jewelry and dowry payments." Al-Qu'ati's own family counterstruck the MTT in the 1880's to provide additional legitimacy to the coin in their territories.

Independence in India in 1947 led to a switch to the British East African shilling in Aden and Hadhramawt. But the MTT still remained popular and accepted as currency into the 1960's, its silver value recognized particularly in inaccessible regions. Today it is still being used for jewelry in Yemen, Oman and Saudi Arabia, often to satisfy demand from foreigners for locally crafted items. The coin also lingers in the drawers of silversmiths in markets across Arabia and elsewhere in its old territories, ready for a local or a visitor to pick up as a keepsake, a curiosity and sometimes even a collector's item. "An MTT is the perfect souvenir," says Semple. "It's the right price-typically $15 or less-and the right size, worth almost its weight in silver, and it can be worn as jewelry. It's a fascinating coin to have." From other modern travelers, Semple has received recent reports of MTT purchases in markets of China, Indonesia and Libya.

Adrian Tschoegl's encounter with the MTT is that of an economic scholar. He is a specialist in international banking and finance who teaches multinational strategy at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He used the Maria Theresa thaler to illuminate the general phenomenon of international money in an article for the Eastern Economic Journal (v.27 no.4). "The MTT provides a fascinating and entertaining anecdote for teachers and students of international finance, money and banking," he wrote.

"The MTT was the very first coin I bought," he says by way of explaining his interest in the coin. "I was in Vienna, and I saw it in a window with the date 1780. I had no idea that as a re-strike thaler it carried a fraudulent date [by today's standards]. It intrigued me, and with my research into banks and my travels, I became interested in money as a physical entity, as distinct from its theoretical aspects. Whenever I reflected on money, I remembered my MTT. I started to research the coin, and the more I sleuthed and trawled, the more I found," says Tschoegl, whose own Austro-Hungarian background spurred him further.

To Tschoegl, what makes the MTT unique is its combination of longevity and geographical spread. "It succeeded and survived not because it changed but rather because it did not." He argues that the demise of the MTT was caused by the rise of the modern state with its national money, and the fact that states were able to require their citizens to use domestic currency.

"Money is an amazing invention that took centuries to develop and perfect. The MTT plays a key role in this history, and I believe it would have been even more successful had they come out with half, quarter and double thaler denominations," he adds wistfully.

Although the MTT's displacement has consigned the coin to obscurity, its transnational concept is, if anything, on the rise in the Arabian Peninsula. A year after the introduction of the euro in Europe, the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, having launched a customs union this January, approved a timetable for monetary union by 2005 and a single currency in 2010 that will, like the thaler, circulate as transnational money-but it will be Arabian money this time.

For now, the MTT legacy stands out as perhaps the world's best example of a truly international money, a coin that bore the portrait of a deceased empress of a realm that no longer existed in a denomination long superceded, yet was still universally accepted over vast areas with fluid borders.

Peter Harrigan ([email protected]) works with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, where he is also contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supplement of the Saudi Gazette. "This was an assignment that turned up a cornucopia of intrigue and endless surprises," he says. "I encountered people who said they knew of current hordes of what they claimed were millions of MTTs, boxed in bonded warehouses and stashed underground, but I was never able to persuade anyone to take me to see a cache. Who knows if they exist? It is all part of the mystique of this largely forgotten, yet entirely remarkable coin."

Thanks to Clara Semple (semple@semple99. fsnet.co.uk) for her assistance in researching this article. Her book on the Maria Theresa thaler, The Empress Who Coined a Legend, is due to be published in 2004 by Barzan Press.

Thanks also to Walter Hafner, author of the definitive Lexicon of the 1780 Maria Theresa Thaler (Vienna, 1984).

This article appeared on pages 14-23 of the January/February 2003 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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