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Coins Recall Europe’s ‘Forgotten’ Countries
By Mark Benvenuto, World Coin News
July 05, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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The 20th century witnessed two of the world’s biggest and bloodiest armed conflicts ever. The First and Second World Wars left millions of dead across the world. Next year will mark the centennial of the beginning of that cycle of horror.

Much of the fighting during the two wars occurred in Europe, although there was plenty for other continents as well. At the end of each war, national lines were redrawn and new countries were mapped out. In this changing landscape, there were several sets of coins produced, some for countries many of us now only vaguely remember. These make for some fascinating collecting possibilities today.

It was the end of the First World War that saw Yugoslavia born from a fusion of Serbia with a few of the pieces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the area has an ancient history, having been part of the Roman Empire, modern Yugoslavia was declared on Oct. 3, 1929. Prior to that, starting on Dec. 1, 1918, most of the area had been known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Those two words “most of” gets to the heart of how Yugoslavia was formed. The six small nations of the area were slowly drawn into the union that became Yugoslavia over the course of that decade.

With this new nation came a new coinage. The Yugoslavian dinar was made up of 100 para, and some of the first coins are dated 1920. In 1925, gold 20 dinara coins were issued, which still pop up in the market today. They are not particularly rare, but being gold, will never be cheap.

The nation was occupied by the Nazis in World War II, was proclaimed a “People’s Republic” after, and was considered the model of the union of many different peoples for quite some time. An enormous commemorative coin program developed as time went on, with numerous base metal and precious metal issues. The commemoratives of the 1984 Winter Olympics have some especially beautiful designs.

All of this came to a particularly bloody and violent end as Yugoslavia fell apart between 1990 and 1992 setting off a grisly civil war. The end result is the series of small nations we see on the map today, and a brilliant series of coins of the conglomerate state that was.

The end of the First World War saw not only the emergence of Yugoslavia, but also the creation of Czechoslovakia. In the coinage of this new nation, 1 koruna was composed of 100 haleru, and the first pieces were issued in 1922. A brief period of independence was followed by an invasion by the Nazis, then by Soviet liberation as the Second World War ended.

Under the influence of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia not only got back into the business of producing circulating coins for everyday commerce, but also went deeply into commemorative issues. There is now a rather large series of 10 korun, 20 korun, 50 korun, 100 korun and even 500 korun coins commemorating everything from the 10th anniversary of liberation from the Nazis issued in 1955 to the 100th anniversary of the Prague Theater in 1983. The prices today are not outrageous, but the patience you will need to form a complete collection might be. Some were not produced in particularly large quantities.

If all this is not enough, there is even a gold trade coinage that was minted for several years, from 1923 up to 1951, sporting images of Duke Wenceslas. Denominated in dukats, there are four different sizes, with the big 10 dukaten coins containing slightly more than an ounce of gold each. The smaller, more affordable 1 dukats each contain just more than 1/10th of an ounce of the precious metal.

While the circulating coins, the commemoratives and the dukats are still available to collectors, Czechoslovakia underwent what is called “The Velvet Divorce,” which took effect on January 1, 1993, breaking into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

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East Germany
Another country born from war – the Second World War, that is – was East Germany. Carved from the Soviet Zone of Occupation, this part of the larger Germany was never reunited with those portions controlled by the western Allies. The western part of the country gained self-government in 1948. On Oct. 7, 1949, the Soviet occupation officially gave way to the government of the Democratic Republic of Germany. Circulating 1, 5 and 10 pfennig coins had actually been produced for the area as early as 1948, with larger coins produced later.

What many collectors of German coins note about the coinage of East Germany though is not the circulating pieces, with their hammer and compass symbols of the communist state, but the commemoratives. In the 1960s, the East German government started producing 5-mark, 10-mark and 20-mark pieces that commemorated a wide variety of people, events and themes. Whether it was a well-known composer like Brahms, or the pretty much forgotten Otto Lillenthal, the East German commemorative coinage program seemed to honor just about anyone who had a connection to Germany.

Prices for East German circulating coinage generally remain low, and even a large portion of the commemoratives are affordable. But the program came to its end when the two Germanys were reunited on Oct. 3, 1990.

If you’ve been reading along this far thinking that you knew plenty about these three countries and their relatively short histories, well, this fourth entry still may throw you a bit. At the end of World War II, what is now the German state of Saarland – sometimes simply called the Saar – was a point of contention between France and Germany because of its rich coal deposits. For over a decade, the area ended up being rather autonomous, so much so that it sent athletes to the 1952 Olympic Games and a team to the 1954 FIFA World Cup, and so much so that there are a few coins of Saarland.

The 10, 20, 50, and 100 franken coins of Saarland have denominations that hint at how much someone in charge wanted the area to become part of France. The only nod to the German-speaking majority in the area was the written denomination and the spelling – “franc” is the French spelling, while “frank” is a more German way to render it.

Despite a decade of autonomy, these are the only four coins issued by the Saarland. The lower three denominations came out in 1954, and the bigger, 100 franken pieces were issued in 1955. All were coined in large quantities, and all are base metal pieces. Thus, all a collector really needs to collect them today is some patience.

Any plans for further Saarland coinage went the way of the dodo bird on Jan. 1, 1957, when it reunified with West Germany. This was basically decided by a plebiscite that both France and Germany had agreed to hold.

Ionian Islands
Almost everyone except professional historians and serious world coin collectors have long forgotten that the islands in the Ionian Sea situated west of Greece were once under British rule. In one of the apparently endless series of wars that Britain and France undertook up through the 19th century, Britain ended up with these islands in 1815 – and wanted them for their potential as naval bases, just as France had. The transfer back to Greece came in 1862, when British leaders felt the Greek monarch was a strong ally with interests well aligned with Britain.

As early as 1819, Britain issued a series of lepton coins. It took 5 lepta to make an obol and 100 of these to make one dollar. The series of coins made for the island routinely sported their inscriptions written in Greek on one side, and English on the other. The seated figure of Britannia is also seen, in one form or another, on all of them. The largest of the copper pieces, the 2 oboli coins issued only in 1819, are about the size of a British large penny. While they are not particularly rare, they tend to cost a bit, simply because so few of them seem to appear in western markets. Perhaps most of them remain in Greece. Likewise, the silver 30 lepta coins, issued for several years from 1834 to 1862, are not too expensive, but don’t often appear at major shows in the U.S. today.

In 1862, the British flag of the Ionian Islands (yes, they had a proper government, with every trapping, including a territorial flag) was furled, and the islands went back to Greece. Thus, another chapter of history closed, leaving only the coins behind.

Overall, there are quite a few “forgotten” countries and lands in Europe that made large numbers of coins. Looking deeply into history gives us a glimpse of some of the political intrigue, and the swings of power that took place – and that still do take place – in a growing, changing Europe. The coins also make for some interesting and often overlooked collecting possibilities.

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