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Austria and Britain Succeeded with Bullion
By Mark Benvenuto, World Coin News
November 04, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Bullion coins from a variety of countries continue to make the news, in part because more and more countries seem to be getting into this business, and in part because design changes continue to give collectors something for which to strive.

What used to be a few of the bigger world mints as the major players, and a few bullion coin designs, have turned into a rather crowded field of gold and silver bullion coins from numerous mints. Not content to stick with those two metals, there are now mints producing platinum and palladium coins, as well as a few coins in even more exotic metals.

If you have stayed away from the many bullion coins that trade throughout the world today, you may be saying to yourself that the field is too expensive, or that the field is artificial – that these “coins” don’t have much history to them at all, and don’t even stand for anything but the profit of the issuing authority.

You might also be a purist who believes that a coin is designed to circulate and make commerce happen, and feel that these bullion coins are nothing but round ingots of stamped, precious metal. If any of these reasons have your name stamped on them, why not look back at some trade coins that existed long before any of the modern bullion pieces? There was after all a time when a few different coin designs did circulate throughout large parts of the world, generally as trade coins, even though they were not originally designed to do so. Let’s look at one specific piece in gold, and one in silver.

First, the British sovereign.

The old axiom, “the sun never sets on the British Empire” came into being simply because the colonies of Great Britain were spread over so much of the globe that it was always day time for some of them. Less known though is that the gold coins of Great Britain were generally accepted in all these colonies – and one of the chief gold pieces of Britain for over a century was the sovereign.

First issued in 1817, and about the size of a United States nickel, the sovereign has 0.2354 ounces of gold in it, and is always made to a fineness of 0.9167, or 91.67 percent gold. What hasn’t always been the same is the obverse face of the monarch and the location throughout the world they have been made. Perhaps obviously, the Mint in London was the starting point for millions of sovereigns. But they have been produced in other citiesf ar from Britain as well. For anyone thinking seriously about building a sovereign collection, keep in mind that some bear mintmarks from Ottawa, Canada, Perth, Melbourne, and Sydney, Australia, as well as Bombay, India, and even Pretoria, South Africa.

As might be expected, the obverse of the sovereign changes whenever a new king or queen mounts the throne. But throughout this entire series, the reverse has stayed the same. The design is the very famous image of St. George slaying the dragon, and is the work of world-famous artist Benedetto Pistrucci. It appears that no one ever wanted to try to upstage Pistrucci’s artistry, and indeed, after this much time has passed, most collectors and investors will claim that this image is as much that of the sovereign as is any monarch on the obverse.

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Concerning the worldwide production of sovereigns, don’t feel however that a collection of them must be an endeavor that encompasses every date and mintmark. The dates of those from the London Mint alone can make an impressive run. From its commencement in 1817, the production run was pretty steady until 1917, with only a few years missing. Beyond 1917, the coin took a hiatus until 1925, then another until 1937, and yet another until what can be called the modern series, which started in 1957. But overall, this large span of time lets a person start a collection in any way he or she wants. Simply assembling one sovereign per monarch,, will give you an excellent type set beginning, no matter how you choose to develop your collection.

Today, the sovereign is making yet another comeback, this time as something of a bullion coin. Many dealers in world coins carry them; but if you’d like to go to the source, the British Royal Mint has information on them available at the website: www.royalmint.com/discover/sovereigns. While this site won’t help a person find any of the older pieces, it gives quite a bit of worthwhile information on the newest pieces in the series. And this too can make a great point to begin a collection of these gold gems.

Whether you choose the new or the old sovereigns, though, one piece of very good news is that their price tags are still pretty tightly tied to the price of gold on the world markets. Unless you choose to collect pieces that are Mint State – the best of the best, which always do cost more – you may be pleasantly surprised to find that even sovereigns from the 1800s cost only about 10 percent more than the spot price of gold.

Next, the Maria Theresa thaler.

If you’ve read this far but keep hearing that voice in the back of your head claiming, “yes, but those sovereigns are gold; and that means expensive,” well, let’s look at another bullion coin that has been used far from its homeland, but one that is made of silver. Let’s see what a person can do when it comes to collecting the Maria Theresa thaler.

This particular thaler is actually the last of a line of large, silver coins of Austria. Thalers were issued with the Empress Maria Theresa on them from the 1740s until her death in 1780 (and yes, there had been thalers issued before Maria Theresa’s reign). It is the 1780 coin though that is always called simply the Maria Theresa thaler (MTT). And it is this coin that has been issued from numerous mints in different countries, and that has been used in lands far from Austria, for over 200 years.

You see, almost from the outset, the MTT, as was used in Africa and the Middle East because it was both a large coin, and it had a rather intricate design on both the obverse and reverse. In nations and lands where there was no formal mint, it was worthwhile to have a coin that everyone recognized that was also hard to counterfeit. The complexity of the design, including the double-headed eagle and ornate coat of arms on the reverse, as well as the flowing drapery and brooch on the empress’ portrait, meant that the MTT fit the bill. Thus, these coins spread from Europe to eastern and northern Africa, and to the desert lands of the Middle East. Eventually, the MTT saw use in parts of India and even Indonesia.

Despite this wide appeal, a person today might wonder just how to collect a coin that always has the same year on it. Well, for starters, a person could find both a circulated piece and a proof. As mentioned, this big coin has been made at several different mints, and actually is still produced today. Thus, modern proofs are made for the collector market. Most cost only a bit more than the price of silver metal on the world’s metal markets. Circulated pieces on the other hand, are not necessarily as old as their date, but they probably do have some history associated with them.

Another twist on thaler collecting is to see if you can purchase one that has some sort of Arabic lettering stamped on it, or one that has been holed. Now, don’t raise your eyebrows too high here. Yes, most of us prefer coins that are in the best condition possible. But when it comes to these thalers, many of them that made their way to the Arabian peninsula or farther east were marked in some way, as a further assurance that they were good silver. Pieces that were holed were most likely jewelry at some point, as silver and gold jewelry has been a mark of wealth in many places – and when worn openly at a wedding for example, remains a mark of the bride’s wealth in many lands, even today.

So, a person could easily start a collection of Maria Theresa thalers with an older, possibly worn piece, with a proof that might indeed be quite modern, and with pieces that have some marking on them indicating that they had seen use in the Middle East or Far East.

As if all these options and possibilities were not enough, a person can still buy Maria Theresa thalers directly from the Austrian Mint here. This long-ish address takes a prospective buyer directly to the ordering site. And even today, the prices for uncirculated and proof thalers are not really all that much more than the price of the silver in them.

So, whether you choose to seek out the oldest Maria Theresa thalers, keeping a keen eye on their provenance, or choose to try for a collection of MTTs that have some mark indicating they have been in foreign lands, or go for the modern proofs, this big silver coin remains one of the more fascinating trade coins of the world.

Undoubtedly, there are certainly plenty of gold and silver bullion coins on today’s world stage. But if you want to get back to some trade coin collecting that has serious history to it, as well as a couple of beautiful designs, why not try either the British gold sovereigns or the Austrian Maria Theresa thalers? Both have appeal for today’s collectors.



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Comments
On November 5, 2013 Lawrence Chard said
The article claims:
"But throughout this entire series, the reverse has stayed the same."
No it hasn't!
From 1825 to 1887 inclusive, differing shield designs have been used on the reverse.
Only in 1887 did Pistrucci's St. George and Dragon return.
Also in 1989, 2002, 2005, and 2012, one-off designs were also used, for commemorative purposes, although some may say this owed more to marketing.
The article also omits to state that the Maria Theresa thaler has been minted by a number of mints from different countries, usually with the knowledge and consent of the Austrian Mint, but also often without.
Most if not all of these can be distinguished by slight design detail changes or privy marks.
There is an excellent book A Silver Legend: The Story of the Maria Theresa Thaler by Clara Semple, which is worth reading for any potential colectors of MTTs.

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