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The Austria “Piece by Piece” Coin Design Competition


By Ron DrzewuckiModern Coin Wholesale …..
Coin design contests are nothing new; the American public was invited to design the nation’s bicentennial coinage, and in-house competition between engravers and designers has produced many of what we consider classic 20th century United States coins. But gosh darnit folks, I can’t help it. The Austrian Mint has really upped the ante in the design-contest-as-good-PR game with the Austria Piece by Piece series.

For those of you who don’t know, the Austrian Mint is responsible for some of the finest numismatic collectibles on the planet. From their award-winning silver-niobium bimetallic science and technology-themed coins to the internationally-bestselling Silver and Gold Philharmonics, the Austrian Mint is on the short list of the world’s top-class coin production facilities.

The Austria Piece by Piece series is no exception to this rule of quality.

Nine coins in the 10-coin series celebrate the cultural and historical identities of the nine provinces of Austria, while the tenth and final coin will feature Austria as a whole nation. The first two coins, honoring the provinces of Steiermark (Styria) and Kärnten (Carinthia), came out in 2012, and each year since has seen the release of two more. 2015’s first entry in the series (and the seventh overall) features the city and province of Vienna. It came out over two months ago, in mid-May.

One more is due later this year, and the last two will be released in 2016. I’m not sure if 2016 represents an anniversary year for the country or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

To add to the excitement, every issue comes in three versions: a silver Proof coin, a special uncirculated silver coin, and an uncirculated copper coin. Mintages for the silver versions are limited to 30,000 and 40,000 for the Proof and special uncirculated coins, respectively, and the uncirculated copper is capped off at 130,000.

(As an aside, and I think I’ve said it in reference to Canadian numismatic products, but I’d like to see the United States Mint mimic the Austrian Mint’s approach of more collector coin programs each year but each one limited to a much smaller run.)

austria2015viennaThe special uncirculated coin comes in a thematic blister pack with documentation in both German and English. For example, Vienna’s package features a pleasant photograph of a very civilized cup of coffee, for which Vienna has been world famous for centuries. And in case you were wondering, “special uncirculated” means that the coin is an early strike from the initial mintage and has been handled most carefully upon manufacture. “Proof” and “uncirculated” mean more or less the same here as they do when discussing American products.

So now you know about the Austria Piece by Piece Federal Provinces collection. Good stuff. But what really pulled me in was the design competition. I’ve been in this business for a while, as you know, and I’ve seen just about every gimmick there is when it comes to marketing coins. But I gotta hand it to ‘em. I haven’t seen a cuter gimmick in my [REDACTED] years on this planet.

I’m talking about the children’s design competition.

Like I said, each coin features an image and motifs emblematic of the cultural and or historical heritage of the province in question. The Mint’s Chief Engraver Thomas Pesendorfer is doing a great job supplying low-relief yet detail-rich obverses for the program. The reverse of each coin, however, features a design selected from among the many submitted to the Mint by children living in the coin’s respective province. “Charming” doesn’t do it justice.

The result is a coin with disparate styles that somehow compliment each other in the best possible way. The children’s “naive” take on coin design is refreshing and much appreciated. The 2014 Salzburg reverse, for example, with its seemingly unexplained clothing items floating in the midground, reminds me of the stark, ungrounded feel of the motifs on some ancient coins. In other words, these kids and their coins remind me of what coin design is capable of when you don’t have committees and special interests intervening at every step. The pure joy of seeing something pretty on a round piece of metal. Possibly something YOU created.

And if you visit their website, the Mint has a nice page dedicated to blurbs about the winning young artists. Every face on it is open and intelligent, if not downright cute. I have a hard time imagining something similar being conducted (or at least handled as well) by the U.S. Mint or even Canada for that matter. Somehow, of all the world’s mints, this contest was something only Austria could pull of.

Well, okay, we haven’t heard from Scandinavia yet.

Still, in a business where walking the bourse floor often means staring at one middle-aged grey beard after another (no offense, guys), something like this comes along and makes you excited for the industry’s future. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Maybe.

But it’s little moments like the Piece by Piece design competition that keep us coming back. The fact that the Austrian Mint can utilize that effect for the good of its business, despite the rather well-honed skepticism of us coin folks, earns my professional admiration as well.


P.S. – Click here for a link to the design competition.

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