By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek….
Editor’s Note: Be sure to check out David Alexander’s first installment of this excellent two-part history of Austria’s Maria Teresa Taler by clicking here.
At the end of her eventful life, Maria Theresa received greater love from her peoples than she did in the stressful opening years of her rule. The popular perception of the military ineptitude of her husband and the mauling her armies received in the initial struggles with Frederick the Great impacted negatively on popular opinion of the young couple and their capabilities.
In time, however, her devotion to family, the arrival of a male heir among her ceaseless pregnancies, her growing knowledge of statecraft and successful replacement of aged and fossilized retainers inherited from her father brought stability to her beleaguered government and popularity to herself.
Following Habsburg tradition, she arranged politically favorable marriages for her daughters, though two of these coincided with an earth-shaking age of revolution soon to begin. Maria Carolina married the ignorant and oafish Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, king of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily). Marie Antoinette married the slow-moving King Louis XVI of France; she and her husband lost their heads in the great French Revolution.
At the moment of her death, Maria Theresa was revered as the mother of her peoples, distinguished by intense reverence for the Catholic Church, balanced by lifelong suspicious of her Protestant subjects and unchanging distaste for Jews in her dominions. Her son Emperor Joseph II quickly introduced what he viewed as religious reforms that brought upheaval in church-state relations and revolution in the Austrian Netherlands.
During her long reign, the Habsburg lands continued to be served by a number of widely separated Mints, but Maria Theresa’s coinage had achieved substantial uniformity by 1780. Her silver talers show five basic portraits of the monarch as she aged, while each Mint’s reverses are distinguished by clear varieties of the ornate imperial eagle and Arms.
Maria Theresa Taler – Basic Varieties
As cataloged by John S. Davenport, the Vienna Mint struck talers of nine distinct types portraying the empress; Graz, two; Hall, five; Kremnitz, one type with double eagle reverse, nine with Madonna and child; Nagybanya, one; Prague, five; Siebenbürgen (Transylvania), three; Karlsburg, three and Günzburg, five. Only 1780-dated talers from Günzburg and official Restrikes of this exact type may be called “Maria Theresa Talers” as that term is understood by today’s collectors.
Further Austria and its Günzburg Mint were lost to the Habsburgs in 1802 during the Napoleonic wars, 22 years after Maria Theresa’s death. Some 15 million original 1780-dated talers were struck there, making much-ballyhooed “originals” less rare than sometimes asserted by enthusiastic coin dealers. After 1802, however, the popularity of the Günzburg coins required the Wiener Hauptmünzamt, Chief Mint in Vienna to continue striking exact Restrikes down to the present day.
Two modern numismatic researchers worked to define major varieties of “Maria Theresa Talers.” Franz Leypold’s research appears in his in-depth article, “Der Mariatheresientaler 1780” (The Maria Theresa Taler 1780) in Numismatische Zeitschrift, journal of the Österreichische Numismatische Gesellschaft, Vol. 86, 1971, pages 67-75. Davenport 1150 A. Otto Paul Wenger published a somewhat more simplified study as “Der Maria Theresientaler 1780-Original oder Nachprägung? (The Maria Theresa Taler, Original or Restrike) in Helvetische Münzen-Zeitung, Swiss Numismatic Journal, Nr. 7, Juli 1973, pages 349-353.
All are frequently referred to as Wenger types, though Leypold-Wenger would be a more accurate reference:
Type 1. Obverse: Oval brooch on empress’ bodice with no pearls. Diadem shows five pearls. Her locks overlap the edge of her veil at left, the ermine shawl is flat with faintly marked tails, and two jagged points can be seen along base. Reverse: eagle shows ONE prominent feather keel between each flight feather, and displays slim feet. The small Cross of Burgundy is wider than tall and shows no stops at the sides.
Leypold says Günzburg talers dated 1780 were actually first struck in 1783, further stating that when this Mint closed in 1802 it had struck 15 million pieces.
Type 2. Obverse: Round brooch with circle of pearls, locks end at edge of veil, high diadem shows 7 pearls. Burgundy Cross is a symmetrical .X. with stops at both sides. Eagle shows THREE long hair-like feathers between each flight feather, two short flanking one tall middle one. Feet are heavy.
Leypold attributes these talers to Austrian Mints in Milan or Venice, while Wenger asserts that this claim cannot be proven!
Type 3. Obverse: As last but OVAL brooch with evenly placed pearls, fainter ermine tails, diadem shows EIGHT pearls. Reverse: three long pinfeathers between flight feathers, center pin the same length as the flight feathers. Cross of Burgundy shows one stop at right, X.
Leypold asserts that these Talers were struck in Vienna, 1850-1860.
Type 4. Obverse: Oval brooch surrounded by pearls with a gap at left. Diadem displays EIGHT pearls in diadem. Reverse: Three short pinfeathers, all shorter than the flight feathers. Cross of Burgundy has stop at left, .X
Leypold states that this variety was first struck at Vienna around 1860, Wenger laconically observes, “sells today for 10-14 Swiss Francs!”
In his summation, Wenger stated that the first three varieties were the only ones that could be called “original” and that all “modern Restrikes” are Type 4, adding “An accurate arrangement by time of issue of originals and of Restrikes is at the present time scarcely possible.”
The Levant, Arabia, and the Horn of Africa
No one knows with absolute certainty why the coin referred to as “the Maria Theresa Taler” achieved and kept its unique popularity in exotic lands so distant from its birthplace until the mid-20th century. The unsuccessful efforts of Emperor Charles VI and his daughter Maria Theresa to expand commerce into the Middle East have been noted.
The famous taler arrived in the Levant (today’s Lebanon, Palestine and Syria almost as soon as it was struck. Here merchants, traders and moneychangers generally had no knowledge of any western languages. However, people who cannot read are by no means stupid, but have been brought up in areas lacking adequate educational opportunities.
Eastern merchants were in fact amazingly astute, with sharp eyes and a keen sense of weight, easily able to detect underweight and counterfeit coins and fast to reject any unfamiliar coins regardless of design because their livings depended on such skills.
Western numismatists have long speculated about the coin’s continued popularity. Noted New York auctioneer-dealer Hans M.F. Schulman’s endlessly repeated view verged on the pornographic, never passing up an opportunity to gloat over the visually obvious: the ample-busted female bust portrait. This HAD to be the answer! Such superficial thinking ignored the strength of Islamic sensibilities regarding sexual matters.
The Vienna Mint was quick to recognize the Maria Theresa taler’s popularity and labored throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to supply the growing demand. By the 1860’s these talers were the backbone of commerce in the Arab world from Yemen and Aden through the hostile terrain of the Hadramaut to Oman and the Trucial States on the Persian Gulf, and in the interior realms of Hijjaz and Nejd.
Mention should be made of cut and counterstamped talers, some of which were first publicized when the first edition of A Catalog of Modern World Coins was published in 1957. This “Brown book” was in urgent need of new material to distinguish it from Wayte Raymond’s out-of-print Coins of the World and a number of questionable items were included.
Items inserted, included talers stamped HIJJAZ and NEJD and pieces from the Red Sea and Indian Ocean islands later in the French colonial orbit that remain debatable today as to authenticity. The Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen used talers as ready-made planchets for its Islamic-style coins bearing only Koranic inscriptions and the kings’ titles that are reasonable common and affordable today.
In the Horn of Africa the taler’s dominance was complete. As the chaotic realm of Ethiopia began to be unified under Emperor Menelik II, the coin was referred to as the talari or birr. It was used throughout the empire, despite introduction of a distinctive national coinage struck in Paris bearing the emperor’s crowned bust and the Lion of Judah. These handsome pieces were called Faransa, French, and failed to dislodge the beloved taler.
These beautiful talari were .835 fine silver, higher quality than the .833 silver of the Maria Theresa coin but neither higher silver content nor national pride in the crowned portrait of the “All-Conquering Lion of Judah, Elect of God, King of Kings of Ethiopia” mattered to the profoundly conservative peoples inhabiting the Horn of Africa.
Paper money issued by the National Bank of Abyssinia was denominated in talers as were private merchants’ tokens such as the 1/16 taler issue of the merchants of Dire Dawa.
The kingdom of Italy achieved unity by 1870 and entered the race for African colonies during the 1880’s. A stretch of Red Sea coast was secured in 1889 and became the colony of Eritrea. The Italians wasted little time in launching their own colonial silver coinage including minor denominations struck in .835 silver on the Latin Monetary Union standards used by Italy.
A handsome 40mm tallero or 5 lire was struck in only .800 silver with a crowned military bust of fiercely mustachioed King Umberto I. Dated 1891 and 1896, this denomination was intended to replace the Maria Theresa taler but it too was summarily rejected in commerce.
World War I disrupted the silver market and made continued orders of Maria Theresa talers from the Vienna Mint impossible. As Italy faced off against Austria, a final attempt to oust the taler in Eritrea by introducing a deliberately archaic style 40-41mm, .835 silver, 28.6 gram tallero with obverse patterned after a coin struck by the Republic of Venice in the 1790’s. The female bust of Venetia superficially resembled Maria Theresa but the single-headed eagle of Savoy on the reverse assured rejection by local merchants.
The Austro-Hungarian empire was destroyed in the war and dismembered in the peace settlements. All that remained of the German-speaking kernel was an extremely shaky socialist-dominated republic of 10 ancient provinces surrounding the city of Vienna. The Vienna Mint survived and controlled future strikings of the Maria Theresa taler.
The question of talers struck outside Austria has fascinated generations of researchers. Dr. J. Hans privately published his Zwei Jahrhunderte Maria-Theresien-Taler 1751-1951 (Klagenfurt 1950) and reported 5.2 million struck in Paris in 1946. Otto Wenger published mintages for strikings of Mara Theresa talers at a number of Mints outside Austria, but failed to obtain needed totals from la Monnaie de Paris, the Paris Mint though Talers were a valuable export for the first Republic of Austria. During the rule of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Italy drew close to Austria as a counterweight to the territorial ambitions of Hitler’s new Germany. During 1935-1936, Italy invaded Ethiopia and annexed it, combining it with Eritrea and Somalia into Italian East Africa.
By the 1935 Italian-Austrian Taler Treaty, the Rome Mint acquired the right to strike desperately needed Maria Theresa talers for 25 years. In what appeared to be its last production, Vienna struck a final 10,000 talers during 1935, while Rome produced about 100,000 pieces to expedite the conquest and help launch the new colonial government based in Addis Ababa.
Britain’s Royal Mint now produced Maria Theresa talers in quantity for use in her East African colonies and protectorates in Arabia and the Persian Gulf before and after World War II: 1936 150,125; 1937 3,719,415; 1938 5,086,085; 1940 3,766,391; 1941 2,002, 000; 1949 500,000; 1955 2,560,000; 1956 800,000; 1957 272,429; 1958 340,171; 1959 202; 1960 213,180; 1961 749,072.
The Mint Ltd., Birmingham (Heaton) also made Maria Theresa talers: 1949, 475,000; 1953 180,000; 1955 434,000; 1956 339,500. In 1940 Britain was at war against Italy and His Majesty’s Mint at Bombay, India, struck a whopping 19,000,000 talers to aid in the reconquest of Ethiopia and for use in war work in neighboring countries.
The Mint at Brussels, Belgium struck talers, presumably for use in the eastern provinces of her vast colony of the Congo. Dr. Hans reported strikings without totals for 1936 and 1938. After the war in 1954, 350,000 were struck; 1955, 400,000; 1956, 200,000; 1957, 200,024. Wenger was obliged to note ruefully that the coins were produced with such precision of design features that it was impossible for him to provide any reliable ways to distinguish these various foreign strikes from each other.
The end of World War II saw restoration of independence for Ethiopia and a four-power occupation of Austria where the Vienna Mint went back into full operation, producing schilling-groschen coinage. As Dr. Hans noted, Maria Theresa taler coinage resumed in 1946-1951, and this coinage has continued ever since, largely for the collector market.
Emperor Haile Selassie was restored to his throne by the Allies and embarked on an ambitious program of reform and modernization for his chaotic realm. The Maria Theresa taler was demonetized and effectively outlawed and thousands were withdrawn and melted by the Philadelphia Mint, which struck a new largely copper coinage for the National Bank of Ethiopia. The melted talers reappeared for brief circulation as 1944-dated .800 and .700 silver 50 cents.
Between 1945 and 1960, developing nation in the Near East decreed an end to circulation of Maria Theresa talers despite pockets of resistance among their populations.
World coins enjoyed a vast surge of popularity in the U.S. after 1964 when the monthly magazine World Coins (Amos Press, Sidney, Ohio) appeared. Austrian circulating coins and commemoratives rode this wave which brought increasing interest in the earlier coinages of the House of Habsburg including the ever-popular Maria Theresa taler.
During 1977 the author and his colleague Courtney L. Coffing visited Günzburg, today a prosperous small city proud of its past. On Maria-Theresia-Strasse still stands the handsome baroque building which housed the Mint, where were shown the high-ceilinged chamber in which the Maria Theresa Talers had been struck, a magic moment for two numismatic journalists.
John S. Davenport, European Crowns, 1700-1800. Galesburg, Ill., 1961.
Tassilo Eypeltauer, Corpus Nummorum Regni Mariae Theresiae, 1740-1780. Münzen und Medaillen AG Basel, 1973.
Dr. J. Hans, Zwei Jahrhunderte Maria-Therenien-Taler, 1751-1951. Privately published, Klagenfurt, 1950.
Franz Leypold, “Der Mariatheresientaler 1780” (The Maria Theresa Taler 1780) in Numismatische Zeitschrift, journal of the Österreichische Numismatische Gesellschaft, Vol. 86, 1971, pages 67-75.
V. Miller zu Eichholz, A. Löhr, E. Holzmair, Österreichische Münzprägungen 1519-1938. Revised edition. Obol International, Chicago, 1981.
Rudolf Vogelhuber, Taler und Schautaler des Erzhauses Habsburg, von Erzherzog Sigismund von Tirol 1484 bis Kaiser Franz Josef I. 1896. Sankt Pölten, 1971.
Otto Paul Wenger, “Der Maria Theresientaler 1780-Original oder Nachprägung? (The Maria Theresa Taler, Original or Restrike) in Helvetische Münzen-Zeitung, Swiss Numismatic Journal, Nr. 7, Juli 1973, pages 349-353.