By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
On January 4, 1999, 11 members of the European Union began using a common currency known as the euro. For the first three years, the currency existed virtually, used only for cashless and bank transactions. Euro coins were first minted in 1999 but only entered circulation in 2002 following a transition period in which national currencies and euros existed side-by-side in each country.
Since the euro’s inception, eight more countries have joined*. In addition to the 19 countries that are formally part of the European monetary zone (the eurozone) and that produce their own coinage, there are others that distribute euro coins even though they are not members. This group includes Vatican City and San Marino (both of whose coins are made by the Italian Mint); Monaco, whose coins are minted by the French Mint; and Andorra, which since 2014 has produced its own coins.
Each of these four micro-states earns a considerable portion of its annual revenue from the sale of non-circulating coins produced for collectors. The mintages of coins from these states are by far the lowest of the eurozone, which has made them very collectible and resulted in some bi-metal coins that sell for hundreds and even thousands of dollars in one case.
That coin is Monaco’s 2007 two-euro commemorative issued for the 25th anniversary of the death of Princess Grace Kelly, the American film legend who married Prince Albert II. With a mintage of 20,001 coins, that bi-metal issue was the first euro commemorative issued by Monaco and is also the most valuable coin of its type, currently worth about $3,000 USD.
Monaco is about to issue its ninth two-euro commemorative coin marking the 200th anniversary of the death of Honore IV, which has a mintage of 16,000 pieces. These coins are distributed mainly through a small network of French and Monegasque coin dealers who sell them at issue prices typically of several hundred dollars or more.
The euro has been an enormous boon to numismatics in Europe and beyond for two decades, resulting in an explosion of circulating and commemorative coins collected by millions of citizens in Europe and others in the U.S., Asia and elsewhere.
One measure of the number of new releases is that each year’s annual Lighthouse catalog of euro coins sees an average increase of about 30 pages (with each page usually listing eight coins or sets) over the previous year, with the 2019 edition coming in at just under 700 pages. Another measure is the proliferation of blogs, Facebook pages, and websites devoted to collecting euro coins.
In fact, the impact of the euro on numismatics in Europe is a key reason why the European numismatic market is now believed to be larger than that of the United States in terms of collectors if not also sales – with a substantial chunk of that activity coming from collectors in Germany.
For example, the annual World Money Fair in Berlin is the largest coin show in the world with 2019 attendance believed to have been in the 15,000-visitor range and 9,000-square feet of bourse and exhibit space. The 2019 show was designed with a focus on the collector, including workshops on grading, new regulations (such as those in Germany) for the protection of cultural heritage, and coin production techniques.
Since the euro’s introduction, European mints have not only vastly expanded their offerings but have also been at the forefront of technological innovation, such as the introduction in 2016 by the German Mint of coins with a polymer ring.
2019 Coin of the Year Awards
Moreover, when the Krause Coin of the Year (COTY) Awards are presented at each year’s World Money Fair, the world mints typically garner a substantial portion of the top awards. In 2019, for example, the French Mint (the Monnaie de Paris) took top honors during the February 1-3 event, winning the coveted Coin of the Year award for its 50-euro piece on French excellence that celebrates the cooking excellence of French star chef Guy Savoy, and the mint’s chief engraver Joaquin Jimenez received a lifetime achievement award. The mint also won the award for best bi-metallic coin for a two-euro issue on the fight against breast cancer.
The Austrian Mint, which was the guest of honor this year as it celebrates its 850th anniversary, also received two awards and like the French Mint almost always receives them. The Mint’s engraving staff, led by Helmut Andexlinger, also received a lifetime achievement award.
Ten years ago in 2009, the French Mint made numismatic history when it introduced the first curved modern silver coin for the Year of Astronomy and the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The program also included the first curved and colored gold coin.
In another innovation, in 2008 the Mint started issuing silver and gold coins sold at their face value at post offices and the Mint itself. These coins featured modern takes on iconic French national symbols like the Sower, the Rooster, and Marianne.
This approach was later adopted by countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom.
Germany has also issued silver, 10-euro commemoratives at face value sold at banks, but in 2016 it raised their face value to 20 euros while increasing their silver purity from .625 to .925 fine and their weight from 16 to 18 grams.
Collecting Circulation Coins
Probably the most significant impact the euro has had on numismatics in Europe is that interest in collecting coins designed for circulation–whether obtained in change or from a bank or coin dealer–remains high. And this process also raises collector awareness of coins from EU countries other than their own, which often leads to collecting coins from multiple states in the eurozone.
Collecting from circulation, of course, has its limits (such as quality or the difficulty of obtaining certain issues), but it also has many merits, including a hobby accessible to everyone and getting children interested in numismatics.
When first introduced, euro coins were often perceived as novelties and tended to increase the sense of intra-European solidarity for many EU citizens. Because they circulated not only in one’s own country but all over the eurozone, it soon became possible to collect coins in circulation from other EU countries. That exposure to coins from throughout the zone stimulated a lot of interest in numismatics, especially in circulating coinage. Soon collectors were purchasing folders and albums to build sets of euro coins, which in the early days was also popular among some American collectors and led companies like Dansco to produce an album for euro coins.
Circulating euro coins–issued in one, two, five, 10, 20, and 50 cents plus one- and two-euro denominations–have a common obverse that shows their value and a map of Europe (which has been updated as the eurozone has grown), and a national reverse with motifs that reflect the history and culture of each country.
The two-euro coins, by far the most popular with collectors, are made of an outer ring of copper-nickel and an inner ring with three layers of nickel-brass and nickel. One-euro coins are made of the same metals, while the one-, two-, and five-cent coins are made of copper-covered steel. The 10-, 20- and 50-cent pieces are made of Nordic gold.
Initially, EU officials said the national side had to remain static, but in 2004 they decided it could be changed, which gave birth to the enormously popular bimetal two-euro circulating commemorative program. At each year’s World Money Fair, long lines of people queue up to purchase recent issues in mint state at face value, rather than purchase them at a premium from coin dealers.
From 2004 until 2012, each country was permitted to issue one circulating two-euro commemorative per year. Then, in 2013, the number was increased to two per year in mintages based on specific national quotas. This has resulted in the issuance of about 450 coins featuring a wide range of people, events, and institutions – with 38 different coins just in 2018.
In addition, there have been four common two-euro programs that do not count towards the two-per-year limit in which each country shared the national side except for the name of the issuing country (and some minor motifs that were distinct to each country’s coin such as the required depiction of the monarch on Belgium’s issues). These were issued on anniversaries of key steps in EU history, including the 2007 program on the 50th anniversary of the Rome agreement that established the European Economic Community; the 2009 program marking the 10th anniversary of the 1999 customs union, whose design was selected based on a competition; the 2012 program marking 10 years of the euro being in circulation that was designed by Helmut Adexlinger of the Austrian Mint; and the 2015 program on the 30th anniversary of the European flag.
In an interview with me in 2016, Ola Borgejordet, owner of Royal Scandinavian Mint in Utah, called the two-euro coins “a great series with many great coins, and one of the lasting successes of the euro currency,” and noted that most of his orders for the coins went to American and Asian customers, showing that there is indeed interest in these pieces beyond the old continent. Plus, EU collectors would be more likely to obtain the coins in their own countries or from other EU countries.
Commemoratives and Sets
Collectors with larger budgets pursue the remarkably diverse range of non-circulating legal tender commemorative coins (which are only legal tender in the country of issue, unlike the circulating coins) issued by eurozone mints – sometimes focusing on one or more country’s issues, or in other cases collecting by topic, etc.
Many of the major mints on the continent issue numerous such coins each year (especially in silver and gold) that are sold at premiums that tend to run higher than those of the U.S. Mint. However, the dollar’s strength in recent years has made them less expensive for U.S. buyers.
These pieces tend to be issued in small numbers, and mints like that in France and others have cut the mintages of some of their established series in recent years in response to lower sales for these issues.
There are also certain commemorative programs common to all eurozone countries, such as the Europa Star series that focuses on successive periods in European culture with the 2019 program celebrating the Renaissance.
Some series have an appeal that goes beyond the issuing country, and even Europe – with perhaps the best example being the Austrian Mint’s 25-euro coins made of silver with an inner ring of niobium oxidized to produce a different color each year. This series, which began in 2003, focuses on science and technology and has a worldwide following.
Annual mint and proof sets are also staples of euro-coin collecting for those who advance beyond putting together sets assembled from circulation. For example, when a new member joins the eurozone, such as Estonia in 2011, there is great interest when the country issues its first euro-denominated mint and proof sets – some of which have seen good secondary market appreciation, though that is not necessarily sustained over time. Others like the 2002 Vatican proof set, the first issued in euros, has better held its value and is still worth about $1,000.
The mint sets tend to be priced more modestly, while the more expensive, lower-mintage proof sets are often issued in beautiful display boxes with each coin housed in its own capsule and minted in small numbers.
These are just a few examples of the extensive range of NCLT euro coins being issued today.
The euro has in many ways produced a contemporary revolution in numismatics in Europe and beyond and helped to stimulate and sustain greater interest in modern coins –- circulating, bullion and commemorative — especially among millions of Europeans. Other areas of numismatics, like ancient and classic coins, also remain popular there.
Going forward, the important numismatic legacy of the euro will not only continue but will also expand, as additional countries join the eurozone in the future. And European mints within and outside the monetary zone will remain global leaders in numismatic production and innovation.
*Greece joined in 2001, Slovenia in 2007, Cyprus and Malta in 2008, Slovakia in 2009, Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania in 2015.
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Some Useful Resources
Euro Catalog 2019 (Lighthouse, 2019), which also has French and German-language editions. There are also euro catalogs published in many European countries.