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The Story of the Maria Theresa Taler of 1780

 By Kerry R.J. Tattersall

A Silver Coin goes round the World

The Maria Theresa Taler of 1780 (also known as the Levantine Taler) is doubtless the most famous and widely spread silver coin in the world. It is not only a visiting card for the Mint in Vienna, but for the country of Austria as a whole.

Maria Theresa succeeded to her disputed inheritance on her father’s death on 20th October, 1740. The following year the first silver talers bearing her youthful portrait and her titles as Queen of Hungary and of Bohemia, Archduchess of Austria, made their appearance. Her title as Roman Empress was added in 1746 after her husband, Franz Stephen of Lorraine, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in Frankfurt.

The next significant change came in 1753 when Austria and Bavaria agreed on a coinage convention which regulated the weight and fineness of silver coins. Such “convention talers” were acceptable in both states as legal tender coinage.

Merchants and traders preferred these coins because of their high quality and reliability. The raised edge-lettering “IUSTITIA-ET-CLEMENTIA” (motto of the Empress: Justice and Clemency) was a welcome safeguard against the dishonest practice of “clipping” coins (that is, cutting or shaving silver from the edge of the coin). The Maria Theresa Taler could be trusted.

The silver talers were used in trading with the East. Large quantities of talers flowed through the port of Trieste in the coffee trade. The Arabian world used the talers in their turn for trade with India and China. But with the death of the Empress in 1780 all further striking of coins bearing her name and effigy had to stop. The silver and coin merchants of Augsburg, however, pressed the Emperor Joseph II to allow his mother’s 1780 taler to continue to be struck. In the East even her portrait had become a guarantee for the genuineness and the trustworthiness of the coins. The Emperor gave his consent. The 1780 taler might be struck for the trade with the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Turkey, etc.) “as long as there is a need”.

Restrikes with the 1780 dies from Günzburg (then still Austrian territory) were approved since the Günzburg mint had supplied the Augsburg merchants, but within a year the Günzburg version of the taler was being produced at the mint in Vienna as well. Soon it would be struck in various mints throughout the Habsburg lands.

Description of the 1780 Maria Theresa Taler

A mature portrait of the Empress adorns the obverse side. She wears a widow’s veil (held to a minimum out of respect for Arab taste) and a brooch with nine pearls. The inscription reads “M. THERESIA D. G. R. IMP. HU. BO. REG.” ( Maria Theresa, by the Grace of God, Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia). Beneath the Portrait are the initials “S.F.” for the names of the two mint officials in Günzburg in 1780, Tobias Schöbl (S.) and Joseph Faby (F.).

The reverse side displays the imperial double-headed eagle with the Austrian shield in the middle. It is surrounded by the arms of Hungary, Bohemia, Burgundy and Burggau (Gunzburg). Above them are the crowns of Hungary and Bohenia. The inscription “ARCHID. AUST. DUX. BURG. CO. TYR. 1780” translates: Archduchess of Austria, Duchess of Burgundy, Countess of Tyrol, 1780.

A Silver Coin is struck around the World

When Joseph II acquiesced to the Augsburg merchants’ request to continue striking his mother’s last taler, he could have had no idea that he was initiating one of the most curious chapters in the history of money.

Günzburg continued to produce and supply the 1780 taler for the Augsburg merchants, but at the same time replicas of the Günzburg coin were being produced at the Imperial and Royal Mint in Vienna. The Viennese restrikes omitted the Günzburg “S.F.” from beneath the portrait and substituted the initials “I.C. – F.A.” for the Viennese officials, Johann von Cronberg and Franz Aicherau, beneath the eagle’s claws instead. But Günzburg and Vienna were not to remain the sole mints in the Habsburg possessions to restrike the Maria Theresa Taler.

In the course of the Napoleonic Wars Austria lost Burgau in 1805 to Bavaria. The mint in Günzburg was closed down. In the Habsburg Monarchy the taler was restruck in five other mints apart from Vienna: in Karlsburg in Transylvania (periodically between 1788 and 1820), in Prague (periodically between 1812 and 1842), in Kremnitz in what was then Hungary (today Slovakia) in the year 1784, in Milan and in Venice from 1820 till 1866 (Milan until only 1859) when both cities were lost to Austria. The Vienna mint still strikes the 1780 taler down to the present day.

The 20th century saw the taler struck abroad as well. In 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia. Mussolini needed large quantities of Maria Theresa Talers, because the coin was virtually the national currency of Abyssinia. The Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg in turn needed Mussolini’s protection against the growing might of Hitler’s Germany. He agreed to send dies to the mint in Rome and even promised to suspend production in Vienna temporarily.

Both England and France required talers for their own trade in the Arabian-African world. Italy was not about to supply them, so they had to produce copies of the dies taken from existing coins. Paris managed this better than London, which seemed to have used a slightly worn sample. That helps to explain the small divergences from the Vienna coins.

From 1936 to 1939 “counterfeit” (unauthorised) Maria Theresa Talers were produced in London, Paris and Brussels. The German blockade of Britain in 1940 forced the removal of production to Bombay in India, from where the British could more easily supply the Middle East and North Africa. Capacity problems at the British Royal Mint in 1949 and 1953 due to new coinage production, led to the striking of talers in the private Birmingham mint.

Although Vienna resumed production in 1946 (on a large scale from 1957 onwards),  Brussels, London and Paris continued to strike Maria Theresa Talers in the 1950s; Paris even continuing until 1966. The great demand for talers in the Middle East was, however, already on the decline. Saudi Arabia had demonetised the taler in 1928 and after the war Abyssinia followed suit. Jemen demonetised it in 1960 and Oman as late as 1972. The demand sank from year to year.

Today the Austrian Mint in Vienna is the sole producer of the Maria Theresa Taler of 1780. As the “Levantine Taler” it had enabled the development of trade with the Near and Middle East, as well as with North Africa. For 200 years it served as the most important trade coin. In the bazaars of the Arabian world the Maria Theresa Taler is still a familiar sight. In Austria itself the taler has become a popular gift item and an attractive souvenir for tourists, apart from being a “must” for every coin collector.

The Maria Theresa Taler as a Study in itself

Until the end of 19th century coin dies were engraved by hand. This was, of course, a source of small “errors” or variations in the design, which are noticeable in certain issues. It has already been noted that the early Viennese restrikes substituted the initials of their own officials  “I.C. –  F.A.” for the Günzburg “S.F.” The most important criteria of divergence in early restrikes, however, is the number of pearls in the Empress’s diadem (usually 7 or 8, often only 5 or 6, but sometimes as many as 9). Her brooch too varies. It is normally oval in shape with 9 stones, but sometimes it is round, and occasionally it has no stones at all. A version from Prague even got up to 11 stones around the brooch!

A more frequent distinguishing feature are differences in the tail feathers of the eagle. The shape of the central shield with the Austrian arms can vary slightly too, or occasionally the depiction of the crowns.  The recognition and cataloguing of such variations has become a study in its own right, and can hardly be attempted in a general article such as this.

Differences in 20th century restrikes, where the dies have been machine produced, are to be found among the “unauthorised” issues. Since neither London nor Paris could get master dies from Vienna, they had to produce their own from various sample coins.

Additional confusion can be caused by the practice of counter-stamping coins abroad. Here small identifying marks were struck into the surface of the finished taler. They were often tax stamps testifying that the coins had been legally and properly imported. Sometimes they identified talers which exclusively could be used in particular markets or countries.

Such counter-stamps range from the Portuguese crown and initials to Arabian and Turkish script, or even Chinese chop-marks. Today it is a popular idea for firms or societies to produce their own counter-stamp for the Maria Theresa Taler.

Visitors to the Middle East or to North Africa today still continue to be impressed by the quantities of talers to be seen. Although hardly ever used in payment anymore, the taler is still popular as jewellery, whether as earrings, pendants or even elaborate necklaces. In the West a lady might wear the coin as a brooch, but Arabian women do not wear taler jewellery merely from a sense of fashion. It is rather an expression of their status and worth. This silver jewellery is their property and a part of their financial security should anything in their married life go wrong.

No other coin in the world can look back on such a fantastic history as that of the 1780 Maria Theresa Taler from Günzburg. No other coin has ever achieved the popularity and the recognition of the Maria Theresa Taler. It is, and will remain, a visiting card of the Austrian Mint and of Austria itself. The Maria Theresa Taler of 1780 is a coin which repays study. It is a numismatic curiosity that belongs in every collection. The Maria Theresa Taler is a coin of which Austria can be rightfully proud.

By Kerry R.J. Tattersall

The following article comes courtesy of The Austrian Mint and provides a definitive guide to the Maria Theresa Thaler.

Maria Theresa Thaler coin FACE Maria Theresa Thaler coin Reverse Austrian Mint MTT