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Austrian Mint

Striking a king’s ransom

The story of the Austrian Mint

When, in 1194, Richard the Lionheart paid 12 tonnes of silver to Duke Leopold V of Austria not only did he secure his freedom from a year of incarceration, he also unwittingly laid the foundations of the Austrian Mint.

As was the rather brutal custom of the day, having been previously insulted by King Richard I, Duke Leopold captured and imprisoned the English monarch near Vienna when he was returning overland to England from the Crusades. Duke Leopold decided to strike coins from his booty and in so doing set in motion more than 800 illustrious years of minting history in Vienna.

It was not for another 200 years, however, that the Vienna Mint was first mentioned in historical documents. Originally situated near Hoher Markt, then in the Wollzeile and later in Prince Eugene’s winter palace in Himmelpfortgasse, since the first half of the 19th century the Mint has been at its magnificent home in Heumarkt, central Vienna, where coins are still struck to this day.

In the last 800 years, many different minting methods have been employed there. Up to the 16th century the minting hammer was used for striking coins. The roller press, rocker press and screw press followed, while ring striking, which produces an even round shape, has been in use since c. 1830. It basically still is today, although up to 750 coins per minute can now be minted by its modern manifestation.

Right from the outset the expert craftsmanship of the Vienna Mint also played a vital role in the production of prestigious and timeless coins of the very highest standard. The engraving academy has been in existence since 1733 in Vienna and miniature works of art are still being created by its highly gifted and experienced designers. Indeed, the Austrian Mint is especially proud of the loyalty of its long-serving staff, for whom coins are a passion not merely a means of earning a living.

Over the years, mints were established and coins struck throughout Austria in towns and cities such as Graz, Krems, Salzburg, Innsbruck and Villach. However, with the formation of the Republic of Austria in 1918, the Vienna Principal Mint became the country’s one and only mint and remains so today. In 1989 its name was officially changed to the Austrian Mint and it became a subsidiary of the Austrian National Bank.

One of the Austrian Mint’s most internationally recognised coins is the Maria Theresa Taler. Originating in 1780, the year Empress Maria Theresa died, today the Maria Theresa Taler is not only the most famous silver coin in the world but also boasts the greatest number minted. Such international successes have made the Mint something of an ambassador for Austria, another prime example being the world famous golden Vienna Philharmonic coin. One of the most popular gold bullion coins worldwide, it has played a vital role in the development of the Austrian Mint into a highly successful company.

Today the Austrian Mint is a global player in the business of supplying means of payment. Its beautifully crafted coins minted in the very heart of Vienna are highly sought after by investors and collectors all over the world, as well as by those simply looking for a worthy and suitable gift for a loved one.

Austrian Mint timeline

The Vienna Mint is established at the Babenberg Court

The Vienna Mint is established at the Babenberg Court upon payment of the first part of the ransom paid for the release of Richard the Lionheart of England.

It is no longer known exactly where the Mint was originally located. However, during the celebration of the 800th Anniversary of the Vienna Mint in 1994 a commemorative plaque was erected on the spot where historians believe the original Mint stood in Am Hof.

Vienna Mint in the Wollzeile

Due to lack of space, the Vienna Mint has to move again and again. The first written mention of the Mint being located in Wollzeile in central Vienna dates from 1371. The Mint remains there for four centuries, during which its employees miraculously manage to survive the plague by bricking up the windows and doors of the building.

1554

The first attempts to introduce the roller press, and with it the advent of industrial coin production, is a failure in Vienna because of the lack of water power. In Hall in Tyrol and other Mints, this new minting method is successfully introduced, however. So revolutionary is this new technique that craftsmen from the Tyrol even build a roller press for coin makers as far afield as Segovia in Spain.

The lack of water power in Vienna does not deter the Mint from introducing new technology capable of industrializing the coin-making process: it adopts the rocker press in 1650. This method uses two semicircular dies simultaneously pressed to either side of a metal strip. A characteristic of this method is that the coins it produces are never perfectly spherical.

The screw press is introduced from France circa 1700. It catches on rapidly because of its ability to produce perfect coin motifs. It does this by means of a rotating screw that converts the rotation of the handle into a downward movement.

The term ‘Principal Mint’ is used for the Vienna Mint.

The engraving academy is established in Vienna.

Relocation to Himmelpfortgasse

The first Maria Theresa Taler is minted in the year of the Empress’s death.

The Mint orders two lever presses.

Construction of the Mint building in Heumarkt, which has remained the home of the Austrian Mint to this day, gets underway.

The Vienna Principal Mint becomes the sole Mint of Austria

Austrian Mint PLC emerges from the Principal Mint as a subsidiary of the Austrian National Bank.

The very first Vienna Philharmonic gold bullion coin (one ounce fine gold) is issued in October 1989.

The Vienna Philharmonic becomes the bestselling gold coin worldwide for the first time.

Silver Niobium Coin

The Austrian Mint becomes the world’s first to strike a silver niobium coin.

In February 2008, the first ever European silver bullion coin enters the market – the Vienna Philharmonic one ounce fine silver.

In February 2016, the Austrian Mint issues the first Vienna Philharmonic in platinum (fineness 999.5).

From the 12th to the 15th century

The Vienna Pfennig, recoinage and the schinderling

In the Middle Ages, the first coins minted on what today is Austrian soil originated around the year 1000 in Salzburg. Minting did not take place in the east and southeast of Austria until the 12th century.

Johannes Hartner (of the Coin Cabinet in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) explains the connection between mintage and the political events of the time, as follows: "In 1155, Margrave Heinrich Jasomirgott (1141-1177) established Vienna as the new capital of the Babenberg March - the marcha orientalis. Just one year later, this region was separated from the Duchy of Bavaria and elevated to the independent Duchy of Austria, which resulted in Vienna's ascent as a new ducal residence. The Mint, however, was located in Krems, the former seat of the Babenbergs, where coins had been minted since 1110/20. When Styria fell to the Babenbergs in 1192, the Viennese merchants opened new trade routes to the south, and Vienna developed as a new centre for robust trade in goods on the Danube. In view of these new economic prospects, the founding of a ducal Mint in Vienna seemed to be only a matter of time."

Its origin in 1194 ushered in the period of the classic "Vienna Pfennigs," which were minted in Vienna and two other workshops in Enns and Wiener Neustadt. The "Vienna Pfennig" refers to the products of all three Mints.

Vienna Pfennig

Vienna Pfennig 1210–1230, © KHM Wien, Coin Cabinet

The "recoined" currency

A curious feature of the mintage of the time was the periodic recoinage, the "renovatio monetae", which was carried out annually in Austria. In addition to the revenue, or seigniorage, that the mint masters generated from the mintage itself, recoinage, which was a kind of coinage tax, was another fiscal instrument for filling the sovereign coffers. It was also used to supply the Mint with the urgently needed precious metal. The old Vienna Pfennigs were taken out of circulation and, in return for an additional charge (!), had to be exchanged for new coins. In practice, however, this compulsory exchange only played a role in payments to the ducal chamber or on official market days, while the old Pfennigs, which retained their value in silver, were used elsewhere in payment transactions. In order to facilitate control by the tax authorities, the new Pfennigs had to be clearly distinguished from the old Pfennigs, which resulted in their diverse range of images. "The Vienna Pfennigs of the 13th and 14th centuries reveal a wide variety of motifs. They extend from depictions of rulers, motifs of flora and fauna to early forms of coats of arms - the lion and eagle are found especially frequently." (Hartner)

When the annual recoinage in Austria began cannot be said with any certainty, but it has been established that there was considerable popular criticism of it as early as under Duke Frederick the Quarrelsome, the duke of Austria and Styria from 1230 to 1246. It was Duke Rudolf IV who finally renounced the annual recoinage in 1359 and introduced a beverage tax instead.

In the second half of the thirteenth century, the European monetary landscape had fundamentally changed. Growing economic and commercial needs were no longer met with the small Pfennigs. Outside of Austria the minting of coins of greater value had begun.

Austria kept its Pfennig-based currency, but used larger foreign denominations in trade. Despite the new gold and silver trade coins, the economic strength of the Pfennig currencies had not yet broken; the Vienna Pfennig reached its greatest distribution in the course of the 14th century (Bohemia, Moravia, Hungary, Salzburg, Eastern Bavaria, Styria, Carinthia).

The schinderling economy

In 1362, the aforementioned Rudolf IV fatally decreed that the future standard for the Pfennigs would be based on the "increase in the price of silver"; that is, on the market price of silver. The risk involved in this arrangement was significant, as the standard had to be continually redefined with the fluctuating prices of precious metals, which destabilized the Pfennig's value. That would considerably shatter the confidence of the population in the currency.

The entire first half of the 15th century was marked by steadily growing inflation. This was due, on the one hand, to the immeasurable revenue that the mint masters squeezed from their sovereign right to coin money; on the other hand, it was fuelled by the low-value Pfennigs that flowed to Austria from abroad and squeezed the better coinage out of the market.

The crisis escalated when Emperor Frederick III (1452-1493) had vast quantities of inferior Pfennigs comprised almost entirely of copper produced to finance costly military campaigns. They were referred to by the population as "schinderlings." The schinderling economy reached its peak in 1460, when 3,600 Vienna Pfennigs had to be paid for a gold guilder. To compare: in 1455, one had to pay just 240 Pfennigs for a guilder.

Emperor Frederick was forced to yield to the pressure of the estates and to agree to a coinage reform. The new mint master, Niclas Teschler, immediately began minting five-grade Pfennigs, which had a standard of 313/1000. As a result, the monetary economy was consolidated as of 1463. In another reform, the Vienna Pfennig ultimately lost its quality as currency in 1481 and was reduced to a mere token. In its place came the gold guilder, which was supplemented by groschen and kreuzer in silver. 

Text: Bernhard Seiter
This article follows in large part the explanations by Bernhard Koch in "Die Geschichte der Münzstätte Wien" and Michael Alrams in "Der Wiener Pfennig"; both in the book "Geld," edited by Wolfgang Häusler (Vienna, 1994).

1679 – The pilgrimage commemorating the plague

Or: the world's oldest team-building event

In Vienna there's either wind or plague – Vienna ventosa aut venenosa – at least that's what's been said since the Middle Ages. In 1678, Vienna was again beset by the latter. Initially classified merely as "high fever," in late autumn the first cases of pestilence appeared in the district of Leopoldstadt. In July 1679, the number of deaths rose dramatically; the outbreak of plague was certain. The dead lay in the streets for days. Only a few people were willing to work as attendants to the sick and as gravediggers. Infected beds, straw and corpses piled up in front of Stubentor.

Arthur Fürnhammer writes: "In 1679 there was a plague, whose extent and degree of devastation approached that of the year 1348. Unlike in the Middle Ages, however, the plague also extended increasingly to princely circles. Emperor Leopold I fled with his entourage and took the plague with him in his refugee convoy, first to Prague, then to Linz. However, he survived the plague and thanked the Holy Trinity for this by erecting on the Vienna Graben a pillar, which is still known today as the Plague Column."

Nine months of isolation

The mint master at the time resorted to another strategy in order to effectively confront the plague; he came up with a plan that could be described as reverse quarantine: isolating certain individuals – not to protect society, but to separate himself and his staff as protection from the general public.
 
In 1994 "Die Münze" magazine quoted a chronicle: "Quite assuredly filled with the fullest confidence in the omnipotence and mercifulness of God, mint master Matthias Mittermayer von Waffenberg decided to enclose himself in the Mint together with all of the personnel under his control. He furnished the building with everything necessary for an extended period of time, and before the pestilence had spread in Vienna, all of the personnel, together with women and children, entered it. The front doors and the windows to the outside were walled up, leaving only very small openings to observe events outside the building and to be able to communicate with the outside..."

For nine months the Mint's team barricaded themselves inside; then, "all of the Mint's inhabitants emerged entirely unscathed and in good health - not a child was lost, not even an instance of illness had resulted among them." Those who were rescued then vowed to make an annual pilgrimage to Holy Trinity Church in Lainz. Why this church? Peter Pichlbauer, the fire protection officer at the Mint and organizer of the pilgrimage from 1995 to 2011: "I was once told that when it comes to life and limb, it's best to turn to the highest authority, the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The column on the Graben is also a Trinity column."

For 340 years

This episode in the history of the Mint has come a long way, establishing a tradition that has lasted for nearly three and a half centuries. As has been the case for 340 years, this year the pilgrimage will also take place on or around Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost. The pilgrimage fulfils a vow and offers the opportunity for a get-together outside the working day. In the 1990s, a high-ranking guest took part in the pilgrimage. Cardinal König visited the Austrian Mint on the occasion of the presentation of the medal commemorating the 850th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral. Pichlbauer: "On this occasion I told him about the pilgrimage. He was quite interested and said, 'If I'm still alive and well, I'll come.'" On 30 May 1996, he took part in the pilgrimage to Munich. He also joined the subsequent visit to the wine tavern.

It should also be pointed out that the pilgrimage on foot was resurrected in 1999 as well. Since then, there has been a small group that walks from the Mint at Heumarkt to Lainz every year. One can speculate about what led to that change of heart. Surely it recalled the meaning of a pilgrimage, as it involves a substantial degree of difficulty. The pilgrimage was decided upon in 1999 - as so often, but not always - at Wambacher, the local wine tavern. Another aspect of this pilgrimage is both practical and ecumenical: "When I speak of the church in Lainz, I mean the old parish church of Lainz, which was handed over to the Syrian Orthodox community by Cardinal König in 1974. The mass on the occasion of the pilgrimage is the only Catholic service in the year that takes place there." (Pichlbauer)

At six in the morning

Finally, we look to the year 1904 and the 225th pilgrimage. This anniversary was celebrated in a particularly festive manner. In a surviving invitation, it is announced that "the participants shall gather at 6.00 in the morning in the parish church of Mariahilf, where a holy mass will be said; then at 7.45 in the morning the procession will begin (...), with the Waller Crucifix, the flags, a statue of the Saviour and an offering and chalice encircled and carried by white-clad girls for the Holy Trinity Church in Lainz across Mariahilferstrasse, through the imperial palace of Schönbrunn to Lainz." Then the programme included an "anniversary mass for the Mint," afterward a break, then a sermon at 10.00, and finally solemn high Mass. "After giving thanks, the pilgrims then dispersed."

Text: Bernhard Seiter

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