A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Life, and 222-Year Extended Afterlife, of the Maria Theresa Dollar

Maria Theresa as She Was
The Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria-Hungary (Kaiserin Maria-Theresia in German) was the only Empress in the Austrian Hapsburg dynasty as Holy Roman Empress and Archduchess of Austria; her 40 year reign (1740-1780) and 16 children guaranteed her a role in European royal genealogies and various 18th century wars.  But at least outside of the former Austria-Hungary, that is not how she is best known today. The standard silver coin of her reign, the Austrian thaler was considered a standard and stable unit of currency,and was coined throughout her reign. (The choice of "dollar" as the name of the currency of the new United States was certainly influenced by the reputation of the thaler.) Then she died in 1780. But her coinage did not.

As the Middle East Knows Her
As late as 2002, the Austrian mint struck a special production of coins with her image and the date 1780. They weren't counterfeit, and other mints across Europe had struck similar coins with the image of a long-dead Empress and the date 1780 during the 222 intervening years since her death, quite legally if the silver content was correct. Britain was the last to cease regular minting in the early 1960s. In Africa and the Middle East the Maria Theresa "Dollar" (riyal nimsawi or "Austrian riyal" in Gulf Arabic) was the standard "trade coinage" acceptable in the souqs of the whole region, the trusted silver coin. The long-dead Empress and her familiar buxom profile, the Hapsburg double eagle on the back, and the date of 1780 were more reliable than the coinage of local rulers, Ottoman Sultans, or colonial powers. The UK minted them since its Gulf dependencies long preferred them to Sterling. The British counterfeiting laws made counterfeiting Maria Theresa Thalers just as illegal as counterfeiting British sovereigns.

This 2003 article in Saudi Aramco World gives a good summary of the coin's career in the Gulf. An excerpt:
And wherever it was used, the coin was subjected to careful scrutiny. "Locals would count the number of pearls on Maria Theresa's oval brooch, or check the feathers on the imperial eagle. (These were the features that the names abu nuqta and abu reesh refer to.) Recipients would reject coins out of hand if they did not precisely match the original 1780 strike," explains Semple.
"Semple" is Clara Semple, whose book,  A Silver Legend: The Story of the Maria Theresa Thaler sounds fascinating,  though from its current Amazon listing appears to be unavailable, at least at my budget. A good review of the book in The Guardian, however, does open with a good story:
At Talh market in northern Yemen, I once watched an old man pay for a fresh clip of Kalashnikov ammunition with some weighty silver coins. Neither Yemeni or Saudi riyals, these reassuringly hefty discs were date-stamped 1780 and bore the image of a large busty woman on one side, an impressively feathery eagle on the other. They were silver dollars of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the woman was Maria Theresa, empress from 1740 to 1780.

Despite generous offers from the market-trader to sell me various machine guns, bazookas and even a tank ("only two days to deliver!"), I bought the money from him instead, paying a small premium to avoid some obvious forgeries. Little did I know that in some senses all the coins were forgeries, and a bright copy made in the sands of Talh the day before was at least as interesting as my supposed originals. Those, as Clara Semple points out in her intriguing book, could easily have been minted in Birmingham in the 1950s, or Brussels, London, Paris, Bombay, Rome or Vienna at some time in the previous two centuries - almost all had that 1780 date. As for rarity, around 400 million are known to have been issued in that period.
The review concludes:
These days the use as a trade currency is all but gone. Gold has replaced silver as the jewellery metal of choice and the American dollar as the currency. The generous bosom of Maria Theresa is only found in tourist bazaars and antique jewellery. To my intense pleasure, however, the last photograph in this delightful book is of that Yemeni market at al-Talh, a trader surrounded - just as I remember - with rifles, pistols and piles of Maria Theresa dollars. For a splendid moment I was back there, reliving my fantasy of becoming the first, and last, man to buy a T-64 Soviet tank with an 18th-century treasure trove.
 I'm not sure if he'd have been the first, and given the current situation in Yemen (the review is from 2006), I'm not sure no one has bought a T-64 with Maria Theresas by now. Silver is still silver.

There are earlier instances of currency strikes that continued long beyond the death of the monarch. One that may have endured even longer than Maria Theresa are the coins of Alexander the Great, though they were not copied with either the fidelity or the reliability of the content of their specie as the Maria Theresa. Bad copies of Alexander's  coins were still being circulated in Nabataea and Arabia (and even in Italy), areas he never even conquered, centuries after his death.

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