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The E-Sylum:  Volume 9, Number 3, January 15, 2006, Article 10

MARIA TERESA TALER BOOK REVIEW

On Saturday, January 14, The Guardian published a review
of a new book on one of the most famous coins in the world:

"A Silver Legend: The Story of the Maria Theresa Thaler
by Clara Semple 178pp, Barzan Publishing, 19.95

"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 tale of how this particular coin came to be such a
cornerstone of trade for so long - a true international
currency - starts with the first voyages of discovery,
when merchants found that many remote peoples wanted silver
bullion in exchange for their goods, certainly not English
woollens. And yet verifying silver content is neither simple
or practical: a coin that could be trusted was the answer."

"Once traders began using the coin down the Red Sea,
particularly in the burgeoning coffee trade, they found
demand was insatiable. Not only did the silver content make
them reliably valuable, the handsome currency made excellent
jewellery with the added appeal of being something of a
fertility fetish. On that score, I would have liked a few
words from the various people, mainly women, who are depicted
in the book - the photographs are wonderful - all wearing the
Maria Theresa dollar.

What we do get, however, is some sterling anecdote. When
Barclays Bank opened a branch in Addis Ababa in 1941, the
cashiers were inundated with deposits of the coins, often
retrieved from where the owners had buried them. The process
of counting was so arduous that one teller devised a gas mask
to survive the dust. Travellers found the Maria Theresa both
a curse and a blessing. Wilfred Thesiger, setting out to cross
the Empty Quarter, was forced to take 2,000 coins, a
substantial weight, but the only currency anyone would accept
in the desert."

To read the full review, see: Full Story

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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