Feature: funding wars, ransoms and the slave trade – the legend of silver at Exeter University

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One of the first examples of international currency is the silver Maria Theresa thaler or dollar, which was traded throughout Arabia and parts of Africa for more than 200 years. The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the Univeristy of Exeter is holding the first exhibition of Maria Theresa thaler to be put on in the UK.

– Coffee for coins –

In 1741, a year after Empress Maria Theresa inherited the Habsburg lands, imperial mints struck thalers bearing her image. These Austrian coins were soon being traded in exchange for coffee from Yemen and Ethiopia where it became respected for its carefully maintained silver content. The inscribed edge also meant that the coin could not be clipped or easily forged. The thaler was a currency that funded wars, ransoms and the slave trade.

The exhibition displays several varieties of thalers including overstrikes from Arabia and various fakes and forgeries. The bust of the empress and coat of arms on the thaler had considerable aesthetic appeal. Also on show are decorative items incorporating the coin as well as unique and spectacular jewelry made of silver from melted down thalers.

Culture, trade, economy and politics

Clara Semple, the author of A Silver Legend – The History of the Maria Theresa Thaler, said: “The ubiquitous silver coin has remarkable and multi-faceted links with the Middle East in terms of material culture, trade, economy and politics. It was used extensively as a trade coin in the Arab world and used as a source of traditional silver jewellery. It was incorporated into fine pieces such as necklaces, belts and headdresses.

“It is frequently referred to in the accounts of 19th and 20th century Western travelers in the region. The MTT also represents a significant cultural bridge between west and east and symbolizes shared links between Europe and the Muslim world.”

Silver legend

By the time of her death in 1780 the Empress Maria Theresa had already coined a silver legend. The coin of her was so popular that it was agreed by the Vienna Mint that her coin would continue to be minted for trade and bearing the date 1780. Over 400 million Maria Theresa thalers have been struck to date and are still being minted as collectors’ items in Vienna today.

Professor Dionisius Agius, of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS) at the Exeter University said: “With these intriguing links the story of the MTT told and shown in the Silver Legend Exhibition has considerable interest to the IAIS. It shows the story of a remarkable silver coin, described by John Maynard Keynes as ‘A coin of cosmopolitan importance’.”

• The Silver Legend Exhibition is at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies until the end of March and is open to the public weekdays from 9am till 5pm.

(from Exeter University)

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