Money, Gold, and Tradition In conversation with Gerhard Starsich

How the Austrian Mint got its first major order from Richard the Lionheart over 800 years ago, where the greatest treasures can be found in Vienna and why you will be able to pay with cash for your Wiener Schnitzel in the future.

Michael Sicher: The Austrian Mint is one of the best mints in the world and its history goes back to the year 1194. How did it come to be founded?

Gerhard Starsich: Our formation is related to a crusade to the Holy Land by Richard the Lionheart and the then Babenberg Duke of Austria, Leopold V. After a quarrel, Richard the Lionheart was captured in Vienna and released by the Babenberg Duke for the ransom of about fifty tons of silver that England had to raise for its king. That was roughly one and a half years of gross domestic product at the time. So, a decent amount of silver. Then the Austrian Mint received its first major order: The minting of a part of this silver. Because the English delivered the silver as liturgical objects, as tableware, as bars, but not as coins. It was melted down and Viennese pfennigs were minted from it. Imagine that today in the light of compliance and money laundering. We kidnap a friendly head of state with whom we first went to war, then demand a ransom, and then give it to the state mint for coinage. There was obviously not taken a too narrow view at the time. Incidentally, the German Emperor Heinrich IV collected half of these fifty tons of silver because he said: “I am the emperor and you are only the Duke. So half of the silver belongs to me."

Michael Sicher: Today the Austrian Mint has two main focuses: investing and collecting. How come?

Gerhard Starsich: In the beginning, only means of payment was produced and it was the Babenberg mint. When the Habsburgs took over power in Austria with Rudolf I, we became the Habsburg Mint. Time and again, when the Habsburgs ran out of money because of wars or expensive buildings, they sold the right to coin to private individuals. With this, the mint was torn apart from an organizational point of view. A picture of Maximilian I. hangs here because he has consolidated the coinage and reorganized it. Maria Theresa did it again in the eighteenth century and made it into imperial mints again. So, we are actually the remainder of the Habsburg Mint Administration, which then also had a mint in Vienna that still exists today.

After the collapse of the monarchy, we became the mint of the First Republic and, during World War II, the German Reichsbank. With this, the Wiener Mint ceased to exist as an organizational unit. After the war, we resumed our activity as part of the financial administration. In both the First Republic and at the beginning of the Second Republic, the mint was a department in the Ministry of Finance. In 1989, something happened to the republican rulers that has happened to the Habsburgs again and again. They ran out of money, and they figured we'd sell the mint. So actually: We'll buy it. In doing so, they followed the Habsburg Path and sold the mint to themselves, i.e., to the Austrian National Bank. For eight billion Schillings, which was a lot of money at the time, the right to mint and the Austrian Mint were acquired. 

Michael Sicher: What is the Maria Theresa Thaler all about? 

Gerhard Starsich: Originally it was a currant coin, i.e. a coin in circulation. It was the first common coin with a ridged edge. In the Middle Ages, a mint stamp (a metal cylinder in which the coin image was engraved at the bottom) was held over a silver plate and it was struck with a hammer. Later it was possible to use screw presses with two stamps from above and below to produce both sides of the coin simultaneously. Then embossing rings were introduced. Before, coins were shaped very irregularly on the edge, and you could therefore branch off silver inconspicuously from the coin. Due to the ridged edge of the Maria Theresa thaler, it was not so easy to change the weight of the coin, because you would have seen that. Until twenty or thirty years ago it was still one of the most widely used coins and means of payment in the Middle East and East Africa. Even today it is very common there as a means of payment. We are still minting them.

Michael Sicher: The Vienna Philharmonic is a completely different gem. How did it come about?

Gerhard Starsich: When the Austrian Mint was privatized in 1989, we wanted to bring a product onto the market that would allow us to prove ourselves internationally. For this we decided on a gold bullion coin, i.e., a coin that investors buy. In contrast to collector coins, there is no circulation limit for a bullion coin. You buy gold. And to bring it into a beautiful, embossed form, they decided on the Vienna Philharmonic as a theme. Since then, there has been a very close cooperation with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which was delighted to receive its own coin at the time. On this occasion, the Austrian National Bank 's musical instrument collection was launched. These musical instruments, especially famous string instruments such as Stradivaris and Guarneris, are made available to the Philharmonic and other musicians free of charge by the Austrian National Bank.

Michael Sicher: Not only can the Austrian Mint look back on a long history, but it is also a very innovative company. There are always great collector's editions. How do you get the idea for a coin and how is created? Which technology are you particularly proud of? 

Gerhard Starsich: Right now, our newest series is "Universe". It consists of three parts and this year the first part was released, the Milky Way. The Milky Way itself has the interesting property that it is wavy in itself. To put it a bit disrespectfully, it looks like a pot cloth. That is why we have produced a double-wavy coin that symbolizes the Milky Way and on which it is minted. It was sold out after a week. There are two more coins to follow in this series, namely the neutron star and the black hole. Both will again have a very special shape. The neutron star looks like a sombrero and the black hole like a slightly curved goblet. This symbolizes the centre of gravity in the middle of the black hole. We are particularly proud of this shape. It is very difficult to emboss because the embossing stamps are exposed to special loads at the edges and at the turning points due to this uneven shape. It took a lot of work from our technicians to design the image so that the embossing stamps did not tear at the edges.

This year the series “The Eyes of the Continents” was launched. Coins with animals that each symbolize a continent. The first animal was the snake, symbolizing Australia. The animal's eyes are a Swarowski crystal. We always try to stay on the ball and constantly invent new technologies and new coinage designs, where the coin collectors say: "This is a unique product that only the Austrian Mint can produce." 

Michael Sicher: We talk about such great coins, and at the same time keep hearing that cash should be abolished. How do you feel about this and how do you see the further development of cash?

Gerhard Starsich: Of course, I think abolishing cash is utter nonsense. This is mainly driven by credit card companies, who are working hard to ensure that there is no more cash, so that everything must be paid for with credit cards and they can collect a disagio for it. That is the basic idea. But there are also politicians, not in Austria, but across Europe, who want a transparent citizen, so to speak, and that in the event of tax increases and so on, it is no longer possible to flee in cash. I think that's a deprivation of liberty. As the Austrian Mint, we are in favour of all forms of payment side by side. The consumer will choose the form of payment that seems most suitable to him. And for small-value payments, cash payments are the easiest and most convenient. Also, the cheapest, by the way. If I give you ten euros, this transaction will cost nothing. When we're doing a peer-to-peer internet transaction, it costs something. Energy is consumed, safety routines are enforced and so on. It is incredibly time-consuming for a completely unspectacular transaction only relevant for the two of us. I believe that this will not gain acceptance because people want this coexistence of different means of payment. There is a means of payment for every occasion that someone feels most comfortable with. Every citizen should have the freedom to choose the form of payment that he or she wants. Fighting crime is not an argument either, because even if there is no cash, a real criminal will always find a way to handle his crime transaction.

Michael Sicher: As the General Director of the Austrian Mint, do you have a special relationship with money?

Gerhard Starsich: I studied trade and was always very interested in money. What I particularly like about the Austrian Mint is this combination of money, banking, and all these monetary policy considerations with a haptic experience. You produce something that you can hold in your hand actually and say: "This is a beautiful product that customers want." For me, leading an industrial company is more interesting and exciting than leading a company that produces only virtual products. Previously I was the managing director of the payment processing company of the Austrian banks. This is purely a technical IT matter and much more difficult to grasp. You never really know whether a software system works or not, to be completely honest.

Michael Sicher: It is also an experience to marvel at and buy your products directly from you. For this you have a barrier-free shop. 

Gerhard Starsich: Yes. And of course, I am particularly happy when customers queue up at our shop every day, because that confirms to me that we are producing something that people really want. And when new coins are launched, on so-called issue days, the first customers sometimes come as early as four o’clock in the morning to be sure to get hold of a product.

Michael Sicher: When having guests, you are going to show them your very nicely designed shop of course. What else are you going to show them in Vienna? 

Gerhard Starsich: With guests I love visiting the Imperial Treasury Vienna in the Hofburg. That always goes down well and is a personal hobby of mine. There are treasure chambers in many other cities and cultures, but the Imperial Treasury Vienna is one of the most historically important because it also houses the crown insignia of the German Empire, i.e., the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. Because the Habsburgs were the last rulers of this empire. You can marvel at treasures such as the German Imperial Crown, i.e., the Ottonian Imperial Crown with the eight plates and the ruler's bar and the cross, or the Imperial Sword, the sword of the German Empire that supposedly cannot rust. I always wonder if this is true or if they are secretly cleaning it. But they swear it won't rust. Or the Holy Lance, which is said to have a nail from the cross of Jesus Christ in it. Very mystical, great objects are exhibited there.

And there are some fun exhibits on display. For example, the horn of the last unicorn, which is actually a narwhal tooth. That would be very impractical for the unicorn because it is quite long, and the unicorn would often get stuck in the forest with it. Then there is an agate bowl that was collected as the Holy Grail. In other words, as a cup with which the blood of Christ was collected. But you know that it is non. However, it is a very beautiful, impressive agate bowl that is certainly seventy or eighty centimetres in diameter. The Imperial Treasury Vienna is very nicely done from the lighting too. Everyone likes it. 

The catacombs under St. Stephen's Cathedral are particularly cool. I always tell the story that the Habsburgs, when they were buried, were divided into three parts. The bodies are in the Capuchin Crypt, the viscerals are under St. Stephen's Cathedral in the catacombs and the hearts are in the Augustinian Church in the “Herzerlkruft” (Heart Crypt). A little spooky, isn't it? A burial place of the rulers like the Capuchin Crypt with such great sarcophagi is unique in the world. So, my favourite thing to show is the Imperial Treasury Vienna, St. Stephen's Cathedral with its catacombs and the Capuchin Crypt. Many guests also like to go to the Vienna State Opera or the Musikverein. That's why every now and then we visit a nice concert by the Philharmonic in the Musikverein with guests. That closes the circle. 

Michael Sicher: That's a nice program. Where do you take some refreshment? 

Gerhard Starsich: There are two restaurants in Vienna that I enjoy visiting. Tourists want to eat two things: Wiener Schnitzel and Tafelspitz (boiled fillet of beef). We visit either the Steirereck’s Meierei (dairy) or the Plachutta restaurant [note: unfortunately, not barrier-free]. Both have very a good Wiener Schnitzel and a very good Tafelspitz. And a Sachertorte at Kaffee Sacher, everyone loves that. The classics are best received. In addition, the guests cross off things in their travel guides.