The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 10th November 2005

The Maria Theresa Thaler in Ethiopia and Beyond

Given by - Clara Semple

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons


Most, if not all, visitors to Ethiopia will have come across examples of the Maria Theresa thaler (or dollar) – either as a coin or incorporated into jewellery (notably in Ethiopia being cut to form neck crosses). Few people, however, will know a great deal about its history. In November 2005 Clara Semple gave a wonderful illustrated talk to members of the Society which enlightened many of us.

Clara Semple lived and worked as an archaeological artist for many years in the near East and north Africa and became fascinated with the large silver coins she saw bearing the portrait of the Austro-Hungarian empress Maria Theresa.

Maria Theresa was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dynasty and the first thaler showing her (as a rather youthful lady) was struck in 1741. Other versions were issued throughout her lifetime and continued to be minted after her death in 1780 (although all such coins always carried this 1780 date and show her as a much older woman). Indeed, they are still being minted in small numbers today as collectors’ items.

The Maria Theresa thaler became a trade coin used not only in Ethiopia but more widely throughout much of Arabia and the Horn of Africa. It also circulated in the Americas and as far east as China.

It is a fairly large coin (39.5mm diameter) and was prized for its consistent silver content (833.3 parts per thousand, the coin having a weight of 28.0668 grams). Forgery was said to be very difficult (if not impossible) because the design was so intricate and finely engraved. Additionally, an elaborate edge inscription posed problems to a would-be forger. It is said that the number of pearls in the Empress’s brooch were often counted to make sure that the thaler was genuine.

Clara Semple concluded her lecture with a photo of a cigarette lighter made apparently from recycled military hardware and inset with a thaler. It bears the inscription ‘GP Ransome, Asmara 1948’ and if anyone knows more about this unique item, or its owner, Clara would be delighted to hear from you.

Clara has published her research as A Silver Legend: the story of the Maria Theresa Thaler (ISBN: 0954970101) – a beautifully illustrated book and highly recommended – it expands most magnificently on the lecture.

First Published in News File Summer 2006

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