As a collector of world coins, there is probably one design which stands out more than most, that of the portrait of the Madonna and Child which has been used on the reverse of many Hungarian coins for hundreds of years. Hungarian coinage is regarded by many collectors as exquisitely designed and with their most recent examples, they seem to be keeping this tradition effortlessly alive.
The present Hungarian Mint is technically relatively new in European terms, however, it’s origins span back more than 700 years and the history of Hungarian coinage is itself just over a thousand years old. Hungary and its Mint have undergone many changes and the present Mint has accurately reflected these significant milestones. From monarchy, socialist regime, to what is now referred to as the third republic, it’s all been succinctly recorded in both the coins as well as the official name of the Mint. What also caught my attention this year was the fact that the Hungarian Mint has won the COTY award for the people’s choice coin, now for the third time in a row.
I spoke to Ferenc Gaal, the Hungarian Mint’s current General Manager about all of these significant changes and how it has affected the country and its coinage. The Mint’s new state-of-the-art premises precisely reflects just what Hungary has transitioned into, that of a modern, creative and forward-thinking nation just ready to show the world what they’re capable of. History, culture, and tradition with a large helping of 21st century technology, it’s all here in Budapest and under one roof with a bit of high-tech thrown in for good measure, it’s fortunate that they’ve managed to include all this on their coinage!
Michael Alexander: I was quite surprised to learn that Hungarian coinage actually goes back quite far, in fact, to the beginning of the first millennium. Do you think there is a specific period during all this time which stands out more than any other as a “golden age” of Hungarian coinage and if so, when do you think this period was or, has it yet to be?
Fernec Gaal: The beginnings of Hungarian coinage coincide perfectly with the foundation of the Hungarian state and therefore, a very important moment for our country’s history. Our first King, St. Stephan who reigned from 1000 to 1038 was responsible for Hungary’s first coins which took place in 1001 just after his coronation. The next most significant chapter of Hungarian coinage is linked to King Charles Robert (reigned 1308 – 1342) as a significant monetary reform took place during his reign. This reform had significance all over Europe. In 1325, he founded the most important Mint in Hungary which was the Kremnica Mint, now situated in Slovakia. This Mint was seen as the most important facility for Hungarian coinage in it’s time and continues its minting functions to this day but as the official Mint for the Republic of Slovakia. These early gold coins were very well known in Europe, readily accepted all over the continent and even outside Europe. Many coin discoveries found around the continent show that these gold coins were struck in Kremnica and from the era of Charles Robert. For Hungary, this period was probably the most significant time for our state and its importance in Europe.
MA: Can you give our readers a bit of background of the Hungarian Mint and the current institution, when was it established?
We regard this Mint and our activities here as a successor of the Kremnica Mint because of our historic links. You see, before the First World War, the Kremnica Mint was the only mint in what was Hungary in its previous borders. After the Great War, the minting equipment and staff at Kremnica were transported to Budapest in 1918 as our borders had changed significantly. This is where our present Mint’s history originates. In fact, 1925 was the first year of Hungarian coinage struck in Budapest in the newly established Royal Hungarian Mint, but between these years there were actually some coins being struck using the equipment transported from Kremnica as the staff had managed to produce the needed coinage in other locations until the new Mint was ready. From this establishment, the Royal Hungarian Mint which lasted until 1945, to the National Hungarian State Mint which lasted until the establishment of our third republic in 1989. The name of our institution may have changed over the years to reflect our country’s political circumstances, but our function has always remained the same. In 1989, the Mint transformed itself into a limited company with ownership going to the State under the Ministry of Finance until 1992. Finally, in 1998, the National Bank of Hungary became the sole owner of the Hungarian Mint.
MA: How did you come to find yourselves in these amazing new premises, when was this?
FG: The building we spoke of earlier was in fact previously used as a military barracks for the Calvary! But, that’s where the government situated the Mint and it remained there from 1925 to 2008. In 2004, when Hungary became a member of the EU, preparations for the adoption of the EURO and for the implementation of the single currency started as well. The project called for a new cash logistic center for the Central Bank, which planned for a cash storage unit in the same location as the Mint, which is the building we’re in today. This project was finished in May 2008 and the Mint moved here in the same month. Originally, we were supposed to have finished production of Forint coinage as well. This project was specifically planned to meet the requirements of the new EURO currency. This new facility will ensure a very smooth change-over which will also provide us with the latest technology for minting and production of EURO coins. The location was also specifically chosen as it is outside the city center which makes reaching us for transport of the coins much easier. It will take us only six months to produce enough coins to change from Forints to EURO’s. All the conditions are in place for a hopefully smooth change-over. Now, we’re just waiting for the “go-ahead”! (smiles)
MA: Well, speaking of coins and production, I think congratulations are in order for I believe the third time in a row for winning the Coin of the Year (COTY) People’s Choice award. To what do you attribute this consecutive success in coin design?
FG: These wins have certainly enhanced our reputation in a professional capacity and highlighted the fact that we’ve been producing coins for a thousand years! We do know one thing, which is that this result is not from a professional jury, but from the public side or the collectors who cast their vote for our coins. For us, this means much more. We also know that national pride from Hungarian collectors is also well represented in the votes. A lot of our coins embody our country’s culture and heritage and all of this I think has contributed to our three wins. Having spoken to our customers, we also know that a lot of young collectors, including the coin clubs have voted over the internet, these collectors have been very active in the voting process.
MA: Does winning the COTY ever influence your decisions in design?
FG: When we select a certain design for an issue, it’s not the main aspect as to whether it will win a COTY award, but the event is much more important. We also want the subject to be important to the Hungarian people and our customers, so the program has to fit a certain criteria to commemorate a particular event or personality, and you know our programs are quite national and tradition-based themes. Of course, when an idea and design combine with an outstanding product, only then can we evaluate if it should be nominated in a category for the COTY’s.
MA: The COTY atmosphere remains very friendly but who do you think are the Hungarian Mint’s greatest competition in this respect?
FG: To tell you the truth, when we speak about competition, practically all of the Mints can be included. Since the emergence of democracy, I would have to say the closest competition in this regard would also be the Mint closest to us “in the neighborhood” and that is the Austrian Mint! Because we have a very special historical link and due to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which existed over a century ago, we have similar topics and anniversaries which are commemorated. We also have the both countries who collect each others coins closely and as there isn’t the issue of border crossings as before, there’s no problem for Austrians or Hungarians to travel over the border to buy collector’s coins. We do have a very close co-operation with the Austrian Mint and we’ve had four programs with issues from both Mints involving medals.
MA: How are the subjects and designs chosen, is this ever open to public input and have EURO designs been chosen yet?
FG: The greatest opportunity for the public to be involved in the design of Hungarian coins is when the topics are chosen. Suggestions come from private institutions and the public can also propose a theme or topic. This is all organized by the National Bank who post these suggestions and a range of topics on their website, and then the public vote on the best ones proposed. After a topic or series of coins is selected, the competition begins for the design, which is also organized by the National Bank. Concerning the EURO, with the practice of issuing coins bearing a national design, it means we can still show our pride and values on Hungarian coinage.
MA: With many Central and Eastern European countries, coin collecting by many youngsters was quite prevalent, has the Mint been able to keep these collectors interested and do you think the activity is still popular in Hungary?
FG: Well, as we mentioned, the young collectors here in Hungary are already very active where COTY voting is concerned, and maybe their readiness to vote for a Hungarian coin is an indication that we can maintain their interest in coin collecting. The fact that there is voting on a regular basis suggests that this isn’t an ad-hoc activity by collectors and we also work hard to maintain this interest. Every year, there is the issue of a base metal coin which is ideal for young collectors who can afford them, and in this way, we draw attention to both the topic as well as the hobby. In 2001, we issued four 200 Forint coins in a series highlighting children’s literature, which was also in an effort to encourage a new generation of collectors. I also think that the actual method of selecting collector coin topics on the internet is a good place for young people to start their hobby and to represent their interests. This year, we’re beginning a series to highlight Hungarian National Parks, which will be active for at least four or five years and might be important to a lot of young people because of the protection of the environment.
MA: There have been some rather popular coin series such as the heritage sites and Castles of Hungary, but has there been one or more series or a specific subject which has been a real success beyond your expectations recently and if so, what have the coins been for?
FG: Oh yes, and that was and is the Ecclesiastical Architecture series which each year, includes a representation of a Church or religious structure. This series was unexpectedly successful especially in the first two years. It included the Cathedral of Esztergom in 2006 and not only was the architectural aspect of the church represented, but it was also the 150th anniversary of the Cathedral’s consecration so there was a second important reason for the coin’s issue.
MA: Do you think Hungarian coins will gain more popularity after the EURO’s adoption, this seems to have been the case with a lot of countries who are in the Euro-zone…?
FG: As far as the Mint is concerned, we expect a growing demand for our coins after the adoption of the EURO, and this experience comes from our participation in the EUROPA series in which we found that Hungarian coins proved to be very popular regardless of being denominated in Forint and not in EURO as other countries who participate in this series. The success of these coins is also a signal that there will be great demand for Hungarian EURO’s. There will also be renewed interest in the Forint, as we adopt the EURO and the Forint becomes part of our history, this goes back to the investment potential for some of our gold coins which have low mintages.
MA: Lastly, as we come to the end of our discussion, I’d like to ask you Sir if you collect coins yourself and if so, what are some of the items in your collection?
FG: Since I was appointed at the end of 2001, I’ve become a very active collector of the new Hungarian issues, which you can find in my collection (smiles). I wouldn’t say that I’m a classical collector, but over time when there is something which I do like, I do buy it. But every coin which has been produced while I’ve been General Manager, I have in my collection. One of my favorite pieces is the 1000th anniversary of Hungarian coinage, there was a silver and a gold coin for this occasion. Another favorite of mine is the gold coin which was struck for Hungary’s accession into the European Union. The design is a representation of Hungary joining Europe during the period of conquest surrounded with the twelve stars of the EU.
MA: I know that coin very well, it’s a particular favorite of mine so I’m glad to hear that it’s also favorite of yours. Mr. Ferenc Gaal, General Manager of the Hungarian Mint, thank you very much for your time today.
FG: You’re very welcome. I’m pleased that I had this opportunity to speak with you at length and not just for a couple of minutes during the COTY awards!!
My sincere thanks go Ms. Terez Horvath, commercial Director of the Hungarian Mint for all of her kind assistance with the preparation of this interview, it is greatly appreciated.