Warsaw is an amazing city, complete with tall, lean buildings and glass skyscrapers on its bustling avenues. In others, old world charm oozes from every nook and cranny, which is even more amazing since all of its old town was painstakingly restored to the beautiful district that attracts both tourists and locals. Like so much of the country, the Mint of Poland has undergone dramatic change. From a state-owned entity to a wholly privatized company with a listing on the Warsaw stock exchange, the Mint of Poland has gone from strength to strength and continues to embark on ambitious programs and international partnerships.
I spoke to Grzgory Stepniak, the Mint of Poland’s Director of Foreign Trade whose direct and optimistic “can-do” approach is certainly a real asset to carrying out his important duties. With all the extraordinary changes in this amazing country over the generations, the resolute spirit of the Polish people remains ever-present, and this is without a doubt, faithfully reflected on many of the beautiful Polish coins.
Michael Alexander: “Dzien dobry” (Good afternoon) Poland has undergone an enormous transformation within the last 20 years and 2009 marks the 20th anniversary of the solidarity political movement. Can you tell me within this period, what was the most significant change for the Mint of Poland?
Grzgory Stepniak: The priority for the Mennica Polska (Mint of Poland) after the adoption of a free market economy was the privatization of the Mint. The real turning point for us was when we were listed on the Warsaw Stock Exchange. Prior to this significant change, all of the products we produced were sent directly to the National Bank of Poland. So, we needed to find new customers mainly abroad, which also meant finding the right people to help transform the company. We needed to open our eyes to the wider world and to the possibilities which we could operate as a world class Mint. As we now have investors, we have to report quarterly results and they expect us to perform well and also to make the investment in ourselves with machinery and management to compete internationally. If I may say, we also have an exceptional team of “medaliers” who have created exceptional designs, and this alone has increased our clients from abroad since many of them consistently win awards for their designs.
MA: 2009 was a significant year as your country also marks 20 years of the fall of communism, can you tell me what the Mint issued to mark this important event and anniversary?
GS: Well, 1989 was a very significant year. I think the 4th June is probably what you’re referring to. It’s the date when we held “Half free” parliament elections. This date was celebrated here at the Mennica Polska with the issue of a “Ducat locale” medal. The design of the medal depicts the exact historical moment when Lech Walesa is carried on the shoulders of his supporters as Solidarity was registered as a political entity. We organized a press conference on the 3rd June and hosted former President Walesa here at the Mint and our chairman presented him with a large size replica of the medal we produced for the occasion. The three coins which the National Bank issued were also minted here at the Mennica Polska.
MA: Prior to the new name, you were previously the Mint of Warsaw and you celebrated 225 years in 1991, can you share any more important events of its history?
GS: Yes, of course. Coins were actually a passion of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski who founded our Mint in 1766. The king financed the activity of the Mint of Warsaw and took a personal interest to insure that it produced the most beautiful coins in Europe. In 1794 Russian and then Prussian troops occupied Warsaw and there was no minting in Poland for about thirty years. After the Congress of Vienna established the Kingdom of Poland in 1816 which was ruled by Alexander I of Russia, a new monetary system was introduced. The Mint of Warsaw produced ruble coins which slowly replaced the Polish currency. When Poland finally achieved total independence in 1918, the country had four currencies in use. The German Mark, the Austrian Corona, the Russian Ruble and the Polish Mark (the currency of the Kingdom of Poland) In 1924 a new minting facility in Warsaw was started which is where the new Polish “Zloty” was produced for the first time. After the 1st September 1939, our Mint was attacked by the German Air force and did not function again until about 1953.
MA: It must have been difficult to function especially during the war years under occupation.
GS: There’s one specific part of our history which could have inspired any spy novel. During the Nazi occupation, a man calling himself “Doctor Muhlman” appeared at the Mint who claimed to be an historian. He ordered our staff to pack boxes containing numerous numismatic items and transport them to Germany. While packing, the employees managed to hide a collection of Stanislaw August Poniatowski’s metal punches from the 18th century. Fortunately, this Doctor Muhlman went out for dinner and during this time, the staff opened another box and removed the most valuable Polish historical coins, including gold coins, silver riks-dollars and medals. Thanks to these brave people, we can now see these items in the Mint’s Numismatic Cabinet. They survived the war buried at one of the estates in Warsaw.
MA: The Mint of Poland was very active during the communist years and I was always able to find many Polish coins whilst living in the U.S. or the U.K., why do you think this was possible?
GS: Well, I’m pleased that it was easy for you to obtain Polish coins during these years. Officially, the only distributor of Polish coins was the National Bank but perhaps the reason you found the coins was due to the private activity of the Polish people themselves! We believe they must have been carried to other countries simply in the pockets by the many Poles who managed to get to the United States, Britain, Germany and other parts of Europe. I will say that it was this activity in the private sector which gave us the strong market we had even in those days. Almost every young Polish boy used to collect coins during the communist years and when there was a special event in their life, their parents would give them either a silver or gold coin for the occasion. This probably helped our coins reach foreign collectors. It was much easier to sell these coins rather than to exchange actual Zloty which had almost no value outside Poland.
MA: Speaking of the Zloty, a Polish TV news broadcaster several years ago held up a 200,000 Zlotych banknote to the camera as many viewers did not believe it existed. Can you tell me what challenges the Mint faced at this time with an inflated currency system?
GS: When you think about this note today, it’s equal to 20 new Zloty ($6.20) which was introduced in 1995! It was a crucial time and remained so until around 1994 – 95 when inflation wasn’t so much of a concern. It was also crucial in terms of just the physical aspect of spending money. Can you imagine having to carry so many banknotes for just a small purchase? You couldn’t keep a coin in circulation for very long until it lost its value so for a significant period of time, we had only banknotes in circulation. We still concentrated on the core of our business, producing coins for the country which was our main source of income. But during this time, we were able to develop a more diverse activity with respect to overseas clients especially after our privatization and listing on the Stock exchange, it all happened at the same time.
MA: During this period of inflation, the Mint produced some very beautiful commemorative coins. One of my all-time favorites was in 1991 for the 200th anniversary of Poland’s constitution. How important was it to highlight such an historic event and do you think coins can make any difference in shaping a country’s consciousness?
GS: Well, you’re touching on a very important subject. Now, we’re all very free to discuss anything we want including the constitution of the 3rd May. During the communist years, it was forbidden to even mention the constitution which was in fact only the second document of its kind in the world! Although the 3rd of May was an important anniversary, it was the 1st May which was celebrated. So, I would have to say “yes” it does play an important role, it does help us to remember our history and gives us our “back-bone” again as a nation. Now, both the 1st and the 3rd of May are public holidays by choice. [13th October 2009] for instance, the National Bank is issuing three coins to mark the 25th year of the death of Father Jerzy Popieluszko who was killed by the secret police in 1984. There will be many older people who will wait all day to buy these coins because they remember this event, but there will be many younger people who will learn about the event just by buying the coin. It’s an effective way to teach the young about the history of their country.
MA: There is an extraordinary Diaspora of Poles living abroad, can you tell me what if anything the Polish Mint does to reach out to these people who still want to collect the coins of their homeland, is this market important to the Mint?
GS: I would say it is very important and now with the National Bank of Poland, there are many distribution points worldwide. For instance in the case of the coin for Father Jerzy Popieluszko, I can certainly imagine that there will be a line of collectors in Chicago who will be able to add this coin to their collection today. As worldwide distributors, these companies are able to buy them direct from the National Bank, we will sell these coins also in our shop as well but we too, have to buy them from the National Bank as one of their distributors.
MA: Even though you mint the coins, you still have to purchase them from the National Bank?
GS: Yes, of course. However, we created about a year ago, a subsidiary of the Mint called “Skarbiec Mennicy Polskiej” (Polish Treasury Mint) which is wholly owned by the Mint of Poland. This is our retail outlet and it does have an excellent website in the Polish, English and also Russian language which we know has many foreign clients all over the world. This outlet not only sells the coins issued by the National Bank of Poland but, it also sells the many medals and foreign coins which we mint. Where we can identify a large population of Poles living abroad, we would like to establish relations with at least one dedicated distributor to make the purchasing of all of the coins we sell much easier. I’d also like to stress that no matter where you are, if it’s just one coin you would like to order, if you write to us, we answer every inquiry as soon as possible.
MA: A more poignant issue for 2009 were the coins to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the Second World War, do you believe that Poles feel this anniversary more?
GS: The answer to your question is yes. I think we do feel this anniversary as a nation more than perhaps any other Europeans, it’s an extremely important anniversary for us. The 1st September really was the beginning of the Second World War. I would imagine that people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which I have great respect for, may regard 1938 as the beginning of the war, but the real war began with the death of thousands of Poles in September 1939. This month on the 17th, also began the war with the Soviet Union, so we had hostilities from both sides, east and west. This is why the coin to mark this anniversary carries both dates, the 1st September and the 17th September as well as a map of Poland which shows our country divided by the invaders.
MA: 2009 coin issues reflect a wonderful mix of marking national anniversaries and occasions, what’s coming up for 2010 which you think will especially stand out with collectors?
GS: One of the first coins to be issued in 2010 will mark the extraordinary history of the Polish Cavalry. A new series of coins will highlight Polish explorers and Benedykt Dybowski, a well known naturalist and physician will be the first person featured. The 90th anniversary of the battle of Warsaw will be commemorated and there will be another coin in the “Monuments of Poland” series, and the city of Krzeszow will feature.
MA: Any information at this time about Polish EURO coins?
GS: I can only say that we are very prepared for this eventuality. In fact, as soon as we are given the “go-ahead” we could produce enough coins for Poland’s population of forty million & the change-over in less than twenty four months. We already have some experience in this field as we produce some blanks for some EURO-zone countries.
MA: Lastly, as I always conclude my interviews, I know that many of our readers like to know if heads of Mints such as yourself are also collectors of coins and if so in your case, can you tell me what’s in your collection.?
GS: Well, I’m new to the exclusive “club of collectors” and I prefer to collect from an artistic point of view. My collection started with the “Amber Road” series and then went on to include the Zodiac series which we minted for Belarus, the art & design for me was the most important aspect. My collection may be limited for the time being but, what is included has an artistic angle which is important for me.
MA: With so many innovative designs coming out of the Mennica Polska, I’m sure there will be many more coins to add to your collection in the future, Mr. Grzegorz Stepniak, Director of foreign Trade of the Mint of Poland, dziękuję (Thank you) very much for your time today.
GS: You’re most welcome!
I would like to thank everyone at the Mennica Polska for their kind assistance and hospitality with the production of this article. Additional comments were also kindly provided by Mariusz Przybylski, Public Relations Manager of the Mennica Polska.
For further information on Polish coins and placing orders, visit the Mint of Poland’s website at www.mennica.com.pl