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Money talks in new Zurich museum

Minted in Lydia in 561 BC, this "gold stater" has a diameter of 17mm. Money Museum

Three years after its launch in cyberspace, the Money Museum has opened in Zurich, Switzerland's financial capital.

This content was published on February 14, 2003 - 08:41

Its collection includes some of the world's oldest coins, including one minted 2,500 years ago at Lydia in Asia Minor, when currency first began to replace barter as a means of trading.

Other gems include a Greek tetra drachma - or four-sided - coin dating from 455 BC, believed to be one of the world's first major commercial coins.

"History has always fascinated me," museum founder Jürg Conzett told swissinfo.

Having collected coins from an early age, Conzett has become an authority on coins from antiquity up to the present day. And having worked in banking and finance for numerous years, he has an ideal profile as the museum's director.

All about money

A visit to the museum - and its website - is indeed like attending a history tutorial.

The website offers an easy-to-follow and often witty guide to just about every aspect of money through the centuries up to the present day.

It even includes explanations about investment and the opportunity to fill in a questionnaire - worked out by Conzett and a psychologist - to assess your "money personality".

The museum itself has interactive exhibits using old currencies, many of which look as if they were minted quite recently, in accordance with Conzett's insistence that only coins of the highest quality can be exhibited.

Mint condition

The earliest coins were tiny and producing them was a highly skilled craft.

First made of electrum - a non-corroding, naturally occurring amalgam of gold and silver - the use of coins rapidly spread to Greece and other ancient civilisations.

Engraving them long before the invention of the magnifying glass was invented was a particular challenge, and almost certainly was done by young men before their eyesight began to deteriorate.

Thanks to the interactive nature of the museum, enlarged pictures of tiny coins can be seen on the computer screen. One particularly small exhibit from 561 BC is engraved with a lion attacking a bull.

"No two coins were identical," curator Marie-Alix Roesle Wyss told swissinfo.

"Each one was a work of art. The most beautiful were made in the 5th and 4th centuries BC in Sicily and southern Italy. Artists left their signature on the coin die [engraving stamp], which is remarkable because it indicates they were very conscious of their skills."

Roesle Wyss, who studied history with Conzett and shares his passion for coins, explains that the golden age of coinage ended in the 15th and 16th centuries with the introduction of new manufacturing processes.

By the time of the industrial revolution in the 19th century it became possible to mass-produce whole series of coins.

The museum also delves into the history of the Euro, showing that the concept of a single European currency is not a new one.

"There were two previous attempts to introduce a single European currency," Conzett explains. "The first was the result of monetary reforms when Charlemagne ruled the Holy Roman Empire in about 800 AD, and the second attempt, by Napoleon, ended when he was toppled from power."

swissinfo, Richard Dawson

Key facts

The invention of coinage is often incorrectly attributed to Lydia's King Croesius (561-546 BC) in Asia Minor. Croesius did however invent bimetallic currency.
First made of electrum - a non-corroding, naturally occurring amalgam of gold and silver - its use rapidly spread to Greece and other ancient civilisations.
The golden age of coins ended in the 15th and 16th centuries with the introduction of new manufacturing processes. Handmade coins disappeared in the 1800s with the advent of the industrial revolution.

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