Austria: On the eve of a new release, a look back at the popular Silver Niobium series

Fourteen years ago, the Austrian Mint embarked on a series of bimetallic silver-and-niobium coins. Although the mint is known for splendid design and production standards, the field of collector coins—especially colorized collector coins—was viewed at the time with skepticism. Even in 2017, many collectors still disregard such designs, slapping all of them, regardless of their quality, with the dreaded “circus coin” label.

But if any series has proved the viability of the collector-coin market, it has been the Austrian Silver Niobium series. The €25 coins have consistently sold out at the mint, and all—especially the first few issues—have gained in value. The first two issues are both scarce and expensive on the secondary market; a search of recent ebay sales turned up exactly one of each. Seven bidders vied for the 2003 example (“700 Years of Hall in Tyrol”), which, after 19 bids, ended up going for $560. The lone 2004 example (“150th Anniversary of the Semmering Railway”) sold outright for $350. The following are averages of final prices for completed sales for the other years (within the search range allowed by ebay), with the number of results for each coin in parenthesis:

  • 50 Years of Television (2005)—$155 (two results)
  • European Satellite Navigation (2006)—$138 (two results)
  • Austrian Aviation (2007)—$143 (two results)
  • Fascination Light (2008)—$173 (three results)
  • International Year of Astronomy (2009)—$108 (five results)
  • Renewable Energy (2010)—$178 (three results)
  • Robotik (2011)—$83 (eight results)
  • Bionik (2012)—$78 (six results)
  • Tunnel Construction (2013)—$83 (seven results)
  • Evolution (2014)—$150 (one result)
  • Cosmology (2015)—$109 (four results)
  • Time (2016)—$108 (four results)

Each year’s issue is composed of a disc of niobium surrounded by a sterling-silver outer ring. The brilliant colors of the disc are achieved by anodic oxidation—a precisely controlled electrochemical process that deposits a fine layer of oxidized niobium on the surface of the metal. The color is determined by the thickness of the layer. From 2003 through 2013, each year’s design was processed with a single color; beginning in 2014, the finely detailed images began to be two-toned, with selectively colored elements set off against a solid background of a different color.

For the first two years of the series, mintages were limited to 50,000. Thanks to the coins’ popularity, the mint increased the mintage in 2005 to 65,000, which remains the limit today. Through 2015, orders were limited to five coins; starting in 2016, they are limited to three.

On June 7, 2017, the Austrian Mint will release “Mikrocosm,” the newest issue in the series. Even with the order limit, the entire mintage is already sold out due to pre-orders. Like the rest of the series, “Mikrocosm” is denominated €25, measures 34 millimeters in diameter, and weighs 16.5 grams. The outer ring, composed of .900 silver, contains 9 grams of precious metal; the inner disc, of .998 pure niobium, 6.5 grams. The strike is described as Special Uncirculated. Each coin is issued with a numbered certificate of authenticity.

The following is a look at the entire series, going back to the very first coin in 2003. The original issue prices, in euro, are as reported by the Austrian Mint; the corresponding U.S. price is based on the average exchange rate that year. For the most part, the descriptions are excerpted from the mint’s original text, with minimal edits. All images are courtesy of the Austrian Mint (hover over each to zoom).

2003
700 Years of Hall in Tyrol

Original price: €56.40 ($63.97)
Mintage: 50,000 (order limit 5)

This coin commemorates the charter granted over 700 years ago to the town of Hall in the Tyrol, where the first large silver coin, the guldiner, was struck in 1486. The die used to make the guldiner features in the blue niobium core of the coin’s reverse, a reference to Hall’s historical role in the minting business as well as the metal that forms the outer ring of all the coins in the Silver Niobium series. A relatively new find only discovered in 1801, niobium plays an important role in the space industry, something acknowledged on the coin’s reverse, where a satellite maps the town of Hall from space.

2004
The 150th Anniversary of the Semmering Railway

Original price: €56.40 ($70.17)
Mintage: 50,000 (order limit 5)

Considered the world’s first true mountain railway, the Semmering Railway is still in full use more than 150 years after its construction. Built between 1848 and 1854 by some 20,000 workers and featuring 14 tunnels, 16 viaducts, and more than100 stone bridges, over the course of its 41-kilometre length this UNESCO World Heritage Site conquers an altitude difference of 460 metres. The railway’s durability is symbolised by its contrasting past and present locomotives on the coin’s obverse. The coin’s vivid green niobium core mirrors the colour of the landscape through which the railway passes, which is shown on the coin’s reverse. Here a steam train is seen crossing a viaduct spanning a deep valley framed by the coin’s outer silver ring, which bears the anniversary inscription.

2005
50 Years of Television

Original price: €56.40 ($70.30)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)

Without doubt one of the most influential of all inventions, television has dominated people’s lives for the more than half a century since the birth of the “box.” Considered something of a classic of retro design in Austria today, the original 1950s Austrian TV test card, used for calibration and focusing at the beginning and end of the broadcasting day, features on the purple niobium core of the coin’s obverse. The country of origin and face value are shown in its outer silver ring. Milestones in the history of television, ranging from an analogue fifties TV set to contemporary digital satellite dishes, are depicted in the silver ring on the coin’s reverse, as is the inscription 50 years of television (in German). An old-fashioned TV antenna superimposed over the European section of the globe is depicted in the niobium core.

2006
European Satellite Navigation

Original price: €56.40 ($70.86)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)

This year’s issue commemorates the use of satellite navigation in Europe. The coin’s golden-brown niobium core cleverly depicts a compass on the obverse, with the geographic coordinates showing the Austrian Mint’s exact location in Vienna etched over the eight cardinal points and year of issue. The outer silver ring contains both the country of issue (REPUBLIK ÖSTERREICH, or Republic of Austria) and face value, while on the reverse it depicts the different means of transport that make use of satellite navigation—planes, trains, ships, and motor vehicles—and bears the inscription European Satellite Navigation (in German). The niobium core on this side shows numerous satellites orbiting the globe, their tracks spilling over into the silver ring.

2007
Austrian Aviation

Original price: €56.40 ($77.29)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)

By 1912 only France held more world flying records than Austria. The turquoise blue 2007 edition of the series pays tribute to Austria’s magnificent men and their flying machines, as well as to Austria’s contribution to aeronautics.

In 1907, Franz Xaver Wels flew several hundred metres with the kidney-shaped Zanonia glider. Igo Etrich developed the glider into a recognisable aeroplane called the Taube (Dove) because of its bird-like wings and tail. With this machine, in 1910 Etrich’s colleague Karl Illner was able to make the first successful motorised flight in Austria, from Wiener Neustadt to Vienna and back. Both aircraft feature in the niobium core on the reverse of the coin, as does Illner himself waving from the cockpit of the Taube just before his historic flight. The silver outer ring bears the inscription LUFTFAHRT IN ÖSTERREICH (Aviation in Austria). The obverse shows a familiar view into the cockpit of a modern passenger aircraft, ringed by the country identification REPUBLIK ÖSTERREICH and the 25 euro face value.

2008
Fascination Light

Original price: €56.40 ($82.99)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)
2010 COTY Award winner in the Most Innovative Coin category

The technology developed by Austrian lighting pioneer Carl Auer von Welsbach is still in use in billions of light bulbs around the world today. The 2008 edition of the Silver Niobium series celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth as well as one of the earliest recognised energy sources—light.

Born in Vienna in 1858, chemist and entrepreneur Carl Auer von Welsbach was one of the key figures in the development of the gas lamp. The obverse of this coin therefore shows, in exquisite detail, such a lamp being lit outside Vienna’s neo-gothic city hall. The coin’s striking green colour is achieved by heat treating and oxidising the niobium core and applying an extra finish prior to its striking. This process has provided engraver Herbert Wähner with a brighter, almost glowing background for his exquisitely engraved designs. The reverse depicts the sun, the ultimate source of light, a portrait of Carl Auer von Welsbach and, in the sterling-silver outer ring, the evolution of lighting technology.

2009
International Year of Astronomy

Original price: €56.40 ($78.65)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)
2013 COTY Award nominee in the Best Contemporary Event Coin category

It is only fitting that the silver niobium coin struck in honour of UNESCO’s International Year of Astronomy 2009 should bear the portrait of Galileo Galilei. This year’s coin also pays tribute to 400 years of the telescope.

In 1609, mathematician and astronomer Galileo first observed the moon with a telescope. His subsequent drawings of its surface provide the background to his portrait on this marvellous golden-yellow, silver-niobium 25 euro coin’s reverse. The sterling-silver ring around its niobium core shows the development of the telescope spanning from Isaac Newton to present-day radio telescopes. The dark side of the moon was, however, beyond Galileo’s reach. A satellite is shown orbiting it on the obverse of the coin, while the outer silver ring shows planet Earth partly covered by the moon and a stylised sun illuminating the heavens.

2010
Renewable Energy

Original price: €56.40 ($74.86)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)

“Sustainability” is not only one of the key watchwords of the 21st century, but one of its biggest challenges. In recognition of this, the outstanding 2010 edition of the Silver Niobium series features renewable energy and the vital role it plays in a world of dwindling resources.

Inspired by the living, breathing plant process, our engraver Helmut Andexlinger has placed a tree representing all our planet’s vegetation in the shining blue niobium core of the coin’s obverse. The wind blows the tree’s leaves to the ground in a spiral reflecting the life-giving cycle of the four elements—earth, wind, fire, and water. All four are also represented in ingenious detail on the coin’s reverse by the contemporary modes of renewable energy used to harness them. Water drives one type of turbine, wind another; the sun’s rays are captured by solar panels; and geothermal heat sources in the earth are recovered in the form of steam.

2011
Robotics

Original price: €56.40 ($78.55)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)
2013 COTY Award winner in the Best Contemporary Event Coin category

This year’s edition of the Silver Niobium series was an opportunity for mint designers Helmut Andexlinger and Thomas Pesendorfer to explore robotics. Symbolising the fusion between electronics and mechanics, fundamentally in robotics, the intricate illustrations on the obverse feature mechanical cogs and digital binary coding. In its centre a robotic version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vetruvian man” typifies ideal human proportions in the place of a human being, set against the Mars-red background of the niobium core. This colour is a reference to the coin’s reverse, which shows a mountainous Martian landscape with a European Space Agency robot exploring the red planet as a star-filled sky and planet Earth shine down from the coin’s silver edge.

2012
Bionics

Original price: €56.40 ($72.51)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)

The magenta 2012 addition to the Silver Niobium series pays tribute to the way evolution in the natural world acts as a prototype for technology. Evolutionary pressure typically forces living organisms to become highly optimised and efficient. A prime example is the water-repellent nature of the lotus flower and of shark skin, a phenomenon fundamental in the development of paint. By the same token, the chambered shell of the nautilus has influenced architectural design and the mechanics of bird flight have clearly inspired aviation. All four of these examples feature on the coin’s obverse, while its reverse focuses on the use of bionics in architecture. A radiolarian, the plankton that inspired Spanish modernist architect Antoni Gaudí, is depicted in the foreground, while the reverse’s background shows an interior view of Munich’s Olympic Stadium, the roof of which was based on findings in bionics.

2013
Tunnel Construction

Original price: €61.42 ($81.59)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)
2015 COTY Award winner in Best Bi-Metallic Coin category

One of the most mountainous countries in Europe, Austria has inevitably played a vital role in the development of tunnels. The ice-blue 2013 addition to the series pays homage to Austria’s long and influential contribution to tunnel construction.

Opened in 1848, the vertex tunnel of the Semmering railway was the world’s first alpine tunnel. The “New Austrian Tunnelling Method,” which uses the geographical stress of surrounding rock to strengthen a tunnel, was developed from 1957 to 1965 and has since done a great deal to revolutionise tunnel construction around the world. A present-day tunnel-boring machine features in the niobium center of the coin’s obverse, its rotating motion symbolised by three arrows. The obverse’s outer silver ring shows the mountains through which the machine pierces. The reverse makes excellent use of the niobium center to show one of the many road tunnels that pepper Austria’s alpine landscape today, while a tunnel worker uses a pneumatic drill to loosen rock in the silver ring alongside the word TUNNELBAU (tunnel construction).

2014
Evolution

Original price: €63.28 ($84.11)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)
COTY Award winner in the Best Bi-Metallic Coin category

Using two different shades of niobium for the first time, the blue-and-green 2014 edition illustrates the story of the development of Homo sapiens from other species.

Symbolising the origin of evolution as a whole, an image of the DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule graces the coin’s obverse. A debate still continues about who exactly should be credited with decoding the molecule, but Francis Crick, James D. Watson, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work in this field. The coin’s reverse deals with the history of human development and the diversity of forms of life brought about by evolution, with the design making splendid use of the coin’s silver outer ring and niobium center to do so.

2015: Cosmology

Original price: €63.28 ($70.22)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 5)
COTY Award nominee in the Most Artistic Coin category

This year’s addition to the series deploys its contrasting blue and yellow niobium hues to bring outer space just a little bit closer to home. On its obverse, Cosmology features an illustration of the universe in its niobium core, complete with stars, the planet Saturn and its rings, and the Rosetta space probe, the first-ever spacecraft to orbit a comet. On the coin’s reverse, the planets in orbit encircle the European Extremely Large Telescope, which is currently under construction by the European Southern Observatory in the Atacama Desert of Chile and is due for completion in 2022. The telescope will enable us to look deeper than ever into the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe, concepts illustrated on the coin’s outer silver rings. It may not answer the question, Are we alone in the universe? But it will certainly make a major contribution to the search for extraterrestrial life.

2016
Time

Original price: €69.60 ($77.02)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 3)

The theoretical meaning of “time” may have long been a major subject of debate among philosophers, physicists, and religious figures, but the more practical discipline of its measurement has proved to be less of a mystery. Dedicated to the history of chronometry, “Time” uses its two-tone niobium center and silver outer ring to show a selection of timepieces throughout the ages.

Though hardly the most accurate of chronometers, the sun and moon (which feature on the coin’s reverse), along with an hourglass and watch mechanism, were widely used until the 16th century. It was determined back then that an hour lasts 60 minutes, though time has since been increasingly subdivided, first into seconds and eventually into nanoseconds. This has had the effect of making time ever more precious, with the phrase “Time is money,” famously coined by Benjamin Franklin in 1748, being more pertinent today than ever. Standing for lasting value in a fast-moving world, the coin shows an old-fashioned clock face in the niobium center and a chronometer in the silver outer ring of its obverse, while the reverse also shows a time spiral and the time in a selection of famous cities.

2017 Mikrokosmos

Original price: €76.80 ($84.31)
Mintage: 65,000 (order limit 3)

Following the exploration of the cosmos in 2015, the latest edition in the series embarks on a technological journey in the opposite direction—to the microcosmos. The means of transport for this journey is a rather unexpected one: the butterfly, as depicted in the raspberry-red and grass-green niobium centre of the coin’s obverse. But the journey of discovery really begins on the silver ring, where a microscopic view of a butterfly wing is shown at the top of the centre. Moving clockwise we go even deeper with the help of an electron microscope, arriving at the cellular nucleus at the bottom of the coin. The reverse continues the micro-exploration begun on the obverse, but here, the subject is a bee. It appears in front of a ruler that measures its length in centimeters, amid a raspberry-colored web that suggests tissue cells. Another molecular diagram and a large grain of pollen are included, along with what appears to be a cross-section of a honeycomb. The outer ring contains the word MIKROKOSMOS (Microcosm), along with designs indicating the analysis of pollen, bees’ eggs, larvae, and other infinitesimally small bits of the world.   ❑

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Comments

  1. Louis Golino says

    Keep in mind that the issue price fro m the mint includes a VAT tax of 20%, which is not applicable to buyers outside the EU.

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