The 100 Ducats Coin issued by Michael Apafi

Medieval History
Diameter = 104,02 mm; coin blank = 2,61 mm
345,95 g


    Text: Dr. Ernest Oberlander-Târnoneanu; Photos: George Nica

    SPLENDOR OPES AVRVM MVNDI MIHI NVLLA VOLVPTAS – QVIN PVTO PRO CHRISTO HAEC OMNIA DAMNA MEO (The Splendour of all golden treasures brings me no pleasure – I fear all this will harm my Christ [my Salvation]). – Part of the heads caption of Michael Apafi’s 1677 100 ducats emission.

    The year 1674 represents a turning point in Transylvanian coinage activity not only in relation to Michael Apafi’s rule, but to the entire history of this activity across Europe. At this time began the issuing of 100 ducats coins, the heaviest gold coins ever issued on our continent during the Middle Ages and the Modern Age. Despite the beautiful words stated above, the pious prince Michael Apafi would go on to mint many more gold coin series of high value, proving that the 1674 issue was part of a much more complex plan. This is demonstrated through the fact that 100 ducats coins would be minted in 1676, 1677, and 1683. Later, in 1677, aside from the 100 de ducat pieces, more heavy gold coins would be minted, such as the 50 ducats and 25 ducats coins. In 1687, 25 ducats coins were minted again. The minting, for several years, of some exceptional coins, makes Michael Apafi the author not only of the most impressive series of coins in the Europe of his time, but the author of the largest and heaviest coin made from this metal ever issued before the end of the 20th century. They constitute one more reason why a ruler (wrongly) deemed a “weak” and “lazy” man should be remembered... In the collections of the Numismatic Cabinet and Historical Treasure of the National History Museum of Romania (inventory no. 47.424), one of the most valuable coins in the world is kept – the 100 ducats piece issued in the mint in Făgăraș Fortress, in 1676. For a long time, it has been erroneously thought to have been minted in 1675.

    The 100 ducats coin from 1676, as well as the one from 1674, have been made using a special technique consisting of manual appliance of coin-dies used for striking other coins (1 ducat and 10 ducats), on a large flan (monetary blank), made through lamination. Due to this, the most part of the coin’s field has been left free. Obv. In the middle, the imprint of the heads matrix used for minting the 10 ducat coins from 1675, at the mint in Făgăraș Fortress. Circular caption: MICHA:APAFI - D:G:PR:TR (Michael Apafi, by the Grace of God, Prince of Transylvania). The prince’s bust, to the right, wearing a fur hat adorned with ostrich and osprey feathers, breastplate decorated with stylized plant and geometrical representations, satyr mask, and belt, holding in his right hand a scepter ending in a stylized tulip, his left hand resting on the guard of a parade sword. All around, along the edge, nine prints of the heads matrix used for minting the 1 ducat coins of 1676, at the mint in Făgăraș Fortress Circular caption: MIC APAFI - D G P T  (Michael Apafi, by the Grace of God, Prince of Transylvania). The prince’s bust, to the right, wearing a fur hat adorned with a rose-shaped ostrich feather piece, breastplate decorated with stylized plant and geometrical representations, satyr mask, and belt, holding in his right hand a scepter ending in a stylized tulip, his left hand resting on the guard of a parade sword. Rv. In the middle, the imprint of the tails matrix used to mint the 10 ducat coins of 1675, at the mint in Făgăraș Fortress. Circular caption: PAR REGHVND – ET (in ligature) SIC CO 1675 (Ruler of some Parts of the Hungarian Kingdom and Count of the Szeklers 1675). In the middle, the coat-of-arms of Transylvania above the princely crown, marked with the Apafi family crest. Below, the emblems A – F (Arx Fogorass, Făgăraș Fortress). All around, along the edge, nine prints of the obverse coin-die used for minting the 1 ducat coins of 1676, at the mint in Făgăraş Fortress. Circular caption: PART REG HVN - DO ET (in ligature) SI COM 1675 (Ruler of some Parts of the Hungarian Kingdom and Count of the Szeklers 1675). In the middle, the coat-of-arms of Transylvania above the princely crown, marked with the Apafi family crest. Below, a shield with the coat-of-arms of the county of Făgăraș, two fish, and emblems A – F (Arx Fogorass, Făgăraş Fortress).


    Michael Apafi (Apafi Mihály) lived and led Transylvania in a time of great trials, political and military disasters, famine and disease, and rapid decay of the autonomous Principality. His personal life was typical for these times, knowing unexpected highs and lows. He was born on November 3rd 1632, in his family’s manor house at Dumbrăveni (then called Ibaşfalău, Ebesfalva, Eppeschdorf, in Sibiu County), as the son of magnate György Apafi, count of Târnava and former judge of Sibiu, and of Barbara (Borbála) Petki, daughter of the Chancellor of Transylvania Principality. The family’s original domain, whence their name comes, was located in the county of Bistriţa, in the village Apanagyfalu (today, Nuşfalău, Grossendorf, Bistriţa-Năsăud County). Michael Apafi grew up on a different domain owned by the family, in Şieu (Nagysajó, Bistriţa-Năsăud County), where he enjoyed a select Calvinist education, which would make its mark on him intellectually for life. Despite the fact that Michael Apafi was a young book lover, infatuated with mechanics and science, inclined toward meditation and profoundly religious, like all the sons of high Transylvanian nobility, he was destined by his family to pursue a military and political career. He began his apprenticeship with Prince George Rakoczi II (1648-1657; 1658-1660). Despite his youth, Michael Apafi partook in all the great military campaigns of Transylvanian troops at the end of George Rakoczi II’s reign – the one in Moldavia, in 1653, the one in Walachia, in 1655, and the one in Poland, in 1657, which ended in the Czarny Ostrów disaster. After the defeat at Czarny Ostrów, Michael Apafi was taken prisoner by the Tartars and stayed in Crimea for three years, until his family managed to gather, with great difficulty, the enormous sum required as ransom.

    Upon his return to Transylvania, in November 1660, Michael Apafi was to be at the centre of the political conflicts that were tearing the Principality apart, more specifically the dispute between George Rakoczi II’s partisans and the pro-Habsburg party, led by Prince John Kemény (1661-1662), and those in favour of the continuation of vassal relationship to the Ottoman Empire as the best shield for maintaining state autonomy. As leader of the pro-Ottoman party, he was elected prince of Transylvania, by a Diet, in which only a portion of the nobility partook. The election was immediately recognized by the vizier Ali Pasha, who confirmed him as a ruler, in the camp at Libáncs-mező, near Târgu Mureş. His “election”, under those circumstances, led to the eruption of a bloody civil war, the consequences of which were amplified by the terrible devastation of the country by Ottoman troops and their auxiliaries – the Crimean Tartars. They stormed the cities and systematically plundered the villages, killing, robbing, and capturing the helpless population. With Ottoman support, Michael Apafi defeated John Kemény, on January 23rd 1662, in the battle of Seleuş (Mureş County), where his rival died in action. The victory against John Kemény did not automatically signify the end of the trials that were befalling the people of Transylvania, as many towns and cities were still under the control of Imperial troops. Their retreat was obtained for the price of important payments, combined with military pressure, achieved through the Transylvanian troops’ participation in the anti-Habsburg campaigns of the Ottomans and their allies, the French.

    Under Michael Apafi’s rule, Transylvania enjoyed almost two decades (1664-1686) of relative peace. After Western model, the prince encouraged the opening of factories producing paper, glass, cloth, iron foundries, or the exploitation of salt mines, supported education by opening schools and printing books, including in Romanian. Moreover, he allowed Armenian colonization and the activity of the “Greek” Company in Sibiu and Braşov, as factors of development of international commerce. As prince of Transylvania, Michael Apafi was guided by the wish to preserve the autonomy of the state, which was threatened by the two neignbouring empires holding the country as though in a grip vice. He was a faithful Ottoman vassal, paying overdue and current tribute regularly (40,000 florins a year) and participated in several military operations, including the campaign against Vienna, in 1683. At the same time, he went into contact with the Imperials, after 1664, and especially after the creation of the Holy League, in 1684, when it was becoming increasingly clear that the Ottomans were losing ground in central Europe. His sincere fidelity to the Ottomans did not spare him the humiliation of ceding Sătmar and Szabolcs counties to the Habsburgs, through the Vasvár peace (1664), but neither did welcoming the Hungarian noblemen who conspired against Leopold I or supporting Emerik Tököly’s party of rebels make relations with Vienna any worse. Despite negotiations with Jan Sobiesky, the King of Poland, and with the French, the situation changed dramatically after the re-conquest of Buda by the imperials in 1686. In 1687, Imperial troops broke into Transylvania. If, in the case of general Caraffa and colonel Veterani, Apafi was successful in securing their retreat for a considerable sum, he could not do the same with general Charles of Lorena’s men, who occupied the cities of Sibiu, Cluj, and Dej. The Transylvanian prince was forced to concede to providing supplies for these troops and paying a considerable amount – 700,000 Roman florins. In spite of it all, the treaty was canceled at Vienna, and general Caraffa was appointed supreme commander of the Imperial forces in Transylvania, the country being occupied by the Habsburgs.

    In 1688, the Transylvanian Diet formally annulled the country’s status as a vassal to the Ottoman Empire and recognized Leopold I of Habsburg as its sovereign. During these very critical moments to Transylvania’s fate, Michael Apafi’s personal tragedy also interfered. In August of 1688, after a marriage of over 30 de ani, his wife Anna Bornemissza died, who was not only an extremely intelligent and ambitious woman and a faithful companion, who gave him 11 children (of whom only one survived), but was virtually the one who managed the everyday government of the country, alongside Chancellor Teleki Mihály. After Anna Bornemissza’s death, Michael Apafi entered a state of prostration, escaping into the world of books and his English clock collection. Shortly thereafter, he died too, in Făgăraş, on April 15th 1690. Practically, with his death, the existence of the Transylvanian Principality as an autonomous state ceases. The reign of his son, Michael Apafi II is contested by Emerik Tököly. Amid the fighting between the two rivals, in October 1690, Leopold I issued the Leopoldine Diploma, according to which Transilvania became a Great Principality, possession of the House of Habsburg, governed directly from Vienna. In 1696, Michael Apafi II and his wife are taken into “gilded” captivity in Vienna, and in 1701 he formally renounces the title of Prince of Transylvania in exchange for that of Prince of the Empire and a life pension.


    The existence of Michael Apafi’s unusual 100 ducats coins has attracted, since early times, the attention of numismatic experts. The coin minted in 1677, featuring a design and captions different from the ones issued in 1674 and 1676, was shown to the public in 1761 by Johann- Friedrich Joachim and Johann-Paul Reinhard, in Das neu eröffnete Münzkabinet, p. 359-363, which appeared in Nürenberg. It was kept in the Royal and Imperial Cabinet of Vienna (today’s Kunsthistorisches Museum). The design of the 100 ducats coin, minted in 1674, similar to the design of our exhibit, was published fraudulently by Érdy János, in the volume Erdely érmei kepatlaszal (The Coins of Transylvania with Illustrated Reproductions), pl. XII-XIII, no. 2, Pesta, 1861. In reality, Érdy was a mere plagiarist, who published under his own name drawings from the inedited album of Weszerle József (1781-1838), a professor of the Pesta University and founder of modern Hungarian numismatics. The injustice brought to Weszerle was not righted until 1873, with the publication of Tabulae nummorum Hungaricorum – Weszerle József hátrahagyott érmészeti táblái (Plates of Hungarian Coins – The Posthumous Plates of Weszerle József). The coin illustrated is part of the collection of the Numismatic Cabinet of the Hungarian National Museum of Budapest. It was given by Michael Apafi to Count Andrassy, one of the military leaders of the time. After passing through various private collections, it finally found its way into the patrimony of the Hungarian National Museum. Michael Apafi’s 100 ducats coin from 1676, now part of the collection of the Numismatic Cabinet and Historical Treasure House of the National History Museum of Romania, was published by professor Ludwig Reissnberger from Sibiu in his work Die siebenbürgischen Münzen des Freiherrlich Samuel von Brukenthal’schen Museum’s in Hermannstadt, in Programm des Evangelisches Gymnasium zu Hermannstadt 1877-1878, Sibiu, 1879-1882. Nevertheless, the true description of this magnificent coin is owed to another great Saxon scholar, jeweler Adolf Resch from Brașov. In 1901, he published the catalogue of Transylvanian coins and medals, Siebenbürgishe Münzen und Medaillen von 1538 bis zur Gegenwart, Sibiu, 1901, which is to this day the reference work in its field. For Romanian language readers, prince Michael Apafi’s 100 ducats coin issues are presented in the work of George Buzdugan, Octavian Luchian, and Constantin G. Oprescu, Monede și bancnote românești (Romanian Coins and Bills), Bucharest, 1977. Another specimen of Michael Apafi’s 100 ducats coins is kept by the Smithsonian Institution of Washington.


    Just as his predecessors, Michael Apafi fully exerted his royal right to mint coins. He started minting coins in the year 1662, after the Seleuş victory, and continued the practice until the year of his death, 1690. In its central elements, the Transylvanian mint derives from that of the Hungarian Kingdom before 1526, the year of the Mohacs disaster. This monetary system was a bimetallic one – built around gold and silver. The basic currency for gold was the ducat, a coin with a legal weight of 3,495 g and a title of 986‰, with its multiples of 2, 3, 4, 4 ½, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, and 13 ducats. There have also been issued ½ ducat coins. More than other Transylvanian princes, forced by the need to produce high value coins necessary to political payments (tribute, mercenaries’ pay, diplomatic expenses, political propaganda), Michael Apafi a issued mostly gold and silver coins of very high value. If historians didn’t have access to other documents on the 1661-1690 period and were to judge only by Michael Apafi’s splendid coins, they might believe that the Principality of Transylvania were going through a veritable “golden age”. For silver, the basic currency of the Transylvanian mint was no longer the dinar, as it had been before the battle of Mohacs, but the taler, a high value coin. Its legal weight was 28,82 g, and it was minted from an 875‰ silver alloy. Aside from talers, Transylvanian mints also minted multiples of it – 1 ½, 2, 2 ½, and 4 talers. Also very important were the emissions of taler fractions – the guileder (½ taler) and the taler quarter. The array of silver currencies was completed by small coin emissions, such as: 1 ½ groats (dreipölkeri), 3 groats (dutka), groats of 6 and 12 dinars and “wide” groat. Only in Slovakian mints will dinars or obols (½ dinars) continue to be minted. From this array of currencies, at the beginning of Michael Apafi’s rule (until 1674) there had been issued only the following: guileders, talers, 1 ½ talers, 2 talers, as well as 6 and 12 dinars.


    In the history of numismatics, the 17th century rightly remains the age of large gold coins, that is to say of pieces weighing from a few hundred grams to a few kilograms! According to the few documents preserved, it appears the number of very heavy gold coins issued was very small. In all probability, they were meant as tools of politico-diplomatic propaganda, being given as gifts to very important personalities. The top place of 17th century large gold coins in the world hierarchy of numismatics has not been contested for over 200 years, more specifically, until 1987. Since then, the practice of producing truly gigantic gold coins has been resurrected, and there arepresently monetary emissions 31.1 kg, 100 kg, and 1,000 kg (!!!), minted respectively in Austria, Canada, and Australia. The series of these gigantic coins opened in 1612, through the 1,000 mohurs coin, issued by the emperor Jahangir (1569 - 1627) of the Moghul Empire in India. The coin weighs 11.935 kg (!!!) and has a diameter of 203 mm. the place where such a gold coin was mintes is not fortuitous, as during the 16th-17th centuries the Moghul Empire was the wealthiest state in the world. One of the several thus created coins was given by Jahangir as a gift to the Persian ambassador. A piece was sold at an auction, organized in Switzerland in 1987, but its current location remains unknown. In Europe, the first heavy gold coins, namely 100 ducats coins, were minted in 1621 by Sigismund III Vasa (1587-1632), King of Poland. They were meant to celebrate the King’s victory at Hotin (Chotim), against Ottoman armies, led by sultan Osman II. The coin-dies of the 100 ducats coin minted by Sigismund III were crafted by two important engravers, Samuel Ammon of Danzig and Jacob Jacobson of Emden (Holland), both involved, on a large scale, in the coin minting activity of Poland. A 100 ducats coin was sent as a gift from the King of Poland to the Pope, together with the letter announcing the Hotin victory. One coin of this kind is kept in the collections of the National Museums in both Warsaw and in Krakow, and recently, a similar piece (the one illustrated here) was sold at a public auction in the USA. The coin sold in 2008 weighs 349.49 g, has a diameter of 69.46 x 69.1 mm, and the flan is 4.9 mm thick. Another large gold coin, although more modest than the above, was minted by Ferdinand III, in Prague, in 1629, for his own coronation as King of Bohemia. It is a coin of only... de 40 ducats, the weight of which is not specified. Ferdinand III’s 40 ducats coin is very important because its design has served as a model for the 100 ducats coin minted by Michael Apafi in 1677. Recently, in 2012, a piece of this kind was sold at an auction in Germany.