The Silver Anniversary of a Golden Great

?A shiver runs down my spine as I sit in a gorgeous room, the “Brahms” room in the Musikverein (the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s performing hall), in Vienna.  A majestic fanfare is filling the sumptuous room thanks to a brass quintet of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra announcing the 25th birthday of the Vienna Philharmonic gold bullion coin.  At this moment the many experiences, even adventures of my past 20 plus years with the Vienna Philharmonic coin around the world come together.   For me business and culture meet at this point.  

I am proud of the coin – it is gorgeous.  The little Austrian Mint that can, and does, has achieved an amazing success with the Vienna Philharmonic pure gold bullion coin. (We are only some 210 employees, and that includes all of our production people.) Reflecting over the years, I am delighted with the many experiences I have been honoured to work on and participate in.  And I am grateful to our many business partners and friends around the world for the respect that they have given, and continue to give, to the Philharmonic pure gold bullion coin.

The complex sounds of the twinkling piano keys are heard as the pianist, who seems to have 20 fingers, performs. My thoughts drift back to the early days at the Mint when I was living in Vienna, and just how far we have come.  From a time when ledger books were still in use to today’s most high-tech production that integrates millimicrons (finer than a third of a human hair) measurements and the latest robotic technology. 

The lovely sounds of the string quintet continues, and I think not as much about of all the official happenings over the years but rather much more about the behind the scenes stuff, the people and the happenings that make all of this come together.  Not the official press stories with lovely images and the fact that we all know the Philharmonic coin has a gorgeous design, the coins are pure silver or gold and the one ounce gold coin has a larger diameter than any of the competitors.  I chuckle to myself….

Many times I have been in unusual places in the world promoting the Philharmonic coin. I remember the car that I was in on the back to an airport, which was apparently indeed a taxi, that didn't work all the time.  The driver had a hair-brush that every now and then when the car stalled, he would get out of the driver’s seat, open the hood and shove the hairbrush somewhere into the engine and the motor would run again.  I have had to eat live snails, goat intestines and more ewwwy things all in the name of the coin. I have spent too many nights in various hotels, flown way too many miles, missed out on a lot of weekends with friends and family, but I have learned and experienced a lot.  And I think fondly of the many “friends” within the coin hobby, who I have come to know and very much continue to enjoy their company.

I laugh when I think of the funny site I created while presenting the Vienna Philharmonic pure gold bullion coin to a bank in an Asian country.  There I was in their brand new boardroom with 5 gentlemen in dark suites sitting around the board table listening to me.  The room was spic and span clean, the glass table shined, the brass trim around the room polished and the floor glossy.  I was standing and speaking, while at the same time handing out some background material. When I went to sit down, unbeknownst to me my chair had rolled away.  I landed on the floor.  Wow, I didn’t know that so many men could jump so fast and so high.  I found the whole thing rather hilarious and was trying not to laugh as they were so very serious while trying to scoop me up off the floor.

I look around the lovely concert room and see the former presidents of the Austrian Mint whom I have worked with.   I smile fondly when I remember an adventure that happened when travelling in Europe with the then president of the Austrian Mint and some work colleagues.  There was an unexpected train strike and after we had landed at an airport, we still had to get to the next town that day for a meeting.  I made a deal with a car rental company and thankfully our president had his driver’s license with him; the rest of us didn’t.  None of us could figure out how to get the car out of the parking space in the underground garage, the reverse gear was not evident at all.  So with the president steering the car and the rest of us dressed in our business suits we pushed the car.  Finally we got it “backed-up and were underway.  After arriving in our destination town, we went to the hotel and just gave the keys to the doorman.  We knew he would be able to get it back to the rental company easier than the any of us.

Accompanying another president of the Austrian Mint to an Asian market, on his first tour of Asia reminds me of a time at a press interview with a major Asian newspaper.  Everything was very formal: seating, tea service, translation services, and so on.  And we were in a lounge-like area of this newspaper for the interview.  All of us were a bit nervous because of the importance of this interview but once we got started the president found his groove and did very well.  I was simply there as a support person with numbers and the like, just in case some statistics were needed.  The interview lasted about 30 minutes because of the translation.  The thing I remember most was how the newspaper must have thought I was an overly respectful person since I was leaning forward slightly bent looking down for the whole interview, while the president did most of the speaking.  In fact, what had happened was that when we were seated the president sat on one side of my suit coat so I couldn’t move.  He was so intense on the interview, and there was no way I would interrupt his concentration.  For me the moral of the story is to always make sure that my suit coat is fully buttoned when sitting down.

The Philharmonic coin has been the top selling coin in the world four times.  Its jumbo year was 1995, well before the crazy years we have had during the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) since 2008.  In 1995, we sold 747,100 ounces of gold.  That’s the magic number of a jumbo jet.  In the early years the market was much slower than today.  But during the GFC the Philharmonic reached new heights that are very impressive.  In 2009 the gold Philharmonic sold well over 1 million ounces.  Wow, such a crazy and very different market.

A once in a lifetime experience was to be part of the changeover of the denomination of the Philharmonic coin from the old Schilling currency of Austria, to the new European currency, the euro.  I remember the oh-so- many details that had to be looked after when changing a currency: all the official documents as well as everything from cash registers, to drink dispensers, food prices, bus fares, the daily newspaper – all of these changed in some way.  The Philharmonic coins were also changed to the euro denomination.  Already more than 12 years ago. There was hardly one aspect of daily life that remained as before.  

Of course, a huge highlight was when the Austrian Mint introduced the largest gold coin of the world in 2004.  It was the first goliath-sized coin to be issued.  Only 15 of these were made and they sold within 24 hours of the simultaneous global launch.  Sometimes, even today, I hear that someone is looking for just one of these coins.  But they seem to have remained with the lucky few who bought them.

Our little mint was launching this product worldwide.  The global launch was hosted by our President in Tokyo, the Executive Director in Vienna and me in New York.  It was really thrilling to reveal the coin, which has come to be known as “Big Phil.”  It contains 1,000 ounces of fine gold and weighs 31 kilos which is just shy of 70 pounds.  We had shipped the coin to New York and on the day of the launch, we drove the car into a truck lock at an underground vault to pick it up.  The one thing I had forgotten to organize was how to get it upstairs into the room where the press conference would be held.  We did have extra security with us on this day and thank goodness for strong security guards.  Two big fellows somehow manhandled Big Phil into the elevator and into the room and back again.  I did take the opportunity as well to pick up the Big Phil, wearing white gloves so that no finger prints were left behind.  I huffed and puffed and somehow lifted it, but there was no way I was going anywhere with that rather large item.  Man was it heavy!  Its weight alone gives Big Phil a built-in anti-theft device.

My thoughts return to this beautiful room and the amazing music being played by members of the Orchestra, which is the namesake of the coin.  I am touched by so many thoughts and wonderful memories.  There are amazing people in the world of coins: collectors, investors, journalists, dealers, minters, engravers, production, marketers, musicians and so many more.  Then the philharmonic orchestra musicians delight all of us with a surprise rendition of Happy Birthday for the Philharmonic pure bullion coins.  Hard to think of another industry where culture and business come together in truly perfect harmony.