30th anniversary of the litas. Litas and centas coins, 1997–2014

This year marks thirty years since the litas began to circulate again in Lithuania after a more than 50-year break. This happened on 25 June 1993. We had the litas for a significant part of our history until the introduction of the euro in Lithuania in 2015. During this period, Lithuania changed and modernised, and the litas became an important symbol of the change of independent Lithuania. In this series of articles dedicated to the 30th anniversary of the litas, we will discuss the most important stages of the development of the litas, its issuance, and remember the most important elements of the design of litas banknotes and coins. Today we will tell you about the coins that were issued in 1997 and circulated until the introduction of the euro in 2015. 

New coin creation contest

The circulation litas and centas coins, issued in 1991, were mostly welcomed with joy, but also with some reproach. Their biggest problem was quality. This is particularly true of coins minted at the Birmingham Mint in the United Kingdom. Coins of some denominations differed little in diameter and thickness, and were similar in design, leading to confusion. After the issuance of the new 1, 2, and 5 litas banknotes issued into circulation, the issue of 1, 2, and 5 litas coins began to be withdrawn from circulation in 1991. Their counterfeiting was already an issue in the first months right after the introduction of the litas. As a result, a total of almost 120 million units of these coins were issued with less than 18 million coins, or only 15% of minted coins. Until 1996, the old 1, 2, and 5 litas coins were withdrawn from circulation and stopped circulating, so only the banknotes of these denominations remained. It was decided to issue a new model of the coins. We should note that the Lithuanian Mint became subordinate to the Bank of Lithuania under the Order of the Republic of Lithuania in 1995, making it much easier to coordinate joint projects and achieve mutually satisfactory results. 

On 25 April 1996, the terms of the contest for the creation of new draft circulation litas and centas coins were approved and the Cash Department of the Bank of Lithuania was instructed to organise a contest. Participants had to submit 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 centas and 1, 2, 5 litas reverse projects. New issues of 1, 2, and 5 centas coins were to be a copper red colour, 10, 20, and 50 cents — gold yellow, 1 and 2 litas coins — nickel-white or bimetallic, and 5 litas — nickel-white and gold-red.

What would the coins look like? 

Five famous artists — the sculptors Algirdas Bosas, Rytas Jonas Belevičius, Rimantas Eidijus, Antanas Olbutas, and Antanas Žukauskas were invited to participate in the closed contest. 

In the designs of the sculptor A. Bosas, the 1 and 2 centas coins had large numbers and were placed above the text, the first letter of which is written in calligraphic font. The style of the 5 centas coin was for some reason different. 
The buildings symbolising the most important Lithuanian cities were located on the reverses of ten centas coins: Klaipėda Lighthouse, Kaunas Vytautas Magnus Museum, and Vilnius Cathedral. 

The litas coins were composed according to a general scheme — a portrait in a small central circle and a wide arc from another metal surrounding it with the inscriptions. The author chose the portraits of Kristijonas Donelaitis, Martynas Mažvydas, and Vydūnas. He singled out representatives of Lithuania Minor, those that impacted Lithuania the most. 

The design of the coins by the sculptor A. Olbutas were minimalistic. The numbers of the coins up to the 20 centas denomination were large, simple, and clear. Coins 50 centas and more formed a new composition group. Here, coin circles were dominated by ideas, and the denomination numbers were reduced and pushed to the bottom. The 1 litas coin was supposed to be decorated with the Columns of Gediminas, symmetrically supported by stylised wings on both sides, the 2 litas coins depicted the kurėnas sailboat of Lithuania Minor and flowing waves, and the 5 litas coin — Vilnius Cathedral. 

Three artists, recognised as winners in the first stage (R. J. Belevičius, R. Eidijus, and A. Žukauskas), continued their work.

R. Eidėjus’ projects were rationally and logically put together. The numbers of the single-digit coins were embedded in isosceles triangles, the sides of which were decorated with different rays for each denomination. The numbers of the double-digit coins were embedded in a circular sun, which was also decorated with different rays for each coin of a different denomination. Eidėjus decorated the litas coins with more elaborate designs from rue and oak branches. The numbers were placed in ornate panels, symmetrically surrounded by rues, stylised heraldic lilies, and oak leaf wreaths on both sides, while crowns of different hierarchies were placed on the reverses of the 1 and 2 litas. 

The coin composition scheme proposed by R. J. Belevičius was very complex. In some places, the nominal numbers were larger-sized in the centre, while in other places — pushed to the side. In all denominations, different stylistic elements related to folk art were used. The reverse of the 1 litas was supposed to depict the Gate of Dawn, 2 litas — a figure of a sower, as carved by a folk sculptor, and 5 litas — St. George defeating a dragon. 

What exactly were the coins like? 

In the second phase, the Currency Design and Production Commission and consultants gave the first place to nine coin reverse plaster models presented by A. Žukauskas. These works seemed to be the most mature. The designer skilfully grouped the coins and arranged the groups into a system. The coins were not overcrowded by ornaments or unnecessary elements. The designer himself was of the following opinion about the circulation coins: “In circulation, money is used on the principle of ‘From me to you, from you to me’ — so they must be laconic, quickly perceived, and easy to identify. The numbers must be most visible, not the artistic design.” The author found a balance between rationality and beauty. “The motif of a fir tree” — so the sculptor himself called the ornament of all the coins. There are three different but related coins: a linear “fir tree” pattern forming a triangle on the 10 centas coin, a horizontal line on the 20 centas coin, and a circular line on the 50 centas coin. Following a similar principle, Žukauskas designed the litas coins, where the variation of lines was replaced with segments of bow-shaped lines arranged according to a certain rhythm and form. The 1 litas coin had a horizontal composition, the 2 litas coin had two compositions placed symmetrically on both sides, whereas the 5 litas coin had three groups of lines placed on the outside circle of the coin. The different nature and arrangement of the embossed ornament in both groups of coins also became a sign of recognition for visually impaired and blind persons. 

By the way, it is important to note that new 1, 2, and 5 centas coins and their designs were also planned to be minted, but later this idea was abandoned. In the conclusions of the assessment of the monetary structure by the Currency Advisory Group International, it was suggested that the 1, 2, and 5 centas coins should no longer be minted because the production price was above or equal to their face value. Including the purchase of blanks, coinage, and packaging, the cost of producing a 1 centas coin was 3.56 ct in 1997, 4.06 ct for 2 centas and 4.68 ct for 5 centas in 1997. Moreover, this price did not include the ever-increasing cost of coin distribution. Although plaster models were made, the new issues of the 1, 2, and 5 centas coins were never minted.

The creation of the obverse of the circulation coins was directly entrusted to the author of the state coat of arms, Arvydas Každailis. Two graphic projects of the coat of arms adapted to circulation coins were created: one for centas, the other for litas coins. At the request of the Bank of Lithuania, obverse plaster models according to A. Každailis’ graphic projects were created by the sculptor Petras Henrikas Garška. In order to achieve greater integrity for both sides of the coins, the Bank of Lithuania concluded an agreement with the sculptor A. Žukauskas, who had to prepare and present a plaster model of the new circulation coin obverse according to the graphic design of the coat of arms created for the circulation centas coins by A. Každailis. The artists signed an agreement: A. Každailis did not object that “the coat of arms created by him and approved by the Heraldic Commission for circulation coins would be used on the obverse of the coin created by A. Žukauskas,” while the latter committed to “not change the coat of arms created by A. Každailis when creating an obverse of the new issue circulation coins, which would feature the coat of arms created by A. Každailis, the inscription LIETUVA, and the year — 1997.”

The Lithuanian Mint committed to minting 80 million 10 centas and 40 million 20 centas coins. They were put into circulation on 1 July 1997. Although according to the annex to the contract — the coin supply schedule — the Lithuanian Mint had to mint the intended amount of coins every quarter, and the work was to be completed already in the summer of 1998, this work did not go smoothly. In 1997, they managed to mint only 28 million units of 10 centas and 27 million units of 20 centas coins, in 1998 — 43 and 9 million, respectively. The contract and the coin delivery schedule were revised several times, and the last batches of coins were received only in 1999. Similarly, with the 50 centas coins of the new issue, the contract for minting them was signed on 24 June 1997, and coins of this denomination were put into circulation on 1 December 1997.

As commercial banks constantly demanded more and more coins with the lowest denominations, the 1, 2, and 5 centas coins of the 1991 edition continued to be minted. 

Litas and centas coins were minted until the introduction of the euro. Since 1995, a total of 1.1 billion litas and centas coins of various denominations were minted by the Mint in accordance with the Bank of Lithuania’s orders.