Vilnius 700. History of the Vilnius mints

This year, Vilnius, our nation’s capital city, celebrates its 700th anniversary — in 1323, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas, mentioned the name “Vilnius” for the first time in his letters to Western Europe. Since then, Vilnius has experienced many ups and downs, stories were created here, and the city itself made its own stories. We, the Money Museum, want to talk about Vilnius and money, so today we would like to share the history of the Vilnius Mint, which is more than 600 years old!

Vilnius became a political and economic centre as early as in the 14th century. But it was important even before then. Merchants from Vilnius were economically the strongest in the whole nation. The Grand Dukes of Lithuania resided in Vilnius, even when they became kings of Poland. It was also the centre of the diocese. It was also the place where public finances were kept. And, finally, money was also made here.

Money production before coins

Coins were first minted in Lithuania at the end of the 14th century. Until then, coins from other countries and local alloys circulated in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. These were semicircular rod-shaped constant-mass alloys, called Lithuanian longs. The average weight of alloys (about 106 g) could be about half of the Scandinavian mark (204 g). Lithuanian alloys were valued by foreign merchants too. The appearance of these alloys in Lithuania is increasingly associated with the emergence of land ownership and the beginning of the formation of the state in the 13th century. During the wars of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania against the German Orders, fortified castles began to be built and the first cities emerged. Highly qualified craftsmen who had learned metal casting technology started settling there. One of the oldest Lithuanian alloy casting centres could have been the old capital of Lithuania — Kernavė. The other centre is undoubtedly Vilnius. Silver was an expensive metal and was mainly concentrated in the hands of the rich; they were the ones who placed orders for metalworkers. 

Mints in Vilnius in the 14th–17th centuries 

In 1386, when Jogaila was crowned king of Poland, a personal union between Lithuania and Poland was formed. When Jogaila began to issue denar-type coins in Vilnius, the nation’s own monetary system was finally formed.

There is no precise data on whether the coins were minted in Vilnius, but this is an almost undeniable fact also evidenced by archaeological findings and the practice of other states to mint money in the residences of the rulers. Thus, the coins should have been minted in Vilnius, in the Lower Castle. And this work had to be done by craftsmen (either locals or brought from other countries).

However, the mint, as an institution, had been operating since the mid-15th century. It was officially opened in 1495, during the reign of Grand Duke Alexander of Lithuania. Two denominations were minted en masse: half-groats and denars. Their minting was under the care of master H. Šliogeris. 

It is interesting that the Vilnius Mint was opened on demand, whenever a new money issue was needed or when a new ruler sat on the throne (money changed appearance). When the required number of coins had been minted, the mint was closed again. Therefore, the activities of the Vilnius Mint can be divided into several periods: 

• In 1508, the Seimas in Novgorod adopted a resolution to reopen the Vilnius Mint. It became operational on 9 February 1509. The Mint was leased to the Land Treasurer, Abraomas Jozofovičius and was transferred to the Croatian Ulrich Hoze (until 1529). In 1520, the mint was leased to the Land Treasurer Bogušas Bohovitinovičius. In 1528–1529, the sign “V” appeared on the half-groats. This is believed to have meant the name of the Vilnius Mint. After negotiations on the monetary union began with Poland in 1529, the Vilnius Mint was closed.

• As the war with Moscow resumed in 1534, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania invited a large and costly Polish and hired army. In 1535, the Vilnius Mint opened once more. Bishop Jonas was appointed as governor, and Kasparas Moleris was the money master. During this period, the first Lithuanian groat was minted, similar to the Prague grosz in Europe. About 3–4 million units were minted. The Mint ceased operations at the end of the war.

• In 1545, Ivanas Hornostajus, the land treasurer of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, bought a building for the Mint in Vilnius, on Vokiečių Street, costing 500 Lithuanian groats. The Mint was set up and managed in 1545–1555 by the junior treasurer Jonas Lutomirskis of Žygimantas Augustas’ Manor. Modern equipment was purchased in Western Europe and die engravers were hired. In 1547, the first Lithuanian gold ducat coins were minted in Vilnius. Due to the lack of silver and low profits, Žygimantas Augustas leased the mint to Jewish businessmen between 1555 and 1562. After Lutomirski, the Mint was led by Gabrielius Tarla (1555–1565). In the face of great dissatisfaction with the drop in coin fineness, both in the country and abroad, the rental of the mint to Jews was suspended. It returned to, Žygimantas Augustas, who was well-versed in the subtleties of coinage. In 1562, the marriage of Žygimantas Augustas’ sister Kotryna Jogailaitė to Duke Johann of Sweden took place in Vilnius. The most important guests were presented with Lithuanian 10 ducat coins, which had been minted for the first time. In 1564–1568, another mint opened in Tykocin, Podlaskie Voivodeship (modern-day Poland). After signing the Union of Lublin on 1 July 1569, the Vilnius Mint ceased its activities in 1571.

• The mint reopened in 1577. It already had its own staff. The coins also includes the marks of the treasurers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. During the long period of the reign of Zigmantas Vaza, only the Vilnius Mint was operating in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. On 11 January 1588, the king undertook to allow the Mint to govern the treasury. In 1584–1603, the Mint’s supervisor was Kristupas I Radvila “Perkūnas,” and in 1603–1616 — Mikalojus Kristupas Radvila “Našlaitėlis.” During a visit to Vilnius in 1601, Zigmantas Vaza ordered the mint to close due to the poor quality of the coins, but it operated until 1603.

• In 1606, the mint was reopened. It burned down in 1615 but was rebuilt after the fire. The use of an efficient rolling machine was introduced for the minting of coins. In 1616–1621, Jonas Karolis Chodkevičius was the Mint supervisor, and in 1623–1633 — Leonas Sapiega. High-fineness coins were minted at the Vilnius Mint: 10 ducat (Portuguese) coins were minted on the 50th anniversary of the King in 1616 and to commemorate the successful war with Moscow in 1617–1618, while 5 ducats were to commemorate the war with Turkey between 1621 and 1622. The mint closed in 1627.

The Vilnius Mint was reopened only in 1652 during the reign of Jonas Kazimieras. At the beginning of 1653, a plague epidemic began in Vilnius, so after the death of several employees, the Mint was temporarily closed. The epidemic lasted until 1654. The reintroduction of coinage was prevented by the war with Russia that began in May of the same year, and the main funds to finance it were covered by the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s treasury. In 1655, the war with Sweden began. The Mint is said to have operated at more than one location. In the mill of the Grand Duke’s castle near the Palace of the Grand Dukes, rolled tin was made. From there, the tin or blanks with rolled coins were transported to the main mint, which could have operated in the Palace of the Grand Dukes, in the territory of the Lower Castle, or the old mint at Vokiečių Street. In 1660–1666, Lithuanian coins were minted at as many as six mints. In 1666, the Mint was closed. In the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, coins were no longer minted in the territory of Lithuania.

The Lithuanian Mint since 1990 

The Commonwealth existed until the end of the 18th century — after that Lithuania was occupied for more than 100 years. Vilnius (with only minor exceptions) did not belong to Lithuania for about 150 years. Of course, no coins were minted here during that time. This situation continued until 1990. When Lithuania regained its independence, a mint was also created in the capital of independent Lithuania. However, this process was no easy task. 

The possibilities of minting coins in Lithuania and abroad, as well as the prospects of establishing the nation’s own mint began to be considered almost immediately after the restoration of independence. A coordination working group was set up at the Ministry of Finance to establish a mint. At the time, the possibilities of minting coins in Lithuania were examined, because according to the Ministry’s calculations, permanent minting abroad would be too expensive. Experts were selected, and they went abroad to gain experience. After long discussions, it was decided to establish the mint in Vilnius. The decision was made quickly, and implementation had to be quick. This caused many hard-to-resolve problems. The necessary legal acts had not yet been drawn up, a suitable place and buildings for the mint were not yet found, not to mention their adaptation to the production of coins, the acquisition and installation of equipment, no contracts for the supply of materials, no qualified staff existed, etc. The Lithuanian Mint, subordinate to the Ministry of Finance, under the order of the Minister of Finance R. Sikorskis, was established on 10 December 1990. To hide and keep secret the issues related to coinage, plans were made to name the Mint as a technical service station of the Bank of Lithuania, and the search for suitable premises for the mint in Vilnius began, listed as “offered local offices of foreign firms.” Such proposed places included buildings to be reconstructed in Žvėrynas, in the city centre and in the Old Town, city blocks near Liejyklos, Pylimo, Naugarduko, Vingrių, Kalvarijų, T. Kosciuškos streets, and the intersection of J. Basanavičiaus and Pylimo streets. Other possible places were the Tėvynės and Neries cinemas, garages in the yard of the Jesuit monastery near St. Rapolas Church in Šnipiškės, etc.

Following the merger of the Mint and the State Securities Publishing Company by Government Ordinance of 31 May 1991, a State Trademark Enterprise was established. The new institution was intended to hide the production of money and to mislead the secret and force structures of the USSR. This company handled all matters related to the organization of the Mint and the production of circulation coins. 

Searching for suitable buildings or plots took time. It was planned to build a completely new building where a new merged company could be established. Negotiations were held with Vilnius Municipality on the allocation of a plot for a new mint in Viršuliškės, next to the Press House. However, with the start of design work, it became clear that such construction would take too long and cost too much. 

Finally, after long searches and consulting with foreign experts, the garage complex belonging to the Supreme Council at Eigulių Street was chosen. It was convenient to reach, and the railway branch leading to the thermal power plant was nearby. 

On 27 March 1991, the Ministry of Finance and the Birmingham Mint (Great Britain) signed a contract to provide technical assistance for the development of the Lithuanian Mint and its preparation for the production of circulation coins. Under the contract, two used but in good condition and fully ready-to-use milling presses together with preform feeding systems were purchased. 

V. Landsbergis, Chair of the Supreme Council-Reconstituent Seimas, officially opened the mint on 2 October 1992 (although coins had already been minted here before). At 12:05 AM, he pressed the button of the minting machine and minted the first 5 centas coins.

The Mint is still operating here and is to this day is the only such institution in the Baltic States.