View Full Version : Another Silver Shortage

8th June 2008, 18:50

Omani souks face silver shortage
Daniel Bardsley, Correspondent

Last Updated: June 08. 2008 11:09PM UAE / June 8. 2008 7:09PM GMT
Akhtar al Bulusha with old silver coins at his souk in Muscat, where traders say many thalers are reproductions. Stephen Lock / The National
MUSCAT // The Maria Theresa thaler has been described as the world’s most famous coin and while the money pieces are no longer legal tender, they remain a popular buy in Oman’s souks.

However, supply shortages have led some traders to suspect that increasing numbers of the silver coins tourists love to get as souvenirs are fake.

The Maria Theresa thaler originated in Austria but has been made in more than 10 countries and used in countless others, including Oman, where it was the currency of the country’s interior up to the mid-20th century. In coastal areas the Indian rupee was used.

In a shop on Muscat’s corniche near the main souk, Irfan Abdul Rahim, 37, an Indian, said most thalers for sale in the city were reproductions.

“Real ones are very difficult to find. About 99 per cent have the same date – 1780. The others, such as the 1765 one, are very hard to find,” he said.

Maria Theresa, the archduchess of Austria, came to power in 1740 and ruled Austria, Hungary and Bohemia until her death in 1780.

She was the only woman ruler in the Habsburg monarchy’s 650-year history and held titles such as Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Hungary, Bohemia, Croatia and Slavonia.

Despite the demands of her political career, Maria Theresa had 16 children, one of whom was Marie Antoinette, the wife of France’s King Louis XVI who was beheaded during the French Revolution.

The first coins bearing Maria Theresa’s likeness were minted a year after she came to power, and their manufacture continued well beyond her death. Foreign mints were made up to the mid-1900s and in Vienna production continued.

All those made after her death until they were discontinued were stamped 1780, which partly explains why these coins are abundant in Oman’s souks.

So strong is Oman’s association with the thaler that several years ago an exhibition on the coin was held at Muscat’s Bait al Zubair museum.

Rarer coins from earlier in Maria Theresa’s reign, such as those stamped 1765, can sell for about 35 Omani rials (Dh333), while the 1780 coins, thanks to their ubiquity, are sold by Mr Rahim for about eight rials. He insists the ones in his shop are real, although he believes some other traders sell modern reproductions.

Concerns over the authenticity of items in Muscat’s shops and souks extend to khanjars, the curved daggers traditionally worn by Omani men.

The cheapest cost about 15 rials but, according to Mr Rahim, you have to pay at least 80 rials for a “nice one”. For old ones – some are said to date back more than a century – prices can reach 300 rials. Rifles of about the same vintage sell for slightly more.

“The local people buy the Omani khanjars to wear during ceremonies, although tourists also go for the old stuff – old jewellery, old khanjars,” Mr Rahim said.

“The old things are from the villages in the interior – old Bedouin ladies and guys are selling them.”

Khanjars, like Yemen’s jambiya knives, have a curved steel blade sharpened on both edges. A symbol of manhood and a deterrent to conflict – when everyone is armed arguments are rare as their consequences are greater – khanjars are worn at the front of a cloth or leather belt. The hilt and the sheath can be elaborately carved.

While a khanjar features on Oman’s flag, they are now worn mostly only on special occasions. In Yemen, by contrast, jambiyas are commonly worn, 2,500 years after they became popular.

“The real age of the khanjars here anybody can guess,” said Sajid al Belushi, an Omani who runs Highland Trading in Muscat’s old souk.

“In the market they say it’s 150 or 100 years old, but it’s not true. It’s about 80 years old maximum.”

According to Abdul Karim, 43, another Omani shopkeeper, it is not just that ages are exaggerated. He suspects new khanjars are made to look worn and passed off as old.

“It is not like it was before,” he said. “The quantity of them is not like it was. It is difficult to find the real old ones now.

“Now it’s mostly fakes. We don’t have them here now, but in some other shops they do. We have five or six pieces – they are originals.”

Telling the real from the fake can be tricky for experts, let alone tourists visiting Oman for a few days.

“It’s very difficult,” said Mr Karim. “It depends on trust. Now they make fakes, but it’s a good copy so it’s difficult to tell.

“Some people who have experience, they know. They can see the difference. If it’s a regular customer, the shopkeeper will tell him [it is a reproduction], but usually they say it’s original because they want to sell it.”

Counterfeit items cost shopkeepers less than half the price of an original, so their profits can be much greater. Mr Karim buys genuine 80-year-old khanjars for about 280 rials and sells them for 340 rials, giving a profit of 60 rials.

A fake one costs traders less than 140 rials, so the profit can be more than 200 rials.

Changing preferences, as well as supply shortages and an alleged increase in the number of fake items, are also undermining Oman’s trade in old silver, particularly when it comes to jewellery.

While more elderly Omani ladies prefer antique necklaces, younger women tend to shun anything that is not modern and shiny, according to Mr Belushi of Highland Trading.

“The younger generation are not buying them,” he said.

Fellow shopkeeper Mohammed Shiak, 45, an Indian, agreed. When asked if young women liked old jewellery he replied with a laugh: “No, no, no. Only the old Omani ladies are using this.”