Milled Sovereigns

The Great Recoinage of 1816 was one that incorporated change in all aspects of British coinage and monetary system. The bimetallic system, which had led to large outflows of silver or gold abroad due to changes in prices between the two, was abandoned in favour of a mono-metallic system, known as the Gold Standard. The Pound Sterling became to the price of gold and all token coinage and banknotes of the Commonwealth was exchangeable for gold (payable in £) at all times at face value. Notes to this day remind us of this with the message "We promise to pay the Bearer on demand, the sum of..."

Minting presses of the latest technology, supplied by famous inventors and entrepreneurs Boulton and Watts, had been installed in the Royal Mint's new purpose built quarters at the Tower of London to handle the enormous task to resupply the Realms with its new coinage. It should be noted that the need for a stable currency, as provided by the Gold Standard, was brought by the necessities of a drastically changing society due to the Industrialisation which was led by Britain, with an ever-increasing population of ever-increasing average income as a result.

Reinstating the 'Sovereign' as the Coin of the Realm and unit of account at 20 shillings was less of a turn backwards as it was celebrating the new and modern economy, a coin worthy of a modern, industrialised nation. The Master of the Mint, William Wellesley-Pole, wanted to make the Sovereign a symbol of the strength and success of the Nation (similar to its Tudor precursor). 

The famous Italian cameo engraver Benedetto Pistrucci was commissioned for the design, which was described by Royal Proclamation on 1 July 1817

"for the obverse impression the head of his majesty with the inscription GEORGIUS III. D. D. BRITANNIAR. REX. R. D. and the date of the year; and for the reverse the image of St. George armed, sitting on horseback, encountering the dragon with a spear, the said device being placed within the ennobled garter, bearing the motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, with a newly invented graining on the edge of the piece."

George III Sovereign 1817

George III Sovereign 1817, sold by Ira & Larry Goldberg, June 2016, $12,500 hammer.

The idealistic representation of George III, who was 78 years old, mentally unstable at the best of times and completely bald, shows early 19th century Neo-Classical style put to its best use, setting the King on par with Roman emperors.

The use of Saint George, patron saint of England, slaying the dragon later became something of a symbol for the Sovereign and since 1871 it has been used by the Royal Mint with few exceptions for almost 150 years. 

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George IV Sovereign, 1821, by Pistrucci, sold by Heritage Auctions in Jan. 2017, hammer $2,800.

The Neo-Classical style, including the laurel wreath, was kept for George IV first sovereigns, which were also designed by Benedetto Pistrucci. A second, bare headed, type of a more natural style by sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey was struck from 1825. By this time the ill-tempered Italian had fallen out of favour with most Mint officials; it has been a topic of discussion whether this or a change in fashion was reason for the shift to the heraldic depiction for the reverse design.

George IV Sovereign 1825 bare head

George IV Sovereign, 1825, by Chantrey, sold by Ira & Larry Goldberg, June 2016, hammer $3,000.

The preparation of dies for William IV's coinage was delayed by the "anxious desire to obtain an accurate and approved resemblance of His Majesty" (statement by John Charles Herries, MP and Master of the Mint, Nov. 1830). The issue is confirmed by the use of two different designs for the first two years of Sovereign circulation coins 1831-32, the first bust being extremely rare, supposedly due to it being rejected in favour of the second bust. Interestingly, the patterns and proofs of 1830 and 1831 are struck using the second bust.

William IV Proof Sovereign 1830 second bare head

William IV Proof Sovereign, second bare head, 1830, sold by St. James's Auctions, September 2016, hammer £16,500.

When Queen Victoria acceded the throne on 20 June 1837, she had celebrated her 18th birthday less than a month earlier. As the monarch of an Empire in the making, all eyes were on her.

Under these circumstances of impending expectation, great attention was paid to the perceived reflection of her person on the Coinage of the Realm. In July-August 1837, the Chief Engraver, William Wyon, attended Windsor on several occasions to prepare the wax impression of the young Queen's effigy. The result was an exquisite resemblance of a Young Victoria, delicate and robust at the same time, blowing the promising winds of youth upon the people of Britain. As Chancellor of the Exchequer Henry Labouchere, 1st Baron Taunton, wrote to the Queen in February 1838:

"I humbly beg leave to lay before your Majesty the annexed specimen of the Impression intended to be struck on the Sovereign or twenty shilling piece namely for the Obverse Impression the aforesaid Effigy of your Majesty with the inscription 'Victoria Dei Gratia' and the date of the year. For the Reverse Impression the Ensigns Armorial of the United Kingdom according to the design approved by Your Majesty in Council dated 26 July 1837 contained in a plain shield, surmounted by the Royal Crown and encircled with a Laurel Wreath, with the inscription Britanniarum Regina Fid:Def: having the united Rose, Thistle and Shamrock placed under the Shield."

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Victoria Sovereign, first Young Head with 'Shield' reverse, 1838, sold by St. James's Auctions in September 2016, hammer £7,600.

The 'Young head' bust of Queen Victoria was a huge success. In fact, it was so popular that it remained in place, with very little changes, until the Queen's Golden Jubilee 50 years later.

In the early 1850s, gold was found in Australia and a mint was granted to open in Sydney in 1855. London was concerned that the quality of coins from the new mint would be sub-standard so coins were made with a different design by Leonard Wyon, William Wyon's son. 

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Australia Victoria Sovereign, 1855, Sydney. St. James's Auctions, May 2015, hammer £34,000.

The Branch mints in Australia and later Canada, India and South Africa would contribute a considerable part of annual sovereign production towards the end of the 19th century. In addition, the Australia gold naturally contained more silver and was more yellow in colour which made these sovereigns more popular in India. 

From 1871 it was decided that the Branch mints would strike sovereigns of the same design as London and that they should be distinguishable through a small mint mark (for example the letter 'S' for Sydney). Further in 1871 it was decided that Benedetto Pistrucci's reverse depiction of St. George and the Dragon should be reintroduced.

The coin that resulted from combining Pistrucci's reverse with the Young head became very popular in Great Britain. However, the Chinese did not appreciate such a derogatory treatment of a dragon (which symbolise power, strength and good fortune in Chinese mythology) and the 'Shield' reverse continued to be struck by both Branch mints Sydney and Melbourne to supply the Chinese market.

Australia Victoria 1871-S St. George Sovereign

Australia Victoria Sovereign, 1871-S, Sydney (mint mark below bust), sold by Heritage Auctions in April 2016, $850 hammer.

It is unusual that a portrait is used without much changes for so long. The reason for this was mainly because the Queen herself resisted it. After her husband Albert's death in 1863 she went into deep mourning (some say for the rest of her life) and she became increasingly opposed to anything that would upset the status quo.

Nevertheless, the Golden Jubilee on the 20 June 1887 was indeed a golden opportunity to introduce an updated and more realistic impression of the Queen on her proposed Jubilee coinage. 

Victoria herself chose Joseph Edgar Boehm to prepare the wax model, but his working process was slow and only at the latest, in early 1887, did he present his final design. The 1887 Jubilee Sovereigns, which had to be struck and released from 20th June, were thus hurried and Boehm seemed to have overlooked important considerations when transforming the human form onto gold coin, as the metal did not flow well towards the edges of the coins.

To deal with this, London Mint struck Sovereigns dated 1887 with silver instead of copper alloy to soften the metal and are more yellow in colour. Certain design elements were also changed to better accommodate metal flow. These events created many variations and an interesting series for collectors.

Victoria Sovereign 1887 Jubilee head

Victoria Sovereign 1887, Jubilee head, first legend, normal JEB. Sold at St. James's auctions Nov 2016, hammer £400.

The Jubilee head coinage seems to have been the last of Sovereign coinages to present collectors with interesting variations as a result of workings of the Mint or Mint staff. This is not surprising as by the end of the 19th century annual production of Sovereigns was in the tens of millions.

victoria proof sovereign 1893 melbourne

Victoria Proof Sovereign 1893, Melbourne. Branch mint proofs are extremely rare. Noble Numismatics, March 2014, AU$ 46,000 hammer.

Edward VII saw little changes to his coinage. The most exciting advent during his short reign would be the opening of the Branch mint in Ottawa. Sovereigns were struck here from 1908, bearing the 'C' mint mark and only about £600,000 worth was struck in a decade making these rather collectable.

Edward VII Sovereign 1908-C Ottawa Canada

Canada Edward VII Proof Sovereign, 1908-C, Ottawa, only 636 coins minted. Sold by Heritage Auctions in August 2017, $10,000 hammer.

If Edward's reign provides little challenge to the Sovereign collector, otherwise can be said about the Sovereign series of his son, George V. During his reign, geopolitical and macro-economic circumstances (WWI meant the end to the Classical Gold Standard) created a number of extremely rare dates and production of Sovereigns took place on no less than five continents. Those pursuing a complete date run of George V sovereigns will need no less than 82 coins (excluding proofs), of which at least 9 coins will cost an arm or a leg, or both.

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The legendary Australian George V Sovereign 1920-S Sydney, sold by St. James's Auctions in March 2014, £437,500 hammer.

One of the most controversial events in British history created another extreme rarity as Edward VIII, the eldest son of George V, abdicated after just 326 days as King, following his understanding that he could not marry Wallis Simpson, an American lady who sought divorce from her second husband (both ex-husbands lived). Edward VIII did his best to oppose British constitutional convention by refusing a right-facing effigy. Tradition held that monarchs be depicted facing alternate directions and Edward VIII is thus the first to be facing the same direction as his predecessor. Just a few number of Proof sets were issued, making this one of the highest rarities in the entire Sovereign series.

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Edward VIII Proof Sovereign, 1937, design by Humphrey Paget, sold by Baldwin's, May 2014, £430,000 hammer.

As George VI took his brother's place, the design for the Sovereign, Two Pounds, Five Pounds and Half Sovereigns as issued in the 1937 Proof Set remained very much the same. Considering the resemblance of the two brothers in profile and the fact that George VI is again facing left, Edward VIII goes down as much unnoticed in coinage as he does in history.

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George VI Proof Sovereign, 1937, issued only as part of sets, sold by Heritage Auctions, January 2017, $2,900 hammer.