Visit to United Kingdom includes trips to numismatic locales

Guest Commentary from the May 11, 2015 issue of Coin World
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Published : 05/04/15
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John Barber has been a fan and continuous subscriber to Coin World since April 21, 1960. 

I recently was enjoying a trip to the United Kingdom and the Royal Mint in Wales. The trip was designed as family time, and coin activities were supposed to be relegated to a back burner. But no one was too surprised when attention was diverted at times.

The trip began innocently enough with brochures from the usual tourist sites around London, but the planning was contaminated with memories of some very good coin shops and museums with fantastic collections in the London area.

But the reality on the ground once actually there showed that the numismatic landscape has evolved a lot since a prior visit 15 years ago. The major coin firms Spink & Co. and Knightsbridge Coins are still in their respective stores, but visitors there are now told, “We don’t have retail coin sales any more. We don’t stock any coins for sale over the counter. All of our activity now is in auction sales. Would you like a catalog?”

As usual, general antique stores have a few coins and medals for sale, but my experience was the same as at such stores in the United States: anything that is in the “Red Book” (or its U.K. equivalent) is likely to be way overpriced. Some potential still exists for picking up more obscure material like medals.

So the family attended the entertainment and tourist sales stalls at Covent Garden. One seller there was dismembering an original roll (24 pieces) of late-date pennies from the final years of the pound/shilling/pence system and had these at modest prices.

He was glad to let me pick what I thought were the best of them, and he even whipped out a flip to carry my prizes away. These bronze pennies (until the last ones dated 1967 for circulation) were in circulation with similarly sized pieces from times back to Victoria in the 1860s. As in the United States, many a collector there got his start by plugging holes in a date set of the old big pennies. But it seems that coins up to 100 years old were in more common circulation there than was the case here up to 1970. Decimalization came to the United Kingdom in 1971, and like here, few “modern” coins are worth picking from circulation.

Just a bit further on down the aisles in Covent Garden we came upon a seller of used type blocks once used in printing. These lead or wood blocks were used in letterpress printing to carry art, advertising, or graphic elements supplementing the standard metal type that was set in a frame (or chase) using quoins (metal wedges). The design on one caught my eye. 

The seller was aware that the design shown is similar to the eagle used on some American coins. He asked about the arrows and olive branch and the motto. This allowed me to tell the story of the early U.S. Mint engraver Robert Scot who famously got it wrong and put the arrows in the right claw of the eagle and the olive branch in the left claw on his designs for 1795 to 1807 silver coins of the new republic. He should have known that this iconographic mistake was saying that the United States had a preference for confrontation over peace. It fell to German immigrant John Reich to correct it on the new designs for 1807.

The only full-time coin shop that I was able to find was Coincraft, located right across the street from the British Museum (which has an awesome display of coins of all ages and countries in room 58 on the third floor). Coincraft, which has been in the same quarters for decades, yielded a circulated example of James II “gun money” shilling of September, 1689. James II, on the run in Ireland, issued these pieces from melted-down cannons and miscellaneous utensils as emergency money with the idea they would be redeemed in proper silver after his restoration as king. They never got redeemed. Today they stand as a necessary element of a type set of shillings from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II.

Alas, the visit to the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales (near Cardiff), was a disappointment. Although this has been the principal mint of the United Kingdom since 1976, they are not yet set up for visitors. They are building a sizeable visitor center and are planning regular tours of the production areas, but these will not be ready until spring 2016. For now, they have a small showroom and a museum-like display area in which they have temporarily set up a nice display of Queen Anne coins, medals, dies, and other materials. The on-site sales are limited to a small selection of current commemorative coins. It was good that the train ride across the country and the other sites of Cardiff were highly worthwhile.

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