World Coins

1839 British Proof set of Queen Victoria realizes $778,776

An example of the marquee Proof set of Queen Victoria has established a record price at auction for a Proof set from her lengthy reign.

The 1839 Proof set, which contains several of the finest-known pieces graded by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. of America, realized £504,000 ($778,776 U.S.), including the 20 percent buyer’s fee, during the Sept. 24 A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd. auction in London. That price was more than quadruple the high estimate of £120,000 and more than five times the low estimate of £95,000.

According to Coin World’s London correspondent, John Andrew, the previous record for a set of similar caliber was paid this past January, a price of $339,300 (then around £225,050) secured by Baldwin’s in New York.

“Given the previous record and general consensus that the set [Baldwin offered] was a ‘real stunner,’ one can only conclude that such an estimate was a bit of a tease,” Andrew wrote in a report about the September auction. “However, it did not stop one optimistic participant in the room starting the bidding at £100,000.” 

Bidding moves quickly

A couple of bidders took part by phone, but they do not appear to have been at the center of the action, Andrew said.

As bids approached £200,000, it was a ping-pong between Internet bidders and those in the room. From the £220,000 level, the battle was confined to the room, with the action being between buyers representing clients in Japan and the United States of America. 

The hammer fell at £420,000, which is £504,000 with the buyer’s fee. The winning bidder wishes to remain anonymous. The price realized by the coin took Baldwin’s completely by surprise, Andrew wrote. 

This set has been family-owned for decades and it is possible, though it cannot be definitely proven, that a member of the family of the consignor bought it at or very soon after the set’s public auction appearance in 1856.

According to the auction catalog, the set was once part of the collection of the late Mrs. Diamond of Henley-in-Arden in Warwickshire, sold by S. Leigh Sotheby and John Wilkinson on April 10, 1856 (just 17 years after the set was issued), where it realized 10 guineas, or £10 and 50 pence. 

Adjusting the 1856 purchase price for inflation results in around £960 ($1,453 U.S.) in today’s money, according to Andrew. 

A cutting from the 1856 sale catalog is adhered to the base of the box containing the set. 

The set contains 15 coins, in gold, silver and copper compositions, all dated 1839, with the Young Head design of Queen Victoria on their obverse.

Coins of superb condition, rarity

The most notable coin is the famous Una and the Lion gold £5 pattern, which is graded Proof 66 Ultra Cameo by NGC, with a few tone spots on the reverse and “the merest hint of light marks in the fields,” according to the cataloger.

The £5 coin is the finest graded by two points out of 32 examples graded by NGC, the auction house said. 

The legendary Una and the Lion patterns show Una from Spencer’s Faery Queen as Queen Victoria with crown and scepter, leading the lion (representing Britain), who is tamed by her beauty and purity. It was a radical idea to represent the monarch as a fairy-tale character on the country’s coinage, so it remained a pattern piece and the St. George slaying the Dragon design was used on regular issue pieces instead.

Of the 15 coins in the set, 10 are the finest graded examples, and two are tied for the finest known, though one of two top pieces is the only example to have received a + designation from NGC.

While, as Andrew wrote, “It was inevitable that a Victorian Proof set would eventually break the half a million barrier,” and the “1839 set is certainly the most prized of all such sets,” it is not the most expensive British Proof set.

That honor remains with the 1937 Edward VIII set that was bought by Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles for £1.35 million ($2.1 million U.S.). One of four sets reported, it is the only 1937 Proof set available in private hands. 

To learn about all of the coins in the 1839 set, or the rest of the auction results, visit 

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