World Coins

Branch mint sovereigns include rarities from abroad

Only four examples are known of the 1920-S gold sovereign, which was struck at the Sydney Mint in Australia, then a branch of the Royal Mint.

Coin images courtesy of St. James’s Auctions.

Editor's note: this is the third part of a story about the British gold sovereign, which celebrates a milestone anniversary in 2017. Senior Editor Jeff Starck's story about the coin and its history appears in the January 2017 monthly Coin World

Though the sovereign is a chiefly British coin, the arc of the Empire means that many mints outside of the United Kingdom have struck the modern coin during its lifespan.

The Melbourne, Perth and Sydney Mints in Australia, the Ottawa Mint in Canada, the Bombay and Calcutta Mints in India and Pretoria Mint in South Africa all left their mark, that is, Mint mark, on the sovereign. 

In several notable instances, this cooperation led to great rarities that are prized today. 

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Though experts don’t agree on the reasons, the 1916-C gold sovereign struck at Canada’s Ottawa Mint is extremely rare.

Though Canada had already adopted the $5 and $10 coins in 1912, the Ottawa Mint could still strike sovereigns if depositors requested the coins, though there was little demand for the pound in circulation. 

The Ottawa Mint struck 6,111 sovereigns in 1916 and an increasing number in subsequent years, until it stopped striking them after 1919. 

Sovereigns struck at the Ottawa Mint are identical to those struck in London except for a C Mint mark, designating their Canadian origin, above the date on the reverse. 

British gold sovereigns (denominated £1) struck at the Ottawa Mint between 1908 and 1919 “occupy a controversial position in Canadian numismatics,” according to W.K. Cross in Canadian Coins, Vol. One, Numismatic Issues 2011 (a catalog commonly called by the name of its original publisher, James Charlton). “Some argue that these pieces are Canadian and must be collected as part of the Canadian series, while others claim that they are British and are separate from the decimal series of the Dominion of Canada.” 

The 1916-C sovereign is the most elusive for sovereign collectors around the world. The stories about this rarity mystify the coin world. 

About the only thing known about the coin is how many were made. 

According to James A. Haxby, in Striking Impressions, the Royal Canadian Mint and Canadian Coinage (published in 1983), “a small number of sovereigns, 6,111 in numbers, was struck” in 1916. 

The number of survivors and the reasons for their scarcity remain unknown to the numismatic community. There is no debate, however, that they are rare, the key to the short series of Ottawa Mint sovereigns. Haxby wrote that “fewer than 10 are known to exist today. Most of the original mintage apparently made its way to the U.S. Treasury where it was eventually melted down.” 

Other experts have suggested as many as 29 examples are extant, with a high estimate of about 50 pieces. 

Cross, somewhat in line with Haxby, also offers a theory on the 1916-C sovereign’s scarcity today: “Most of the small mintage may have been melted, accounting for the rarity, although this is by no means an established fact.”

Another tale, a rumor, proffers “that the mintage was lost at sea on its way to England during World War I,” Cross wrote.

The rumor isn’t logical, though, because “if there was to be a gold exchange between Canada and England in 1916, the gold needed only to be deposited with the New York Federal Reserve for the account of Great Britain, and not subjected to a perilous sea voyage during a time of war,” Cross wrote. 

The truth may never be known, and it seems not to matter.  

When Geoff Bell Auctions offered an example in 2011, graded as Mint State 64 by Professional Coin Grading Service, the coin had an estimate of $50,000 to $60,000 Canadian, though it failed to sell.

Another sovereign rarity, from the Sydney Mint, is often touted as the greatest gold rarity of the British Empire.

Four examples of the 1920-S issue are known today, despite its having a recorded mintage of 360,000 piece (researchers believe that count includes 1919-dated pieces).

Three different examples of the 1920-S sovereign appeared at auction in four years, concluding with the May 19, 2015, sale by St. James’s Auctions of the reported finest known example for £480,000 ($753,211 U.S.), including 20 percent buyer’s fee.

In 2012 another example of the 1920-S sovereign was sold as part of the Bentley Collection. Steve Hill (then of A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd.,) which conducted the Bentley auction, suggested that the 1920-S coins were made for some “special event,” but what that event was is not known today.  

The Bentley Collection piece (described as “practically as struck”) realized a hammer price of £780,000 ($1,261,520 in U.S. funds). 

The third example, from the George Collection and described as “virtually as struck” sold for £542,500 ($904,472 U.S.) in a March 2014 auction by St. James’s Auctions.

One of the four known examples is in a museum and two are now in private collections.

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