World Coins

Finding golden treasure in a Great Britain toy box

One of Great Britain’s rarest gold coins sure has an uncanny way of turning up.

For the second time in four years, non­collectors have located a 1703 Vigo Bay gold 5-guinea coin in the inherited belongings of their families, according to the greater London auction house Boningtons Auctioneers. 

The family that consigned the latest one found to a Nov. 16 auction had no idea the coin was valuable until a coin specialist at Boningtons appraised it, the firm announced on Oct. 23, almost exactly 314 years since the capture of the ship during the reign of Queen Anne. 

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Fewer than 20 examples of the coin were made from gold the British seized from a Spanish treasure ship in 1702 at Vigo Bay, northern Spain.

The coin was reportedly passed down through four generations of the same family and kept in a little boy’s treasure box. From what the consignors told the auction house, their little boy liked to play “pirate” with the coin, and other coins, that originally belonged to the child’s great-grandfather.

Boningtons spokesman Luke Bodalbhai said, “The coin was consigned to us by a gentleman from Hertfordshire whose grandfather had given it to him many years ago when he was a young boy. However, he had no idea what it was worth until recently, when he showed it to our coin specialist, Gregory Tong, [who] immediately recognized the coin and informed the consignor of its value.”

According to a press release from the auction house, the consignor said, “My granddad travelled all over the world during his working life and collected many coins from the various countries where he had been. As a boy, I was into pirate treasure, so he gave me bags of coins to play with. As time passed, these coins went back into bags and boxes and were forgotten about. Then, after my granddad passed away, I rediscovered the coins and recalled how much I had enjoyed them as a boy. So I gave them to my own son to play with, including the Queen Anne Vigo 5-guinea. He kept it in his treasure box and has been playing ‘pirate’ with it just as I did, all those years ago.”

The story of the coin’s discovery is worthy of great literature, but then, the story of its creation is also a romantic masterpiece. 

Capturing the booty

The Vigo coins were made from treasure that the British fleet seized in 1702 from Franco-Spanish ships returning from America, following Britain’s unsuccessful attempt to capture Cadiz, on the Spanish coast.

When the war of Spanish Succession broke out in 1702, an Anglo-Dutch coalition immediately began naval operations against Spain, the weaker partner in the French-Spanish alliance. The Anglo-Dutch effort to control the vital port of Cádiz failed, but the coalition learned that the annual parade of Spanish galleons bringing silver and gold mined in the New World was expected to arrive soon at Cádiz. The Spanish ships were accompanied by a small number of French military and merchant ships. 

Leaders of the Spanish procession, having learned of the attempt to seize Cádiz, decided instead to disembark at Vigo, arriving on Sept. 23. 

The port at Vigo, however, was ill-equipped to off-load the treasure, lacking proper personnel and facilities. Delay in unloading the treasure allowed time for the Anglo-Dutch contingent (under command of Adm. Sir George Rooke, who had just failed spectacularly to control Cádiz) to divert forces to Vigo Bay, anchoring off the coast on Oct. 22.  

The next day, the coalition attacked and quickly overwhelmed the contingent of treasure ships at Vigo, as the French and Spanish ships, not anticipating warfare in Europe, were ill-equipped. The victors reaped the spoils, which included silver and gold bullion. According to C.E. Challis, writing in A New History of the Royal Mint, the haul “was modest, consisting in good part of ornaments and plate from the cabins of the officers and amounting to no more than 4,500 lb of silver and just 7 lb 8 oz of gold.”  

The treasure was far less than what had been on board the ships originally, as much of the Spanish silver had already been off-loaded. 

The destruction of the fleet, though, was a serious blow to French naval power, and the significance of the action was immediately celebrated with the production of coins. 

“Production” is the appropriate word, as the familiar English pageantry was on full display — a royal warrant called for the coins to “Continue to Posterity the Remembrance of that Glorious Action,” and the bullion was transferred to the Royal Mint, then in the Tower of London, where mintmaster Sir Isaac Newton himself oversaw the delivery, a special occasion in itself, given his frequent absences. 

The Vigo coins struck to commemorate the victory served as propaganda to persuade the well-to-do British public that the war was both worthwhile and going well.

Identifying VIGO coins

The 1703 Vigo gold issues were intended for circulation and comprised half guinea, guinea and 5-guinea pieces. In addition, related silver coins were struck in crown, half-crown, shillings and sixpence denominations, in 1703. (Some 1702-dated shillings were also struck.)

Each of the coins has the usual obverse and reverse design types appropriate to the denomination but on the obverse of each denomination, below Queen Anne’s bust, the word VIGO was added, engraved into the die. The dies for the Vigo coins were the work of the Mint’s chief engraver, Henry Harris, and his assistant, John Croker. 

The gold coins struck are all very scarce to very rare and would be beyond the means of most collectors. The silver coins, however, were struck in generally large numbers.

Boningtons has not identified the condition of the example it is auctioning, but it has provided an estimate of £200,000 to £250,000 ($244,445 to $305,555 U.S.). 

According to the firm, this is only the sixth example of its type to be offered for sale in the last 50 years (although the coin is probably the seventh issue to be offered). It is, however, the second example to come to auction in 2016.

Tracking the 5-guinea coin 

St. James’s Auctions on Feb. 9, 2016, sold an example of the Vigo gold 5-guinea coin for a hammer price of £275,000 ($397,861 U.S.) — the buyer’s fee was in a range from 20 to 24 percent, depending on the buyer’s location. 

The February piece was graded About Uncirculated 55 by Professional Coin Grading Service, and is one of perhaps three known examples of a specific die variety where the word VIGO appears closer to the queen’s bust than on other examples.

The owner of St. James’s Auctions, Stephen Fenton, had figured in the previous latest public auction transaction for the Vigo gold 5-guinea coin, buying an example in 2012 for £296,160 (about $476,871 U.S.), in a Dec. 6 auction in Lewes, England, for a client.

The 2012 example was discovered in early September that year when a longtime customer of Gorringes contacted the firm seeking identification of three coins, two of which were a very worn George IV silver crown and an even more worn Victorian silver crown, along with the rare gold coin. The anonymous customer, a widow of retirement age, found the coins in her late husband’s chest of drawers in what may have been his handkerchief drawer. 

That example of the famed rarity was reported as Nearly Very Fine, the same condition as an example that Spink sold in March 29, 2007, for £82,000, an equivalent of $161,075.

Spink sold another example of the rarity in 2005, grading it as Extremely Fine with a few hairlines, which realized about £130,000 ($247,195 in U.S. funds).

When Spink sold examples of the rarity in the 2005 and 2007 auctions, the firm reported that only 15 pieces were known in private hands. The actual number of pieces known is somewhat uncertain though. 

According to Spink’s 2007 auction catalog, only five examples of the 5-guinea coin had appeared at auction within the preceding 45 years, making the appearance of one of the coins at auction almost as rare as the coins themselves.

Counting the 2012 and Feb. 9, 2016, auctions, at least 10 public auction offerings of Vigo 5-guinea coins have been conducted since 1974, with some of those sales re-offering the same coins. 

The coin offered in the Spink 2005 auction was sold publicly at least twice previously; in 1974, described as an About Extremely Fine example, it realized £5,000 ($7,090) at Sotheby’s Douglas-Morris auction. In Spink’s Sharps Pixley auction of Nov. 9, 1989, it was described as a generally EF example, but with some faint surface abrasions; it sold for £42,900 ($60,832).  

The example sold in the 2007 Spink auction was sold previously in Aureo’s March 1, 2000, auction where, reported as EF, it realized about $69,115 U.S. 

Glendining’s sold an EF example at its Vigo sale in 1992 for £44,000 ($62,392). 

The June 4, 2001, issue of Coin World reported on an example that failed to sell in Glendining’s April 25, 2001, auction. Estimated at £48,000 to £50,000 ($68,064 to $70,900), the coin was described as “almost as struck, light hairlines, mirror-like fields — possibly the best existing example.” 

What was touted as “perhaps the finest known example” — graded Mint State 61 Prooflike by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., was sold in Ira & Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles’ May 26, 2008, Millennia Collection auction, realizing $414,000. The coin had once been in the famed John G. Murdoch Collection auction of 1903.

No provenance was reported for the example sold in 2016 by St. James’s, and no provenance information, beyond the four generations of the consignor’s family, is available for this latest discovery. 

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