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