World Coins

Family governs island nation: On the Block

In 1913, a seven-piece set of token coins for Cocos (Keeling) Islands were issued in "ivorine" or "plastic ivory."

Images courtesy of A.H. Baldwin & Sons, Ltd.

The fantasy of moving to a tropical paradise away from the madding crowd is one harbored by many, especially when lottery jackpots swell to sums large enough to purchase a small island.

Scottish sea captain John Clunies-Ross and his descendants lived on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, claiming the land for more than 15 decades, before yielding possession to Australia in 1978. During its century and a half of ownership, the family issued a small number of coins (also variably called tokens or token coins), a set of which is offered for sale by A.H. Baldwin & Sons in Hong Kong on April 7. 

The islands’ names derive from the area’s coconut palms and the East India Company’s Capt. William Keeling, who sighted the islands in 1609. The islands are northwest of Australia, halfway between Australia and Sri Lanka.

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Clunies-Ross came to the islands in 1827, not because the area was a paradise retreat, but for the possibility of conducting commerce, using the two atolls (Home Island and West Island) as a place to store spices for the British trade. His plan to store East Indian Company spices for times of shortage (a sort of arbitrage and futures plan) failed.

That venture proved unsuccessful, but others succeeded and Clunies-Ross, his family, and many workers remained. 

The coral group became a British protectorate in 1856 and was attached to the colony of Ceylon in 1878. Queen Victoria granted the islands in perpetuity to the Clunies-Ross family in 1886, four years after administrative control was passed to a different British colony, the Straits Settlements.

The colony became part of Singapore in 1903 and remained thus until November of 1955, when it was placed under Australian control. 

Clunies-Ross descendants claimed title to the islands until 1978, when John Cecil Clunies-Ross sold the islands (under threat of expropriation) to Australia. 

Shortly after ascending the throne, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip, visited the islands in 1954, meeting with John Cecil, then ruling as the fifth “King of the Cocos Islands.” 

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands’ limited numismatic legacy includes a set of token coins in 1913 and another in 1968. Fantasy pieces were issued at later dates.

The Baldwin auction features a set of seven 1913 token coins, ranging from 5 cents to 5 rupees (100 cents equals 1 rupee). Other denominations in the set are the 10-, 25- and 50-cent pieces and 1- and 2-rupee pieces. 

The token coins were created in various shapes specific to the different denominations, including round, square, octagonal and ovoid, in a manmade imitation ivory called “plastic ivory” in the Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000, or “ivorine” in the auction description.

Each of the 1913 coins is serial numbered but none of the numbers in the set for sale by Baldwin’s matches any of the others.

The set is contained in a custom made solid wood fitted case. All of the pieces are graded Extremely Fine, according to the auction house, and the set has an estimate of $2,000 to $2,500. 

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