World Coins

‘First English gold coin’ in New York City auction

An extremely rare gold penny of 20 pence issued by King Henry III is from the first English gold coins, minted circa 1257. This example graded Mint State 63 by NGC is expected to sell for $250,000 to $500,000 in a New York City auction.

Coin images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

What auctioneers describe as “the first English gold coin” is being offered for sale in early January.

Heritage Auctions’ New York International Numismatic Convention sale, scheduled for Jan. 7 and 8 at the Grand Hyatt in New York City, offers one of only a handful of known examples of the type, a coin struck circa 1257 for King Henry III.

The gold penny of 20 pence is undated, according to the auction house. It has a provenance dating back nearly 160 years, and that includes such collections as the H. Montagu Collection (sold by Sotheby’s in 1895) and the R.C. Lockett Collection (sold in June 1955). 

The coin’s most recent sale was the July 1996 Spink-Christie’s auction, where it realized a hammer price of £159,000. 

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The coin was struck in London by a moneyer identified on the coin as Willem, who most likely was William of Gloucester, the king’s goldsmith, according to Heritage. 

The coin is one of at least eight pieces, four of which are in private hands. An additional four pieces are in museums, three of them at the British Museum and the other at the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The offered coin appears to be the only one with its particular die pairing, the firm said. 

King Henry III’s pennies

First described and cataloged by British numismatists of the 18th century, the gold pennies of Henry III represent a fascinating period in medieval numismatics when gold was beginning to trickle back into European commerce after a dearth of nearly 500 years, according to the auction house, which provided the background to the issue, presented here. 

Although Islamic and Byzantine gold coins were reasonably common, particularly to the landed gentry and royalty, the 12th and 13th centuries saw a massive influx of gold into Europe following the Crusades and European encroachment upon the Trans-Saharan gold trade. 

The first successful European gold issue to trade throughout the continent in the High Middle Ages was the Florentine florin, first issued in 1252 and struck essentially unchanged in weight or purity until the mid-16th century. 

A flurry of imitations followed and, not to be outdone, King Henry III ordered the creation of a gold coin for his kingdom to be struck at twice the weight of a silver penny and valued at 20 pence. 

Although it was minted in at least a modest quantity, as four die-pairings have been cataloged, the issue was ultimately unsuccessful, and most of the coins were clearly melted down. Treasury records in the decade or so following the issue of these gold pennies mention purchases or deposits, the last record in 1270 noting that a single piece was purchased for 2 shillings, denoting a rise in the value of this coin to 24 pence. 

Sir John Evans suggested in his article “The First Gold Coins of England” (Numismatic Chronicle, 1900) that many of these pieces were offered to the church by the king and would likely have found the melting pot through that route. However, the esteem of offering the church gold coins minted in his name may explain why Henry’s treasury was willing to pay a slight premium over their intended value. 

Following this failed issue, England would not produce another gold circulating coinage until the florins of Edward III in 1344.

Further information

The coin is graded Mint State 63 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., and comes from the Penn Collection. Heritage describes it as “Beautifully struck and wholly original,” with “careful” centering and a near fully round “flan.”

It weighs 2.95 grams.

The bearded and crowned king appears on the obverse, enthroned, carrying a scepter and orb in his right hand.

The reverse shows the quatrefoil, a long cross with rose and three pellets in each angle. 

It has an estimate of $250,000 to $500,000. 

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