World Coins

Unique English silver penny realizes $130,922 in June 11 auction

A unique silver penny minted for Æthelberht II, which was found by metal detectorist Darrin Simpson in early March 2014, realized £78,000 ($130,922 in U.S. funds) in Dix Noonan Webb’s June 11 auction in London.

The price realized for the 1,200-year-old coin includes the 20 percent buyer’s fee and was far above the estimate of £15,000 to £20,000. An Internet bidder won the lot.

“There was fierce bidding for this unique coin,” according to a statement released by Dix Noonan Webb. “The price paid shows that the worldwide market for important pieces like this Æthelberht II coin is extremely strong.”

Simpson, the 48-year-old metal detectorist from Eastbourne, Sussex, who found the coin, said: “It’s fantastic, an amazing result. I am really quite shocked.” 

He will give half the money to the Sussex farmer who owns the field where the coin was found and another quarter to the three friends who were detecting with him when he discovered it in early March this year.

The Anglo-Saxon coin may provide a clue to the murder of East Anglian king Æthelberht II by a neighboring monarch.

Simpson had spent about an hour at an unidentified site in Sussex with friends when they were caught in a hailstorm.

Simpson, who has been a metal detectorist for 12 years, was hurrying to shelter when he picked up a signal on his detector. Though the signal sounded like others that had merely turned out to be World War II-era .303 munitions, and despite the weather, Simpson dug down 6 to 8 inches and found the penny.

The penny has been identified by experts as the only one of its type ever discovered, according to Dix Noonan Webb.

“I thought it was a Saxon coin, the first one I had found, and I was very happy about that,” Simpson said.

It was not until he consulted the Early Medieval Corpus of Coin Finds at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge that Simpson realized the full importance of his discovery.

“I couldn’t sleep for two nights after it was identified,” he said. “I doubt if I will ever find anything better.”

The coin is only the fourth ever found from the reign of Æthelberht II, according to Dix Noonan Webb. Æthelberht II was a shadowy figure who ruled East Anglia in the late eighth century.

The other three coins are in museums and have a different design. The coin found by Simpson is the first to have Æthelberht’s name and the title REX on the same side.

“This new discovery is an important and unexpected addition to the numismatic history of 8th century England,” said Christopher Webb, head of the coins department at Dix Noonan Webb.

Little is known about Æthelberht II’s reign but stories about his piety and his gruesome murder (ordered by Offa, king of neighboring Mercia), have survived down the centuries. His reign over the kingdom of East Anglia is thought to have begun in 779. In 794 he reluctantly agreed to marry Eadburh, Offa’s daughter, and set off to visit her at the Mercian king’s villa at Sutton Walls in Herefordshire.

Offa’s queen Cynethryth persuaded her husband to have their guest killed, so Æthelberht was seized, bound and beheaded. Even in those brutal times, the murder of one king by another was rare, according to Dix Noonan Webb.

According to medieval legend, Æthelberht’s severed head later fell off a cart and, after being found in a ditch, restored a blind man’s sight. The dead king was declared a saint and became the focus of a religious cult in East Anglia. Many parish churches in Norfolk and Suffolk are still dedicated to him.

The coin auctioned at Dix Noonan Webb may have been one of the reasons for Æthelberht’s terrible end, the auction firm suggests.

“The East Anglian king is believed to have struck the other three known coins from his reign with the approval of his much more powerful neighbor Offa. However the newly-discovered penny looks like an act of defiance by the increasingly ambitious Æthelberht,” the auction firm indicated. “The fact that Æthelberht’s name and the title REX (King) appear on the same side of the coin may have demonstrated a degree of independence that was simply too much for Offa and Cynethryth to bear, and they decided to kill him.”

For more information about the lot or the sale, contact the firm at 16 Bolton St., London W1J 8BQ, telephone the firm at (011) 44 20 7016 1700, email it or visit the DNW website.

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