British Gold Patterns star in World Coin Auction

News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #203

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds

On Jan. 10th and 11th, Stack’s-Bowers-Ponterio conducted one of the official auctions of a coin convention that is held every January in Manhattan. More than two thousand coins and medals from around the world were included in two live sessions at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The focus here is on three British gold patterns that are fascinating, extremely rare and brought astonishing prices at this auction. A 1773 Five Guineas gold pattern sold for US$440,625. A 1768 Two Guineas gold pattern brought $199,750, an a Five Pounds gold pattern from 1820 went for $188,000. At any coin auction, it is very unusual for a British item to sell for more than US$150,000.

All three of these were in the epic collection of the late Thomas Law. Generally, this discussion is aimed at beginning to intermediate level collectors and to others who are curious.

Brit_patterns_sb_thumbYes, it is true that these gold patterns are not representative of the offerings in this auction, not at all. The vast majority of the items in these two evening sessions at the Waldorf were coins, though there were a few other patterns and a substantial number of medals. Most of the coins auctioned date from 1700 to 2000, though there were hundreds of ancient coins and quite a few Medieval pieces, which date from 500 to 1500. Furthermore, there were more than one hundred coins that were struck in the 1500s and 1600s. Major auctions of world coins tend to be large and tend to have an extremely varied assortment. An explanation of even half the offerings, along with analyses of respective results, would require a book that is even longer than the 340 page auction catalogue.

Also, in this auction, there was not a landmark offering of any one design type, denominations, time period, nation or region. Further, only a small percentage of the consignments are named and, besides a few Law Collection pieces, no one collection towers above the bulk of the consignments. So, there are no collections to analyze in the context of this auction. While are are a great many really pleasing coins that many collectors would like to own, this particular auction lacks threads, concepts or themes.

Fortunately for many collectors seeking to add modest priced coins to their respective collections, there were a large number of moderately priced, rare or scarce silver coins from past centuries that were accurately graded, naturally toned, and attractive. A coin collector on a limited budget, in the context of competition at major coin auctions, could certainly have found many excellent coins for his or her collection, provided that he or she was advised by an expert.

I. Law Collection patterns

On Aug. 13, 2013 near Chicago, at the ANA Convention, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned the Thomas Law Collection of British coins. I then devoted an article to Gold Sovereigns of King Henry VII, which were the most important group of items in the vast Law Collection. A few days later, I became curious when Mark Teller revealed that he had sold some coins to Law that were not in that auction in August. Teller was under the impression that those coins had been donated to the University of Texas. Sure enough, to this sale, the University of Texas at Austin consigned a few items that were in the Law Collection, including these three gold patterns.

Patterns are not coins. In the field of coin collecting, the term ‘pattern,’ broadly defined, refers to a wide variety of objects, including, though not limited to, die trials, items in alternate alloys, concepts newly considered denominations, and various kinds of experiments relating to coinage.

Patterns, narrowly defined, are coinlike items that constituted proposals or just ideas for new coinage or for changes in adopted designs. The three Law Collection gold patterns in this auction are each of a design that was never adopted for regular coinage. Evidently, the proposals, suggestions and ideas that these embodied were rejected or never adopted because of circumstantial reasons.

Importantly, these patterns of gold denominations were actually struck in gold. Collectors of gold denomination patterns generally prefer gold patterns that were actually struck in gold, which tend to be extremely rare. Gold was and still is an extremely valuable metal. In the U.S., most patterns of gold denominations were struck in copper, which was and still is much less expensive than gold. In some cases, copper patterns of gold denominations were gold plated so that influential people could better imagine how proposed new designs would appear, if struck in gold.

The gold patterns in this auction were not gold plated. These are really made of gold. They are probably eleven-twelfths gold (91.67%), with the balance being copper, though I admit that I do not really know the precise metallic content of these pieces. Have they ever been scientifically tested?

It is clear that these patterns were intended to have the same or about the same gold content as relevant regular issue British coins. These patterns show how George III Five Guineas, Two Guineas and Five Pounds coins might well have appeared, had these concepts lead to regular coinage.

II. 1773 Pattern Five Guineas

George III was King of Great Britain from 1760 to 1820. The ‘Guineas’ gold denominations were introduced under the reign of King Charles II, though they were nota always referred to as “guineas.”

Charles II was king from 1660 to 1685. One Guinea gold coins were introduced in 1663. Half-Guinea, Two Guineas and Five Guineas gold denominations were introduced during that same decade. These were all machine-struck (“milled”) on a screw press. Earlier gold coins, which are of different denominations, during the reign of Charles II were ‘hammered’ (struck manually, ‘by hand’!).

gr_bp_5Guineas gold coins of all four denominations were produced, at times, until the 1750s. The last Five Guineas gold coins are dated 1753, and were minted under the reign of King George II, grandfather of George III.

Presumably, it was proposed or at least considered that George III Five Guineas gold coins be made for circulation. They never were made. There were no Five Guineas gold coins minted during the reign of King George III, and no Two Guineas coins either.

Oddly, Third-Guinea and Quarter-Guinea gold coins were minted during his reign. These are very small gold coins and are inconsistent with the traditions of coinage in Britain.

There are 1770, 1773 and 1777 dated Five Guineas patterns of George III. Differences among varieties are subtle. Of the 1773 pieces, Steve Hill remarks that “there are ten or fewer in existence, maybe five are privately owned. One has not been sold in many years” Hill is a resident expert at the Baldwin firm and widely regarded as a specialist in machine-struck (“milled”) British coinage.

In the Spink ‘Standard Catalogue,’ this pattern is listed as #3723. In the Krause references, it is British pattern #52 (“KM-Pn52”). During the 1700s, the gross weight of a One Guinea gold coin is a little more than a Troy ounce (8.35 grams) and the net gold weight is a little less than a Troy Ounce. A Five Guineas piece weighs five times as much (41.75 grams = 1.3423 Troy ounces).

The Law Collection 1773 Five Guineas pattern is NGC certified “Proof-64.” In my view it is undergraded; a 65 grade is applicable. Yes, there are a few hairlines. These are largely lost among unusual, bold and distinctive die finishing lines that seem to flow all over the obverse (front) fields. (Die finishing lines stem from the use of tools on  dies and are brought about during the striking of coins or patterns.)

The texture of this pattern is unusual. The mirrors are not thick and glossy as they would typically be a on a Proof. This coin has sort of a different kind of reflectivity and glow. As the dies were extensively polished and otherwise modified, and it may have been struck twice, it certainly fair to refer to this piece as a Proof, especially since patterns are typically termed ‘Proofs’ unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Even so, the characteristics of this piece are such that a ‘Specimen’ (Special Striking) designation may be more appropriate.

Clearly, this Five Guineas pattern was very specially made. It is pertinent that many of the letters exhibit artistic finishes on their respective faces. The bust of George III is frosted, almost cameo. There are several factors that distinguish this piece from business strikes, not just the design and never-issued type.

Bidding for this coin began at more than $70,000. There was quite a battle between floor bidders and phone bidders. From my vantage point, I could not clearly see all those signaling bids. It seemed that there were at least four bidders, including three floor bidders, at levels well above $200,000. A dealer from Italy participated. A floor bidder, who I did not recognize, captured this piece with a bid of $440,625 (=$375k+17.5%). Steve Hill exclaimed that “the price was amazing, much more than I expected.”

III. 1768 Two Guineas Gold Coins

The Law Collection 1768 Two Guineas gold pattern is NGC certified “Proof-63.” It was purchased privately from Mark Teller in 1983.

gr_bp_2“The Five Guineas pattern was [of] much better quality than [this] Two Guineas. I was surprised by the 63 grade,” says Steve Hill. I was not surprised. Given the criteria employed by experts at the NGC, the 63 grade seems right. A touch of friction on a highpoint or two from a cleaning is consistent with an NGC grade of 63 and at least two other George II Two Guineas patterns were struck with more detail than this piece.

Although this Two Guineas gold pattern is characterized by a moderate cleaning in the inner fields and some other technical issues, it has mirrors that are full and deep. Further, it is more than attractive. A coin that has the technical characteristics that might be associated with a 62 grade and the eye appeal that would be associated with a 64 grade could easily grade 63 overall, in accordance with grading criteria that are widely accepted in the U.S.

This Two Guineas pattern is indisputably a Proof. It was struck at least twice. It exhibits characteristics of a Proof that I have outlined in previous analytical articles, most recently in my analysis of the Newman Collection Proof 1818 U.S. quarter. For this pattern, a “Proof-63” certification is fair enough.

Heritage has auctioned two different patterns of this same type. In Jan. 2013, Heritage sold one that is (or was) NGC certified ‘Proof-62,’ for $70,500. It has been heavily cleaned in the inner fields and is otherwise a really nice piece. That same pattern was earlier in a sale by St. James Auctions in England, on Sept. 30, 2010. It then sold for £34,000, which amounted to US$53,751 at the time.

On May 29, 2008, Heritage sold a 1768 Two Guineas pattern that is PCGS certified '’‘Proof-64-Cameo.’ That one brought just $54,050, though markets for British coins have grown in the interim. That same pattern was earlier in a Baldwin’s auction in Hong Kong. On Aug. 30, 2007, it was not certified and it sold for US$39,000.

Hill points out that this Two Guineas pattern “is not as rare as the Five Guineas pattern in this auction. Eight to ten of maybe fifteen known are privately owned,” Hill states. Steve adds that he has seen a couple that are of higher quality than this one.

The bidding contest for this coin went on for more than a minute. Early in the game, James Ricks brought the level above $60,000. He may have bid again. After a while, there was a duel between two bidders who were not physically present, at least one of whom was communicating by phone with a Stack’s-Bowers representative.

The $199,750 result was very strong, though not as strong as $440,625 for the just mentioned Five Guineas pattern. While this Two Guineas piece is more than attractive and really neat, it is not nearly as awestriking as the just mentioned Five Guineas pattern, the likes of which have not been seen for many years, or decades?

IV. 1820 Five Pounds pattern

In 1816, the system of British coinage changed. The silver content of silver coins was reduced such that the value of the silver content of each was significantly less than the face value of the respective coin. Starting in 1817, Gold Sovereigns replaced ‘One Guinea’ gold coins. These were much different from the earlier Gold Sovereigns of the Tudors.

gr_bp_5llbsIn 1820, George III gold patterns of Two Pounds and of Five Pounds denominations were made. Under the reign of George III, these were never minted for circulation. King George III died in 1820, anyway.

Later in the 1820s, Two Pounds and Five Pounds coins were made that featured portraits of King George IV, the oldest son of George III. In 1823, business strikes of George IV Two Pounds coins were minted in substantial quantities, In other years, ‘Proof-only’ and/or Specimen-only Two Pounds coins were issued, depending upon how Proof and ‘Specimen’ terms are defined. Those pieces are not business strikes.

The 1826 George IV Five Pounds coins were also a ‘Proof-only’ issue. No business strike, George IV Five Pounds coins were ever produced.

The George III 1820 Five Pounds pattern in this auction (Spink #3783; KM-Pn84) foreshadowed the George IV 1826 Five Pounds ‘Proof-only’ issue and the George IV 1823 Two Pounds business strikes. Of these George III Five Pounds patterns, twenty-five were struck with a reeded edge and two with a plain edge. Could it be that eighteen survive?

The Law Collection piece is, indisputably, a Proof and is a ‘cool looking’ pattern with a cameo contrast. The design elements were probably frosted white when this pattern was struck and have since naturally toned. The high relief of the king’s head and of the reverse design elements is extraordinary. Both the design and the striking characteristics are especially distinctive.

Unfortunately, someone sharply scrubbed the fields on the obverse (front of the coin). The NGC grade of “61“ is controversial, though the cameo designation is not subject to question. This piece either fails to merit a numerical grade or it grades 60. Indeed, many experts would feel more comfortable about if it was certified ‘Proof-60 Cameo.’ The difference between a 60 and a 61 is larger than some collectors realize, as a 60 grade coin may have many more problems, or problems of a larger magnitude, than a 61 grade coin.

As the cool and unusual ‘look’ of this coin is so pronounced, it is unsurprising that graders at the NGC figured that a compromise grade of 61 is appropriate, though most grading experts would probably figure that it is non-gradable. Even so, it is extremely rare and very exciting.

On the evening of Jan. 11th, the bidding level quickly climbed above $100,000 and eventually reached $188,000. This is a very strong result.

It is likely that these three patterns represent serious proposals for regular issue coinage and there is a good chance that all three proposals were very seriously considered. These three are among the most important patterns in the history of British coinage, as they are patterns, narrowly defined, are gold denominations struck in gold, were produced in an official manner by the Royal Mint in London, and relate to actual denominations that were struck in business strike format during earlier or later time periods.

©2014 Greg Reynolds


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