The Transvaal patterns in gold of President Burgers figure among the rarest of the world gold coins, and were in fact the first types of Pond (Pound, or Sovereign) struck of native South African gold. The off-metal patterns (listed by Hern on page 340 of his reference) are rare enough, but the pieces struck in gold suffered a generally poorer fate than did the trials made of bronze, brass, aluminum, or silver.
Most of the gold pieces were sold as souvenirs not long after they were made, and the majority became disfigured in jewelry. We told their story in a CoinWeek article in October 2012 from the Heritage Auction #3016 (January 2012) under Lot 25072, which was another wonderful specimen but of the “Fine Beard” variety, of which far more were struck (695 compared to 142). With our offering of a specimen of the “Coarse Beard” variety in our upcoming September 25-October 1 World Coin Signature Auction in Long Beach, we repeat the story here.
Colonial South Africa consisted of disconnected immigrant settlements which used coins of their native countries as well as tokens for money. When gold was discovered in the Transvaal in 1869, it marked a sea change for the area’s inhabitants. The first gold coin was minted in 1874 in extremely limited numbers and suffered from such a poor initial reception that today’s collectors are faced with a serious challenge trying to locate an unimpaired piece.
It seems that Thomas François Burgers, second president of the republic, had received a number of suggestions urging him to create a gold coinage. He decided to approach the Birmingham, England, firm of Ralph Heaton and Sons to change the situation. Unfortunately he made the decision on his own, without the approval of his fellow legislators, and it was to prove a fatal error.
The Heaton Mint engaged the services of Leonard Wyon, the Royal Mint’s engraver, who prepared dies showing a portrait of Burgers, who himself supplied the gold specie for the coinage, as well as an elaborate reverse design showing the coat of arms of the fledgling republic. The gold specie used to make these coins was mined in the Transvaal, and Burgers’ intention was just that — a local use for native ore. The exact number struck is not known, but it is assumed that 837 pieces were made using up the amount of gold given to the mint by Burgers.
Once he had them in his hands, Burgers displayed his gleaming gold coins proudly to members of the Volksraad, and waited for their acceptance. But it was not to be. The legislators objected vehemently to Burgers’ use of his own image and they soundly rejected the coin which was to become the forerunner of the famed golden Pond, first produced in 1892. But in 1874 the Burgers pond had failed as a commercial idea. Subsequently, most of the mintage was sold to the public at twice face value, and for a number of years they were thought of as nothing more than mere mementoes. The public carried these as pocket pieces, showed them off to friends, drilled holes through some and mounted others on gold chains for jewelry, and finally threw them into drawers or jewelry boxes, where they were forgotten. Few if any South Africans in the 1870s envisioned them as one day being of great value.
When the first official gold ponds appeared in 1892, they reminded a small number of people in the ZAR of the earlier pond of 1874, and scattered collectors began looking for examples, knowing next to nothing about the coins. Numismatic interest began in earnest upon the conclusion of the Boer War, with the annexation of South Africa into the British Empire. It gradually became apparent that most Burgers ponds had been damaged or mishandled. So few were available for study that no one realized that two varieties existed until the 1940s, and the first few decades of the 20th century proved the rarity of these coins when not impaired. They became eagerly collected in England and throughout the Commonwealth, as well as in the homeland itself. But most had been lost or damaged, and only a tiny number exist in Mint State today. Nicer pieces seemed to be slightly circulated.
Time has proven that any undamaged piece is a miracle of survival, and it is quite likely that some of the finest known pieces were those kept by the very legislators who had dismissed the coins as meaningless back in 1874. What had once offended sensibilities had transformed itself into nothing less than a national treasure.
The Coarse Beard specimen in Long Beach is Uncirculated (graded MS64+ by PCGS), and clearly among the finest known examples of this very rare variety. It is boldly struck on both the portrait and the reverse shield, struck with high wire rims and reflective luster, and possessing delicate golden toning. In natural light, this is an utterly charming coin. Under magnification, a faint strike-through (a hair or fiber on the die) scrolls through the right obverse field. Abrasions are very light but an old pin scratch crosses the lower beard to the rim at about 7 o’clock and a short scuff occurs in the field to right of the T of THOMAS. The portrait remains lustrous and otherwise unmarked, without any adjustment lines, and is thus truly exceptional. These handling effects are given here for the sake of accuracy and as an aid in tracking this coin in the future. They are doubtless the reason that PCGS did not assign a higher numerical grade to a coin which shows not a hint or rub or wear.