Scarce 1886 Melbourne Shield Sovereign
Sovereign collectors the world over have long known Queen Victoria Shield reverse sovereigns to be very scarce, the 1886 Melbourne is the rarest Shield of them all.
Dedicated collectors of the Australian gold series who were active back in the 1970’s will readily tell you that the 1886 M Shield was one of the keys to the entire Australian series.
Interestingly, the vast majority of, if not all shield sovereigns struck in Australia were exported to India. The background to this nuance of distribution provides an insight into world trade in the 19th century. The British East India Company was actively involved in the China-India trade during this period, some of the products traded included: British cotton; Indian textiles; opium; spices and tea; silk and porcelain. One train of thought is that Chinese merchants were most reluctant to accept payment in gold sovereigns featuring the St George reverse design, as it depicted a dragon in an undignified and indeed humiliating position.
The Image of The Dragon
In European mythology (such as fairy tales) dragons are generally reviled and hated creatures - slain by the hero of any story they feature in. In stark contrast however, the dragon is one of the most important images in Chinese mythology, and is used to symbolise happiness, immortality, procreation, fertility and activity. Images of dragons appear widely in Chinese architecture, clothing; in decorative arts and in annual festivities. It is hardly surprising then that Chinese merchants may have refused to accept coins featuring an image of a dragon being slain!
An alternative explanation is that the use of an image of St George (the patron saint of England) on British coinage nigh constituted idol worship, a practice that is taboo in many Eastern religions. Yet another (less sensational) explanation for the use of this reverse type in India is that “the people there had become accustomed to that pattern.” Whatever the explanation, “the Master of the Sydney Mint had instructions from the Royal Mint to use the St. George type reverse, and to only strike sovereigns with the shield reverse to special order, mostly for export to India.”
Although India has been a voracious consumer of gold over the years, its demand was not such that the entire output of Australian sovereigns would have been sent there. Indeed, in the only two dates in which the shield mintage is known exactly - 1882 & 1883 Melbourne - shields comprise between a mere 15% and 20% of the total amount struck.
There were no economic or historical events in 1886 that might explain the rarity of the 1886 Melbourne Shield reverse sovereign.
There was something a theme of increased union activity - there were a number of largely unrelated strikes across the country in the earlier part of 1886, while a number of new unions were formed in the latter part of the year.
A review of the Annual Report for the Melbourne branch of the Royal Mint for 1886 unfortunately does not yield any information that sheds light on the extreme rarity of the 1886 Melbourne Shield sovereign. Certainly the exact mintage of this historic Australian gold coin is not explicitly mentioned.
The Annual Report does state that the Melbourne Mint struck some 2,900,000 sovereigns throughout 1886. While this figure is seemingly high, we must keep in mind that the total mintage figure was comprised of sovereigns bearing either the Young Head and Shield reverse or the Young Head and St George reverse.
It is interesting to note that while the mintage of half-sovereigns at the Melbourne Mint in 1886 was just 38,000 coins, the 1886 Melbourne Shield sovereign is exponentially rarer.
Just what the exact mintage is of this coin was is open to speculation, however based on comparative rarity alone, one would think it was far, far lower than 38,000 coins.