The 1920 Sydney Sovereign - The Greatest Gold Rarity of the British Empire

“The George Collection” of Australian sovereigns was auctioned by St James’s Auctions in London on March 5th, 2014.

Not only did the George collection include at least three coins that would headline any Australian numismatic auction of significance, the auction catalogue itself was a remarkable publication. It included previously-unpublished research explaining the origins and rarity of the 1920 Sydney sovereign - the rarest of all gold sovereigns, and Australia’s most valuable gold coin.

Although the 1920 Sydney sovereign has long been unanimously acknowledged as being among Australia’s rarest and most valuable coins, precious little has been known about why it was struck, and why it is so incredibly rare - only four examples are known in private hands.

The following text has been taken verbatim from the auction catalogue prepared by St James’s Auctions for “The George Collection”:

This is a legendary offering which includes recently discovered information that may help to solve the ‘enigma’ partially explained in the Bentley sale catalogue’s description of that collection’s 1920 Sydney sovereign.

1920 Sydney Sovereign - Quartermaster Collection


In that sale, the coin was called the rarest of all issues of the sovereign series, rarer even than the famed 1819 sovereign struck at London, of which some 10–12 examples exist compared to perhaps 4–5 (one impounded in the Royal Australian Mint Collection) of the 1920 Sydney issue.

Of the 4 pieces for which sales have been traced, apparently the finest known, called a Specimen in the Quartermaster Collection sale of 2009, seems to have been struck at a later date (1926) from a reverse die that was cleared of the residue which protected it during the long sea voyage from England to Australia. This residue accounts for the ‘pickled’ or slightly rough appearance of the reverse, a characteristic of all other known examples. The normal satiny gold texture exists on the obverse of all.

The Bentley sale cataloguer concluded by suggesting that this coin’s great rarity did not arise from any melting of the reported mintage at Sydney for the year (which he believed represented coins dated 1919 but struck in January and June 1920 at Sydney) but instead that no pieces were struck during 1920 bearing the date and S mint mark except because of some ‘special event’ in the year which was unknown at the time of the Bentley sale.

The provenance of the presently offered coin dates precisely to April 1920 and may well explain that “special event” and the coin’s great rarity.

Researcher Barrie Winsor of Australia has identified the family who placed a special order for sovereigns dated 1920 at the Sydney Mint in 1920. A prominent New South Wales politician and trade unionist. Mr Jacob Garrard (Note 1) ordered and purchased the sovereigns from the Mint in order to present them to his children when he and his wife, Rebecca, celebrated their golden wedding anniversary on 15 April 1920.

Barrie Winsor has interviewed some of the Garrard descendants to confirm the facts and has also seen photographs of the family taken during the anniversary meetings (see below). Five sons and two daughters were the subjects of the gifts; the exact number of sovereigns minted for the Garrards remains unknown, nor is it known if each of the sons and daughters received a coin (both daughters but only two sons survived Jacob Garrard when he passed away on 5 November 1931). The mintage presumably could not have been more than 7 sovereigns, or 9 if one each was retained by the parents.

Aside from the wretched condition of the reverse dies received after the long sea voyage, which apparently caused Mint officials to decide against their use, why were fresh dies not ordered?

Why is the coin so rare?

The answer appears to be that the post-WWI metals market fluctuations rendered coinage of gold impractical. The report of the Royal Mint issued on 31 December 1920 notes that the quoted value of gold per troy ounce as of 5 February 1920 was 127s 4d per ounce (Note 2). This meant that the cost of minting a single gold sovereign with a face value of 20 shillings was over 30 shillings. The Royal Mint suspended minting sovereigns in 1917 until 1925 and the Canadian Mint ceased production of sovereigns in 1919.

Clearly the Sydney Mint decided to postpone gold coinage. In 1920, transmission of any such decision was incomplete when Jacob Garrard placed his special order, thereby unknowingly creating the greatest gold rarity of the British Empire.

There are several points revealed in this research that deserve further discussion - the first of them relates to the date the 1920 Sydney specimen sovereign was struck:

“….apparently the finest known, called a Specimen in the Quartermaster Collection sale of 2009, seems to have been struck at a later date (1926) from a reverse die that was cleared of the residue which protected it during the long sea voyage from England to Australia. ”

There are a number of rare, historic, valuable and desirable US coins that are known to have been struck after the date that appears on them - the 1804 dollar is prime among them. 15 examples of America’s most desirable silver dollar are known, 8 of them were struck in 1834 (these are known as “Class I” coins), the other six were struck between 1858 and 1860 (these are known as “Class II” and “Class III” coins). That these coins are widely known not to have been struck in 1804 has done absolutely nothing to dent collector enthusiasm for them. The last Class III 1804 dollar to appear at auction made US$2.3 million in September 2009!

There isn’t as much acknowledgement in Australian numismatics of our rarities that are known to have been struck after the dates that appear on them however.

I suspect that the rather oblique comment indicating that the coin “may have been” struck at a later date indicates that there is rather firm evidence that this is the case.

The mention of the year 1926 confirms this for my mind - this was the year that "…some gentlemen who had … made valuable presentations to the Museums [came] forward to purchase valuable additions to their collections.” This note was made by Mr Albert Le Seouf - the Deputy Master of the Sydney Mint in 1926.

The note goes on to state that Sir William Dixson purchased gold from the Sydney Mint in 1926 to strike 50 sovereigns. Once struck, these coins were allocated to several public collections, the remainder were sold to a small number of dignitaries associated with the State Library of New South Wales.

While the note referred to above specifically mentions 1926-dated sovereigns being struck, it is known that several 1887 £2 coins were also struck in the final days of the Sydney Mint, as well as a small number of silver coins in a range of denominations.

Records on the exact number of coins struck as “valuable additions” to the collections of the dignitaries present on the final day of business at the Sydney Mint haven’t yet been recorded and widely published, however I wouldn’t be suprised if the new research referred to in the catalogue of the George Collection is based on a sighting of an official record that shows sovereigns dated other than 1926 were struck in the final days of the Sydney Mint.

Just how many specimens of the 1920 Sydney sovereign were struck (if more than one) wasn’t mentioned, nor if any other dated sovereigns were struck.

The second new fact to emerge from this ground-breaking research is the revelation that Australia’s most valuable gold coin was struck “…. because of some ‘special event’ in the year.” As the research has stated, that special event was an extraordinary order placed by the prominent NSW politician and trade unionist, Mr Jacob Garrard.

Jacob Garrard - Engineer, Trade Unionist, Real Estate Agent and Parliamentarian

Jacob Garrard began his working life as an apprentice engineer. As his career developed, Garrard joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and eventually became its delegate on the Trades and Labor Council. The Australian Dictionary of Biography notes that Garrard first came to public attention as “one of the most prominent young trade unionists in the 1870s.”

In 1880, Garrard was elected to the NSW Parliament as the local member for Balmain - a suburb that to this day remains proud of it’s working class heritage. In 1885, Garrard was responsible for having the Labour Day public holiday officially declared - this is surely a notable achievement that all working folk would be thankful for even today!

By the mid–1880’s, Garrard had left his trade as an engineer, and had become a successful estate agent and auctioneer. For a time, Garrard was also chairman of the City and Country Investment Land and Building Society, as well as a director of the Australian Mutual Prudential and Medical Assurance Society. Between 1894 and 1898, he was member for Sherbrooke and Minister for Education, and from 1895 was the first Minister for Labor and Industry in NSW.

Garrard apparently proved to be “…an energetic education minister with a special interest in technical education.”

Garrard narrowly lost his seat in NSW Parliament in 1898, however he remained active in public and community life for several years after that.

An Extraordinary Request

Garrard’s request was surely extraordinary, not only for the fact that Winsor’s research demonstrates that during this period in 1920 at least, “… the cost of minting a single gold sovereign with a face value of 20 shillings was over 30 shillings …”, but also for the fact that the normal processes involved in the distribution of sovereigns were surely circumvented to a significant degree.

We might imagine that any ordinary Australian that wanted sovereigns during this time would have been instructed to present themselves to their bank, and to receive whichever sovereigns the bank staff presented them with.

Clearly, if this research is accurate, Garrard wasn’t forced to go through standard procedures in order to obtain the gifts he wanted for his family. I’m not yet clear on the formal process by which Australia’s branch Mints would initiate a mintage of coinage, however it’s clear that each stage of the production process for Garrard’s sovereigns would have required the input of each department within the Mint, as well as explicit permission from the Deputy Master:

The dies would have had to be authorised for use, and then prepared; Suitably alloyed metal must have been on hand; The metal would have needed to be rolled into a strip; It would have been necessary to punched the planchets from the strip; The dies would have needed to be tooled into the minting equipment; and finally Only then could Garrard’s coins have been struck.

While this whole story of Garrard’s request might seem to be completely without precedent in Australian numismatics, and while more detail will certainly clarify the questions that many numismatists will no doubt have about this story, “private” mintages of other Australian rare coins are known.

Not only were Sir William Dixson and several of his colleagues able “…to purchase valuable additions to their collections” in the closing days of the Sydney Mint in 1926, but the famed Scottish collector, John Gloag Murdoch had a small but important number of gold proof sovereigns and half sovereigns struck at the Melbourne Mint in a range of dates and metals throughout the late 1890’s.

We can only surmise from the circumstances of Mr Garrard’s special order that he held some considerable sway in at least some circles in Sydney in 1920 - standard minting practice indicates no other explanation. I have no difficulty believing that the learned and hard-working men of the Sydney Mint would have held Garrard in high esteem and perhaps even with a bit of awe. Not only was Garrard a dedicated trade unionist, one that had championed the Labour Day public holiday for NSW, but he was also a parliamentarian that worked tirelessly for the cause of technical education. If he did happen to present himself at the Sydney Mint one day in 1920, and advise in either a humble or brash manner that he wished to have a small number of sovereigns coined as gifts for his family, I believe he is exactly the type of man the Sydney Mint staff would have gone the extra mile for, a man they’d perhaps even bend a few rules in favour of.

Regardless of how the story of the 1920 Sydney sovereign unfolds, it is clear that “the greatest gold rarity of the British Empire" has a social history without parallel.