If you’ve had an interest in Australian gold coins for any period of time, you’ll be aware that a major collection of gold sovereigns hit the market in London earlier this year - Part One of The Bentley Collection.
Part Two (of three parts) of The Bentley Collection will be auctioned by Baldwin’s of London later this month - September 27th. Baldwin’s quite correctly describes it as being “The Ultimate Collection of British Milled Sovereigns”, it certainly does contain an incredible range of remarkable British, Australian, Canadian, Indian and South African gold coins.
Part Two of The Bentley Collection is of most interest to Australian collectors, as it includes a wide range of Australian gold sovereigns.
My very first impression of the catalogue was the inclusion of a short passage of biographical information on each of the monarchs reigning over the British Empire over the period that these gold coins were struck - this is a fantastic addition to the catalogue, and for mine indicates a sensitivity, a certain attention to detail that sets the collection apart. I note that King George III married his wife Charlotte on the same day that he met her (long story), and that between them they had no less than fifteen children - a remarkable series of circumstances.
Moving onto matters numismatic, I was also struck by the relative affordability of some of the early British sovereigns in attractive grade - some of them have extremely low estimates relative to what a number of our own sovereigns that in some ways have far less history to them are fetching at present.
The next feature of the catalogue that comes to mind is that many, many (minor) varieties of sovereign have been discovered. Not all of them rate a mention in the major catalogues that these sovereigns are featured in, however that these differences have been identified and advertised is a testament to the degree to which the sovereigns in The Bentley Collection have been studied by it’s owner and the cataloguer.
The cataloguer has shared his own thoughts on a “new” portrait of Victoria that he has identified was in use at the Royal Mint from 1870 onwards. The characteristics of this portrait, although identified previously, haven’t been described in anywhere near as much detail as is seen in the catalogue for The Bentley Collection. How this portrait compares with the 1871 Sydney and 1872 Melbourne Shield sovereigns (with the Shield reverse) will be interesting indeed.
Strict British Grading Standards
At least one section of the catalogue is set aside to explain the grading standard used when describing the catalogue. One section states “We wish to emphasise that the coins in this section have been graded according to strict British standards,which seem to compare differently to that used in Australia. This will become clear when coins with British grading here are actually nicer than a specimen in the Quartermaster collection which on the Australian system appears to be one whole grade higher. This occurs frequently and it would seem an Australian grading equivalent of the British standard is one grade step higher.”
It may be my fragile colonial ego becoming inflamed here, however I don’t necessarily see how this statement makes sense. It is indeed very appropriate to explain the standard of grading used when any coin is being advertised, particularly as is the case with the items in this catalogue, where prospective buyers span the world and can interpret adjectival descriptions in any number of ways. A few words of explanation
That said, I don’t believe it is correct to say that the British standard is necesarily ’“stricter” than the Australian standard, not against any other standard either for that matter. As Shakespeare stated:
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1–2)
In my opinion, the validity or rigour of a grading standard is not seen so much in the levels at which coins are graded (whether that be higher or lower than any other standard), nor in the number of categories that any one grading standard may have (whether that may be more or less than any other grading standard).
The “strictness” of a grading standard is more seen in the degree to which it is adhered to. I fully take the cataloguer’s point that adjectival grading standards between Great Britain and Australia are indeed different, however I don’t agree that it is correct to say that one is stricter than another. Colonial rant over!
I do however ageree with the point put forward by the cataloguer when describing lot 663 - the 1879 Sydney Shield reverse sovereign with the “O” over “C” legend variety. I haven’t yet been convinced that this design variety isn’t just the product of a simple die flaw - interesting, but not a significant legend variety as far as I can see.
I was very interested to note the description of the reverses of lots 673 and 674 - both St George reverse sovereigns struck at the Sydney Mint in 1871. The cataloguer has identified a number of differences in the claws of the dragon on either of these coins - this is a distinction that I havent’ come across before.
Many Australian sovereigns in the Bentley Collection have extended descriptions about certain die characteristics that these coins have - the coins are not so much rare die varieties that have been listed in the major catalogues, but feature more minor differences that may be of interest to an enthusiastic sovereign collector.
Lot 694 is an 1887 Sydney Jubilee Head “proof” sovereign, and while this description has been used for similar coins elsewhere, based on the technical characteristics that this coin has, I believe it’s more appropriate to describe it as being a specimen strike. This alternative description should in no way detract from the rarity, history or desirability of the coin, but I believe better describes the quality of the coin’s surfaces.
Lot 709 is an 1893 Sydney Veiled Head sovereign, while lot 804 is an 1893 Melbourne Veiled Head sovereign. The cataloguer describes these coins as “mules” - coins struck with a hybrid pair of dies not intended to be used together. This description is based on the fact that the reverse design on these 1893-dated sovereigns is the same as was used on the Jubilee head sovereigns that preceded them.
If it can be proven that there are 1893-dated Veiled Head sovereigns with the reverse design seen on sovereigns dated 1894 through 1901, then I would certainly agree that the two coins included in The Bentley Collection are indeed mules. If however, it is determined that the particular variety of the St George & Dragon reverse design used from 1894 onwards was never deployed in 1893, I don’t believe the descriptor of mule will hold as much water when reviewed in future.
The most important, or at least the most valuable coin in the entire Bentley Collection is lot 736 - the 1920 Sydney. Only two circulation strikes of this coin exists in private hands, while there is one more specimen strike known in private hands also.
There are two interesting aspects to the discussion of this coin in the catalogue for the Bentley Collection - the cause of the surface characteristics that the reverse of this coin has and the possible cause of the ultimate rarity that this coin has.
This explanation alone could make the basis of an excellent article - I certainly hope that it gets a wider circulation than simply those collectors that happen to read the catalogue. Whether the reverse characteristics are a consequence of a rusted or “pickled” reverse die, or for some other reason, really needs more research to confirm or deny. Whether the rarity of the 1920 Sydney sovereign is a result of having been struck specifically for presentation purposes in relation to a special event, or another explanation, really can only be explained through further research. I found it interesting that the cataloguer mentioned the possibility that the specimen strike of this historic coin occurred “probably later” and “perhaps in … 1926” - this is the first published mention of this theory that I have come across to date.
I found the description of lots 763 through 765 are interesting also - they are described as having a “transitional” reverse, hitherto described by Australian numismatists as the “Medium Tail” reverse. This distinction is interesting, and could do with a far more detailed explanation than the space available in an auction catalogue permits - I hope it is explored further in future.
Not only does Part Two of The Bentley Collection contain a large number of rare and desirable Australian sovereigns, it also includes a number of historic and rare gold coins from Canada; India and South Africa.
There is little doubt that it is “The Ultimate Collection of British Milled Sovereigns”, keep your eyes peeled on the news section of our website for a wrap up of the auction’s results as soon as they’re known.