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Bentley Collection Part 1 - Prices Realised

The first of three auctions of “The Bentley Collection” went under the hammer in London on May 8th - this was the first tranche of what is an unprecedented collection of British sovereigns. Just this first batch alone contained 381 different British sovereigns, each was apparently as important as the other to the collector that built it.

After seeing the catalogue, my first thought was that “Some of the early British sovereigns look incredibly cheap!” Not only were the oldest sovereigns in the Bentley Collection nearly four decades older than Australia’s earliest official gold coins, despite the fact they were in mint state, they had been estimated by the auctioneer to sell for around A$6,000 apiece.

The question before the auction was whether they’d actually finish at those levels, or if they would rise well above them. Now that the prices realised are published, it is an excellent time to check. From what I could calculate from the prices realised document, the total value of the coins sold in this sale was about £750,000 gross -this amounts to A$1,500,000 nett - not a huge sum by “normal” auction standards, but this sum is surely sizeable when we keep in mind the fact that it was just one collection, and further that this collection was concentrated in just one segment of the British coin market.

Although gold sovereigns do have a certain standing in the Australian numismatic market, it would be fair to say that sovereigns don’t enjoy the same relative position of numismatic importance in the British numismatic scene.

Australia’s Gold Sovereigns - Strong Historical Links

Gold sovereigns are a direct by-product of the gold rushes of the mid–19th century - one of the most important social, economic and even political events in Australian history. It is hardly surprising therefore that the gold coins most closely linked to Australia’s gold rushes are highly prized by collectors - they relate to key events in our social history.

“Modern” gold sovereigns were struck in Great Britain between 1817 and 1925, and although they were the most important circulating coin of that era, they are not recognised by the majority of British collectors as being the most important coins in their national history.

This is hardly surprising when we consider that Celtic and Roman coins are a part of the British numismatic fabric, and that British coins can be found with a direct link to such momentous events as the Battle of Hastings in 1066; the War of the Roses in the mid to late 15th century to name just two.

For a foreigner, attempting to choose the most important numismatic market segment of a nation that traces it’s numismatic history to at least 1066 (a span of time three times greater than Australia’s own national history) is probably a fool’s errand.

That said, I hope I wouldn’t be the first amateur historian to state that the peak of the British Empire was not reached until at least the later period of Victoria’s reign, coincidentally a time when Australia’s mints were operating in full swing.

A Strong Link to the Peak of the British Empire

Despite their chronological link to the zenith of the British Empire, sovereigns do not have the cache in British numismatics that hammered British gold coins have.

The results out of London for the Bentley Collection should be seen in that light - the results listed below are for a collection of coins in just one section of the British numismatic market.

The table below is a snapshot of the ten most valuable coins sold in the first part of the Bentley Collection, that these were the ten most popular coins in the sale tells us something of the type of coin in demand with British collectors:

 

Lot Description Estimate Hammer A$ Equiv. % Above Est. Comments
302 1887 Shield Proof Sovereign FDC £12,000 £28,000 $45,100 233%  Ex Nobleman collection 1997
33 1837 Small Bust Pattern FDC £15,000 £24,000 $38,700 160%  Ex Montagu, Murdoch and Nobleman collections
3 1817 Proof FDC £15,000 £23,000 $37,100 153%  Designs were as adopted for use
252 1871 Plain Edge Proof FDC £15,000 £22,000 $35,500 147%  Unpublished, possibly ex Murdoch collection
320 1887 Young Head Proof FDC £12,000 £22,000 $35,500 183%  Ex Grant collection
34 1838 Small Bust Pattern £15,000 £20,000 $32,200 133%  Ex Hugh and Whetmore collections
38 1838 Narrow Shield Variety EF £10,000 £18,000 $29,000 180%  Discovered in the past decade
45 1843 Narrow Shield Variety EF £12,000 £17,000 $27,400 141%  One of the finest known examples
2 1817 Pattern Sovereign EF £15,000 £18,000 $29,000 120%  Had a portrait and reverse markedly different to the issued type
16 1825 Plain Edge Pattern good EF £18,000 £16,000 $25,800 89%  Regarded as being possibly ex the Murdoch and Nobleman collections
             

 

As we can see from the table above, the star of the sale was easily lot 302 - the 1887 Young Head Shield Proof Sovereign in FDC condition. The provenance of this coin is “only” traced back to the Nobleman sale in 1997 (just 15 years ago - a tiny fraction of the coin’s 125 year existence), yet has been hypothesised to have been “struck as a matter of record for the Mint and probably for presentation to highly important persons, or as suggested in the Douglas Morris catalogue that it could be a trial for a colonial sovereign.”

The 1887 Proof Sovereign - Was It A Colonial Pattern?

On first blush, this attribution doesn’t gel for me - clearly the strike characteristics (the frosted relief and the mirrored fields) indicate that the coin is a proof strike, however I can’t yet see how it could be a trial for a “Colonial” sovereign - 1887 was Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee year, and if anything I would have thought that if the coin concerned featured the Jubilee Head portrait, and if production of this coin could be dated to a time prior to the Jubilee Head obverse dies being dispatched to the branch mints, and if the designs used were slightly different to those eventually used to strike coins for circulation, then I could more easily understand the attribution as a trial or pattern.

As it stands however, 1887 was the last year of the Young Head portrait, not the first. I have encountered no information that might suggest the Young Head with Shield reverse sovereign was to continue in Australia while all other British and British colonial coins were to use the Jubilee portrait. This is something interesting for me to look into at another time.

“Presentation Pieces”

By way of example, the last day of production activity at the Sydney Mint in 1926 saw a number of proofs struck for archival and presentation purposes - that those coins were not the first dates of their type to be struck does in no way lessen their appeal as historical heirlooms of the day.

I suspect that the 1887 Young Head Proof sovereign was indeed “simply” a presentation piece - a final reminder of one of the most timeless designs in world numismatics, much less British numismatics.

Patterns, Proofs and Varieties

The balance of the top 10 results can be summarised in three words - patterns, proofs and varieties. These are the rarest and most desirable coins in any series - highly prized for their rarity, beauty and exclusivity.

It is the same in the Australian sovereign series - if we highlighted the ten most valuable coins in the Australian sovereign series, aside from the 1920 Sydney, they would each be either a pattern, a proof or a variety.

Perhaps the only result in the Bentley Collection’s top 10 that might be regarded as something of a disappointment is the 1825 Plain Edge Pattern in EF condition - this coin made £16,000, just 89% of the estimate of £18,000.

Ordinarily, such a result might be taken as a sign of weakness. I’d propose however that either the vendor or the auctioneer didn’t take the market’s insistence on unqualified quality, as well as historical importance and rarity. The auctioneer’s description was candid regarding the contact marks and hairlines that the surfaces of this coin exhibited - testimony perhaps to the manner in which it had been stored and handled.

All in all, I’d suggest that the results of the first part of the Bentley Collection are a reflection of the current strength of the British numismatic market, and are a precursor of strong prices for the Colonial sovereigns to be featured in Parts II and III, due for sale by Baldwin’s later in 2012.


Category: Market News