The largest numismatic auction ever conducted in Australia was held in Sydney on Wednesday evening – over A$10 million worth of gold coins were sold in an auction that lasted slightly longer than 3 hours. We can draw several conclusions from the activity in this auction, the first being that gold is certainly where the party's at right now, numismatically at least!
The Opening Round
I expect there were around 40-50 people in attendance all told, not a massive turnout by any means, but as the clearance rate shows, what the room lacked in numbers it certainly made up for with strength.
After a brief introduction by the auctioneer, the auction of the most comprehensive collection of Australian gold coins ever formed was underway. The book and auction catalogue displaying the Quartermaster Collection was laid out in chronological order, and as such, the auction was conducted in the same way.
The Adelaide Ingots and Kangaroo Office Tokens
For mine, the four most intriguing items – the Adelaide Ingots and the gold Port Phillip Kangaroo Office quarter ounce pieces – were the first lots to be under the hammer. Bidding for both of the ingots began at $740,000, and both closed at $760,000. This brings the nett price for these unique and irreplaceable items of Australia's gold rush heritage to a cool $801,800 each. The first of the Kangaroo Office pieces made $310,000 hammer, or $327,050 nett. The second example, in slightly lesser condition made $232,100 nett. As might be expected for items of this value, bidding was not widespread throughout the room, however the atmosphere in the room was undoubtedly one of anticipation. The opening bids required for the balance of the Port Phillip tokens struck by WJ Taylor were slightly lower than many had anticipated, and as such I could feel a palpable wave of interest grip those in the room as it became apparent that all of the historic items in this sale were undoubtedly “on the market”. Although the final bids for each of these historic items ended up at slightly different levels relative to the estimates published in the booklet distributed with the catalogue, it was surely a solid achievement for these 16 items to make around $1.5 million alone. Only one item failed to find a bidder, and I have little doubt it has since been snapped up after the sale.
The Adelaide Assay Office Tokens
The next four items capture the second phase of the South Australian Colonial Government's response to the gold rushes of the early 1850's – the Adelaide Pounds. The first item in this section had been unseen at auction for over two decades, and made a price commensurate with that rarity – just shy of $500,000. I don't have access to my research into auction statistics for the other types of Adelaide Pounds (Types Ia, Ib and II), however I'm quite certain that at least one record was broken - $337,600 for a Type I Adelaide Pound.
Sydney Mint Pattern and Circulation Strike Sovereigns
The first of the lots in this session, the 1853 Pattern sovereign with the Type I Obverse that is unique in private hands made $696,300. This coin is the very first representation of Australia's first official national coinage, and also hadn't been seen on the open market for close to two decades. The first circulation strike of Australia's first gold coin made a cool $179,350, well in excess of anything seen at auction previously. The Type II Sovereigns struck for circulation between 1857 and 1870 were arguably the first real opportunity for dedicated sovereign collectors to participate in the sale – although the Kangaroo Office; Adelaide Assay Office and Sydney Mint patterns are arguably equal to the most historic coins in the entire collection, most collectors aspire to owning a superb example of our first national coins. Again, I don't yet have access to my auction statistics for each of these coins, but I would be very surprised indeed if a number of records weren't broken in this session. The highest price paid was $59,080 nett for the 1858 sovereign in Choice Uncirculated condition.
Young Head Shield Reverse Sovereigns
Strong prices were again seen through this series, and judging by the spread of bidding both through mail bidders, phone bidders, collectors in the room and dealers acting on behalf of clients, the rarity and beauty of these Shield reverse sovereigns in high grade is widely acknowledged. I would be surprised if any of the lots in this section sold for less than it's full catalogue value, and although that shouldn't be surprising for an auction of this magnitude, it is an incredible achievement when the results of any of the other auctions that have offered sovereigns in recent years. There were some truly superb coins included in this section, impeccable condition in every way. Although one or two lots in this section were unsold, I expect they would have been snapped up after the auction by one of the undoubtedly many disappointed bidders that missed out on other lots.
Young Head St George Reverse Sovereigns
This series of coins has been studied in great detail in the past few years, primarily to explore the myriad of different obverse and reverse dies used to produce these coins between 1871 and 1887. Three coins in this session made either close to or more than $20,000, quite an achievement given perceptions of this market in recent years.
Jubilee Head St George Reverse Sovereigns
As someone that has very actively traded sovereigns from this series in the past decade or so, I was both pleased and surprised to see the level of interest in this section of the auction. Jubilee Head sovereigns have long been an entry point set for many sovereign collectors over the years – they've offered a good balance between rarity and availability for some time. When such coins become available in high grade however, premium prices are often seen. Most of the lots in this section made well in excess of $1,000, however the highest price paid was for the key date to the series, the 1887 Sydney, and it made a staggering $22,155.
Veiled Head St George Reverse Sovereigns
The discovery of gold in the goldfields of Western Australia in the 1890's meant that the rarity of many coins produced from the 1890's was lessened significantly, and this was seen in the average price paid for the sovereigns sold in this section. They were no less in condition or provenance to any of the earlier coins in this sale, however they were certainly more affordable than any of the coins offered before them. The highest price paid was $20,573 for the superb example of the first sovereign struck at the Perth Mint in 1899.
King Edward Sovereigns
These coins were thought to be sufficiently numerous and invaluable that the auctioneer chose to offer them in lots of 3 – each of the three coins being struck in the one year at one of each of Australia's three Mints. Bidders in attendance certainly rated some dates higher than others, which caused prices for individual coins to range between slightly more than $500 to over $700 each.
King George Sovereigns
This series of Australian sovereigns includes both the rarest and most readily available of all Australian sovereigns. The first 8 lots of this section were also offered in three coin lots – quite different to the next lot, that being the 1920 Sydney, the finest example of Australia's rarest circulating sovereigns. Bidding opened at slightly lower than the low estimate of $750,000, and ran up in several bids to rest at $800,000. This brought the nett price to a staggering $840,000 – the highest price for any single item in the sale. Several other extremely rare coins were also offered in this section – the 1921 Melbourne, 1922 Sydney, 1922 Melbourne and 1923 Sydney all come to mind. Each made what was at the very least a strong price, or one that set a new record.
Sydney Mint Half Sovereign Patterns and Circulation Strikes
The rare pattern sovereigns from the Sydney Mint dated 1853, 1855 and 1856 were matched by their half-sovereign counterparts in this sale, and each of the half-sovereigns also made very strong prices. Bidding opened with a mail bid on what is surely the finest known example of Australia's rarest circulating half sovereign, the 1855 Sydney, at slightly under the low estimate at $290,000, and was not exceeded by anything in the room, leaving the nett price at $305,950. Considering the most recent auction sale for any coin even close to this was in October 1998 for $66,000, this was again another strong result. Connoisseurs of the Australian half sovereign series are well aware of just how rare the Sydney Mint half sovereigns are in truly superior condition, and some of the coin in this section of the sale simply had not been seen in equivalent condition for several decades. With few exceptions, each of the coins in this section made prices measured in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Young Head Shield Reverse Half Sovereigns
Although far more half sovereigns were struck for circulation with the Young Head obverse than during the Type II era, these coins in high grade are known to be extremely elusive. Sovereign collectors that make the switch over to collecting halves are often disappointed with the condition of the finest known coins of certain dates, as they are not used to not being able to purchase a Choice or Gem specimen, regardless of the price! As the condition of certain dates in this section of the sale testified however, some Young Head half sovereigns have never been seen at auction in mint state! As a result, with few exceptions, each of the coins listed in this section also reached figures measured in the tens of thousands of dollars. The highest price was paid for the key to the set – a Choice Uncirculated example of the 1887 Melbourne made $69,630 nett.
Jubilee Head Shield Reverse Half Sovereigns
Although only five dates were struck in this series, there were nine coins in this section, due to the voluminous research that's been done into obverse and reverse dies used on half sovereigns struck in Australia between 1887 and 1893. Strong prices were achieved by several of the rarer obverse varieties, as they have only been previously sighted in the RBA auction back in 2005.
Veiled Head Shield Reverse Half Sovereigns
The discovery of gold in Western Australia caused mintage figures of Australian sovereigns to increase dramatically, a similar rise was not seen in the availability of half sovereigns during the Veiled Head period. Not one but two examples of the extremely rare 1893 Melbourne pattern half sovereign were included in this collection while the highest price achieved for a circulation strike coin was the $17,408 paid for the 1900 Perth.
King Edward Half Sovereigns
A determined battle for one of the the key dates in the Edward half sovereign series saw the value of the 1908 Perth half sovereign in Uncirculated condition rise from a starting bid of $11,000 right through to $22,155 nett – surely another record price for an Australian half sovereign from the Edward VII period.
King George V Half Sovereigns
Despite the relative affordability of the coins in the very last section of the sale, bidding was no less competitive than at any other time. Each and every coin in this section made a price higher than the high estimate, with the sale finishing on a high note with the $10,550 nett paid for a mint state 1918 Perth half sovereign.
Looking back over the sale again, I am again mindful of the fact that a collection of this calibre, in any sphere of numismatics, very seldom becomes available. It was an incredible opportunity to study a series of rarities that turn up once every decade or so, and from that an educational point of view alone, this was an incredible opportunity for me. The results have shown just how keenly sought Australian sovereigns are in top quality, not by speculators chasing the latest and greatest “investment”, but by dedicated collectors that have been building collections for many years. This sale, and the prices it achieved, could be a further turning point in the market for quality gold coins here in this country. I know that there were numerous collectors who were disappointed to miss out on one or more of the coins in this collection, and I have no reason to believe that they'll be any less determined with their bids next time similar coins become available.