News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #258

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds ……

Among the most exciting consignments to the auctions held during this week of the New York International Convention at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel are British Proof sets from past eras, consisting of silver and/or gold coins. Historically, the British have had a special talent for producing Proof coins; perhaps many of the characteristics of British silver and gold Proof coins were adopted when the U.S. started producing Proof coins in 1818. British Proofs tend to be much less expensive than somewhat relevant Proof U.S. coins and are collected by coin enthusiasts around the world.

Beautiful Una & The Lion design

The 1839 five pound gold piece is held to feature the most beautiful design of any vintage British coin. Many British gold coins are 11/12 (0.9167) gold. According to Krause Publications, this five pound gold piece weighs or was specified to weigh 39.9403 grams (about 1.284 Troy ounces), though I am not stating that this is so.

The so called ‘Young Head’ of Queen Victoria is certainly more beautiful than many other busts of her. The reverse (back) design, “drawing its theme from” a famous philosophical story by Edmund Spenser in 1590, “depicts the queen as Una guiding the British lion. There is a powerful contrast between the restrained energy conveyed by the lion and the peace and grace of the standing figure of Una,” according to the web site of the Royal Mint Museum. My interpretation is different.

The queen, as a human individual, is already portrayed on the obverse. The reverse features a female personification of the spirit of Britain accompanying the lion, which has represented England metaphorically in many contexts. This ‘spirit’ relates to history, religion and the role of England in human civilization; it is not a representation of Queen Victoria in particular. Female personifications of philosophical concepts, especially liberty, were often found on coins around the world in the 19th century including in the U.S. and in the independent republics in Latin America.

1839 five pound gold piece
1839 five pound gold piece

Besides, well before the 1830s, the power of the monarch in Britain became very limited. British citizens then would not have seriously thought of Queen Victoria as guiding England in the sense that U.S. citizens now often think of the president as guiding the U.S.A.
Two Una & The Lion pieces will be offered tonight in the Baldwin’s-Markov-M&M-Goldbergs (BMMG) auction. The first will be on its own and is PCGS certified as ‘Proof-62 Cameo.’ The second is part of an amazing 1839 set of Proofs and other Special Strikings, truly the most amazing item to be auctioned during the entire week. The one in this 1839 set is PCGS certified as ‘Proof-63 Deep Cameo.’

All the Una & The Lion pieces that I have ever seen have many hairlines from moderate to rough wipings in the fields. Steve Hill, an expert in British machine-struck (“Milled”) coinage, reveals that this is his recollection as well. Although I have probably seen ten to fifteen of these, Steve has seen many more. Hill wonders if these were wiped at the British Royal Mint before they were released as most all seem to have hairlines of a similar nature, including the PCGS certified “Proof-64′ piece that Heritage (HA) sold on Monday for $258,500. Some experts assigned a grade lower than 64 to that piece.

Although the hairlines are usually very much apparent, even under three-times magnification, when a coin connoisseur sees one of these Una & The Lion gold pieces with naked eyes, he cannot help becoming extremely excited. The mint-coated design elements tend to tone orange, tan, or golden. The fields tend to be a wondrous green color. The mirrors are deep and the contrast is startling. Queen Victoria on the front and the figures on the reverse are in notably high relief. There is no doubt that these were struck multiple times and are among the very finest creations of the British Royal Mint.

The certified ‘62’ grade piece has orange-toned design elements and light greenish inner fields. At the auction, bidding started at more than $100,000 and the level rose fast. I was not completely certain of the final ‘hammer price.’ web site reports a final hammer price of $145,000, which seems right. A representative for a phone bidder certainly did bid $140,000. If accurate, a hammer result of 145 amounts to a final price of $169,650, with the 17% ‘buyer’s fee.’ I did see that the successful bidder was a well known dealer in ancient coins. He prefers that his name not be publicly mentioned.

This certified ‘62 grade Una & The Lion pieceis really pretty. The lines from substantial wipings beneath TANN on the obverse and below MEOS. on the reverse sound more bothersome when discussed than they seem to be when the coin is viewed. The ‘63’ grade piece in the set has tan-white design elements with fields that are of hues of green that are different from that of the just mentioned ‘62’ grade piece. These two PCGS certifications are fair and probably would be accepted by most experts in Proof U.S. gold coins.

1839 Proof Set with Copper, Silver & Gold!

The reminder of the 1839 set is impressive and cool. I was intrigued that the original presentation case, which accompanies this set, is very similar to cases used by the Philadelphia Mint from the 1830s to the 1870s. The shell is a cloth covered wood. The coins sat in plush sockets in a cushioned environment that was custom-made to house coins. The off-white soft-material of the upper interior of each case is hard to describe, though I have seen the same or very similar fabrics in the interiors of many other cases that were used in the 19th century to house coins in the U.S. or the U.K.

As the BMMG auction included other British Proof sets from the 19th century, I inspected those containers as well. Among the original cases that accompanied sets in this BMMG auction, the color of the plush where the coins sat varies, though the overall nature of the cases is very much the same. During the 19th century, in England and in the U.S., Proof sets tended to be housed in the same kind of cases. Similar cases were often used in England during the 20th century as well.


I have inspected the case that housed the ‘King of Siam’ 1834/“1804” Proof Set, the cases that housed John Pittman’s complete U.S. Proof sets from the mid 1840s, and many others from the mid-19th century. Recently, I examined the case that housed Eric Newman’s complete 1868 ‘pattern’ set in aluminum.

Regarding this 1839 set, it is curious that experts at PCGS referred to the Maundy silver penny, two pence, three pence and four pence coins, all with a distinctive reverse design, as being prooflike, rather than as true Proofs. These have more of the characteristics of Proofs than many 19th century silver coins that PCGS has certified as Proofs. The Maundy Two Pence coin in this set, for example, has full mirrors, squared dentils and letters, and bold high numerals. Plus, this silver two pence was certainly struck at least twice. It is true, however, that the Maundy coins in the set are characterized by many raised lines from striations on the dies and did not have the full, relatively thick mirrors that characterize most 19th century silver or gold Proof coins. This may be the reason that the Maundy coins in this set are not PCGS certified as Proofs. There are many U.S. coins, however, with many die striations that are PCGS certified as Proofs. The Eliasberg 1851 Three Cent Silver comes to mind. (Clickable links are in blue.)

In this 1839 set, most of the coins are silver and these score very high in the category of originality. These 1839 Proof silver coins have a few faint to medium hairlines from light wipings, which are minor. Most show no signs of ever having been modified or dipped, with much natural toning and wonderful ‘crustiness.’ Moreover, the toning on the coins tend to match the tones on others in the set of the same respective metals. The blue, russet and green tones tend to develop on silver coins that are stored in such cases and these coins are very pleasing. There is much evidence that this is an original set with natural toning; it is one of the most appealing Proof sets that I have ever seen.

This 1839 Proof set was sold in an auction by a coalition of  firms, “The New York Sale, Auction XXXV.” This coalition consists of Baldwin’s, Dimitry Markov, M&M, and the Goldbergs. This coalition is hereafter referred to as “BMMG.” Incredibly, the BMMG auction includes three additional, apparently original Proof Sets dating from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).

For this 1839 Proof set, Ira Goldberg, a partner in the Goldberg firm in Los Angeles, was the successful bidder, for $339,300. He was acting on behalf of a client. Bidding started at over $200,000 and Ira battled at least one other floor bidder and a telephone bidder.

A sixteen piece British Proof set dated 1853 includes two gold coins, two ‘Gothic Head’ silver pieces,  and fourteen ‘Young Head’ coins. An 1887 set relates to the fiftieth anniversary of her reign and includes eleven coins, four of them struck in gold. Ira was the top bidder for both of these, too, which brought $146,250, and $38,610, respectively.

A ten piece set dated 1893 includes coins of the same four gold denominations, five pounds, two pounds, Sovereign and Half-Sovereign. All four of these sets come with an ‘original’ presentation case and include all pertinent silver denominations. All copper, silver and gold coins in these sets are PCGS certified. This 1893 set brought $31,590.

All copper, silver and gold coins in these sets are PCGS certified. Three of these four sets are each accompanied by an original presentation case. The case for the just mentioned 1853 set was crafted much later than the time of issue. The toning on the silver coins in that set, however, tend to be very consistent. My impression is that this is a set that has remained intact since 1853, though I cannot be certain of this point.

1911 Proof Sets with Silver & Gold Coins

This very same BMMG auction contained a 1911 set of Proofs and other Special Strikings. This set went for $12,870. The original case that accompanies this 1911 set has words imprinted on it, “SPECIMEN COINS 1911.”

There has been a tradition of coin collectors in Britain and in the the U.S. to refer to coins that are not business strikes, yet do not qualify as Proofs, as Specimens. The term ‘Specimen,’ though, was often used more casually inside mints. In the 19th century, some U.S. Mint employees, however, used the term ‘Specimen’ to refer to coins that experts now would conclude are definitely Proofs. There are also coins that U.S. Mint employees might have referred to as Proofs that some relevant experts regard as Specimens that do not quite qualify as Proofs.

gr_1911_prsetWhile the Specimen term was unclear in past periods and is not completely clear in the present, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the British would use the term to describe a set of coins that includes Proofs and non-Proof special strikings or coins that are on the borderline of qualifying as Proofs.

Though it is not practical to analyze this 1911 British set here and now, I discuss factors involved in distinguishing Proofs from non-Proof Specimens in the contexts of U.S. coins in other settings. Please see my articles on specific U.S. coins: the Newman 1818 quarter, a Proof 1839 quarter, a Proof 1855-S quarter, the Specimen 1794 dollar and a Specimen 1853-O Eagle, among others.

Coincidentally, the CNG Triton sale, another auction that is being held today at this same convention, also includes an apparently original, 1911 British Proof Set. This set, too, is accompanied by an original case, which is extremely similar to the one in the BMMG auction that was held on the same day.  A preliminary report, which could be subject to change, indicates that CNG auctioned this set for $14,100.

The quality of the coins in the 1911 set in the Triton Sale is not as high as those in the 1911 set in the BMMG sale, though these coins, too, score very high in the category of originality. It is likely that both sets have been intact since 1911. Also, there are historical reasons relating to British Proof sets that were issued in 1839, 1887 and 1911; these were not just for coin enthusiasts.

In 1911, ‘Proof” U.S. gold coins were made with a sandblast finish. The British 1911 gold pieces were ‘brilliant’ and glossy, though, in fabric, different from U.S. and British Proof gold coins of the 19th century. Curiously, in 1902, British gold coins were minted with a sandblast finish, which is very similar to the texture of many of the sandblast finish U.S. gold coins that date from 1911 to 1915.

The Heritage (HA) sale on Monday included a British 1902 Gold Proof Set. Each coin has a sandblast finish. The five pound, two pound and sovereign are NGC certified as Proof-66 and the half-sovereign is graded 65. I was too fascinated by the physical characteristics of the coins to take the time to grade them. Coins such as these will be the topic of a future discussion. This set realized $37,600.

In the BMMG auction, the already mentioned sixteen coin 1853 Proof set is a Great Rarity. Dealers who specialize in British coins suggest that maybe four to six original 1853 Proof sets survive. The gold coins are definite Proofs and merit grades in the 64 range, which is a a high grade for British Proof gold coins from the time period, which tend to be full of hairlines.

The silver coins have very appealing natural toning and are really delightful. Though they vary in terms of Proof characteristics and other features, all are special strikings. Indeed, none are prooflike business strikes. As best as I can tell, none of the coins have been dipped. The originality of the pieces is an important part of the attractiveness of this set. Moreover, Coins of sixteen denominations in one Proof set are entertaining overall. The designs employed in 1853 are aesthetically appealing and artistically interesting.

Though not nearly as rare or as curious as an 1853 set, an 1887 set has more significance in terms of general history. The portrait of Queen Victoria on coinage was finally changed. Moreover, she is depicted with a crown because she had then been queen for fifty years. This 1887 Proof set in the BMMG auction consists of eleven coins, including four Proof gold coins.

On Monday, HA auctioned two 1887 Proof sets, both of which, however, were just silver. Those two seven piece silver sets, though, are beautiful, with much blue, green and russet tones. The first sold for $17,625.

The second, which realized $10,575, is pedigreed on the NGC holders to John Murdoch, who assembled one of the all-time greatest collections of British coins. (For simplicity, I refer to all English and Scottish coins as being ‘British,’ and explain my reasons in a recent article on a Charles II halfcrown.)

The 1887 gold Proofs are rarer. Representatives of all four gold denominations, and an original case that housed all eleven coins, are part of the 1887 Proof set that will be offered tonight, in the BMMG auction. All the coins in this set are PCGS graded from 62 to 64, most with ‘Cameo’ designations. Some of the just referenced 1887 Murdoch Collection, silver pieces in the HA event had undesignated cameo contrasts.

The 1893 Proof set in the BMMG event also has four Proof gold coins. The silver and gold Proofs in this set are of the ‘Widow Head’ design, which is characteristic of the time period. Victoria had, by then, been queen for more than fifty-five years. The ten coins in this 1893 set are PCGS graded from 62 to 64.

Special 1656 Cromwell Broad

In the CNG Triton auction session that was held a few hours before the BMMG sale of world coins, an NGC certified ‘Proof-63 Cameo’ 1656 Cromwell Broad (20 shilling) reportedly sold for $76,375.  In my view, its grade is in the middle of the 63 range and the cameo designation is fair enough. It is clearly not a business strike. As to whether it is a true Proof or a non-Proof Specimen, there is not an obvious answer.

1656 Cromwell Broad
1656 Cromwell Broad

As a longtime enthusiast for Proofs and other special strikings, I have a great interest in these. David Guest at CNG and Steve Hill at Baldwin’s indicate, separately, that they are aware of historical evidence that supports my belief that these really were made during the 1650s. If at least some of them really are Proofs, and I contend that some are so, then Cromwell Broads are the earliest true Proof coins that I have ever seen.

I have now carefully examined several of these. The Eliasberg and Law Collection coins come to mind.

This piece was formerly in the collection of Virgil Brand and is probably the highest quality 1656 Cromwell Broad that I have ever seen. The assigned 63 grade is more than fair and there surely is some ‘cameo’ contrast. Although at least two that I have seen have more powerful Proof characteristics than this piece, the forms of the outer design elements and the fabric of the mirrored fields are NOT those of a prooflike business strike; this coin is a special striking of some sort.

It is relevant that, on Monday, HA sold a four piece 1746 silver “Proof set.” The six pence, shilling and half-crown are all PCGS certified as ‘Proof-65.’ The crown is non-gradable and is not clearly referred to as a Proof by PCGS. Actually, the crown and halfcrown qualify as true Proofs and the other two might not, though are special strikings.

This 1746 halfcrown is just a fantastic coin. It was clearly struck twice, with tremendous detail. It scores very highly in the category of originality. It has excellent natural toning, with much tan and light blue, along with russet tints, orange areas and touches of green. Some hairlines are obscured by natural films. Without these lines, this 1746 halfcrown would have qualified for a grade above 65, for sure! This set realized $21,150.

A 1774 Proof Guinea (21 shilling gold coin) was in the same HA Platinum Night event. It is PCGS certified as ‘Proof-63 Cameo.’ The cameo contrast is amazing. This is a coin that is much more interesting and entertaining in actuality than it appears to be in published images. Although it just barely qualifies as a Proof, it is certainly a very special striking and is really cool, with full mirrors and fascinating die striations.

A 1787 Guinea, of a different design type, is indisputably a true Proof. The obverse mirrored fields are amazing and this coin was struck at least three times! Several design elements and numerals are fully squared. The PCGS certification of ‘64 Deep Cameo’ would be very likely to be widely accepted among experts in the U.S. This coin brought $12,925, a moderate price and dramatically less than a somewhat analogous U.S. coin would be worth.

1937 Gold Proof Sets

George VI 4-Piece Gold Proof Set 1937
George VI 4-Piece Gold Proof Set 1937

Coins that just fulfill minimum criteria to qualify as a Proof are challenging to analyze. As for Proofs that have characteristics that raise them well beyond fulfilling the minium requirements for true Proof status, the British Proof gold coins of 1937 come to mind.
Some or all British 1937 Proof sets of four gold denominations (£5, £2, sovereign and half-sov.) provided incredible representatives of Proof coins, from a technical standpoint. Indeed, the Proof characteristics of these coins are powerful, yet are indicative of human craftsmanship. The soulless, assembly-line Proof U.S. and British coins of the last thirty years lack human elements.

These 1937 Proofs are not very rare and do not have especially attractive or unusual designs, in an artistic sense; they are scientifically important in terms of numismatic workmanship. They were struck multiple times and have incredible mirrors, details, border elements, relief, etc. There were two such sets in the HA sale. The first was NGC certified, with three 66 grade coins and one 65 grade coin. All four coins in the second set are PCGS graded 65. Three of the four coins were assigned ‘Deep Cameo’ designations. These sets realized $15,275 and $16,450, respectively.

On Saturday night, Stack’s-Bowers will auction an apparently original set “with fitted plush maroon case of issue.” These four Proof 1937 gold pieces have the following PCGS certifications: £5 as 64+ Deep Cameo, £2 as 65 Cameo, Sovereign as 65 Cameo, Half-sovereign as 66 Deep Cameo. The green-beige design elements and the green-caramel inner fields are cool. This is a neat set. Also, 1937 British coins feature a portrait of King George VI, the main character in a somewhat recent, academy-award winning movie, The King’s Speech.

Of course, British Proof coins constitute a small percentage of the ancient, medieval and vintage world coins that were brought to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York this week. I continue to be amazed by the range, assortment and variety of coins and patterns offered.

©2015 Greg Reynolds



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