By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Approved in 1978 by an act of the Canadian Parliament, the Royal Canadian Mint issued the world-famous gold Maple Leaf bullion coin a year later in 1979. Initially, the metal in this highly popular bullion coin was set at 99.9% purity. At its release, the Maple Leaf was the purest gold bullion coin on the international market at the time. The South African Krugerrand, while the only other true bullion coin on the market, had a 91.67% purity. This deliberate decision to produce the world’s first 24kt gold bullion coin by the Royal Canadian Mint was made specifically to differentiate their coins and hopefully drive an increase in collector interest.
When the gold Maple Leaf coin was first issued in 1979 the obverse design depicted a crowned bust of the young 39-year-old Queen Elizabeth II engraved by Walter Ott and designed by Arnold Machin. Ott, engraver of both the original obverse and designer of the standard Maple Leaf designs, passed away on November 9, 2020, at the age of 100. Ott joined the Royal Canadian Mint in 1964 and was promoted to Chief Engraver in 1977, a position he held until he retired in 1985. During that time, he was responsible for the release of over 1,000 different Canadian coins and medals, of which the most famous is arguably the gold Maple Leaf.
The Queen’s likeness was updated two additional times in 1990 and 2005. For the 1990 redesign, the Canadian Mint used a bust of the 64-year-old queen designed by Dora de Pédery-Hun. This was the first image of a British monarch used on Canadian coinage that was designed by a Canadian artist. For the current, uncrowned royal portrait that was inaugurated in 2003, the Royal Canadian Mint employed Susanna Blunt. Blunt, also a Canadian artist, produced a slightly less formal royal portrait.
Above the Queen’s head is her name “Elizabeth II”, and beneath the bust is the written denomination and the date. The reverse, the iconic maple leaf design, would, however, remain the same.
On the coin’s reverse, the de facto symbol of Canada is prominently displayed. Although the maple tree and the maple leaf tartan design are both currently used as national symbols, the actual maple leaf design that is found on the country’s flag and bullion coinage is not actually an official Canadian symbol. Above the leaf is the country of issuance, CANADA, and below the leaf is the legend FINE GOLD – 1 OZ OR PUR. On either side of the leaf is the metallurgical purity. While this reverse design has not changed, it has been reengraved twice to heighten the design’s definition: once in 1983 and again in 1990.
Since the coin’s purity at initial release was 99.9%, there were three 9s on each side of the leaf. However, when the purity was raised to 99.99% in 1982, this was changed to four 9s to represent the coin’s record-breaking new purity. However, since the Mint did not start striking coins of this purity until November in that year, most gold Maple Leaves dating to that year only have three 9s on the reverse. Additionally, since 2007, the 1 oz denominated gold Maple Leaf has been available in 99.999% purity. This higher purity, five-9 piece is denominated as $200 CAD, not the standard $50 CAD, and sells at a premium over regular examples. Instead of the linear radial security design, these highest-purity 1 oz coins have a netting style background; the reverse design also changes regularly to commemorate various events.
Between 2007 and 2013, the Royal Canadian Mint struck and sold 113,022 of the five 9s 1oz Maple Leaf.
Also, from 2008 until 2010, the Royal Canadian Mint struck a series of commemorative reverse designs to celebrate the Vancouver Olympics. The first, issued in 2008, can be seen below. While the obverse design was maintained, the reverse was adjusted to retain all original elements while including the 2010 Olympic logo.
The second type, released in 2009, features 11 small maple leaves falling around a stylized Native American thunderbird. The weight (1 oz) and purity (9999) are displayed at the thunderbird’s feet. On the obverse, the royal portrait is shifted to the right in order to make room for the Olympic logo. The legends were also adjusted to read 50 DOLLARS – CANADA – ELIZABETH II – 2009. While the 2009 and 2010 Olympic commemoratives shared an obverse design, the reverse on the 2010 was redesigned yet again. This type features a hockey player between two maple leaves with VANCOUVER-WHISTLER superimposed over the date (2010) above and the purity (9999) and weight (1 oz) below.
In response to a rising number of counterfeits, the Mint announced in 2012 that they would be adding an innovative anti-counterfeiting security feature to the reverse maple leaf design. Officially incorporated in 2013, this feature was comprised of a small, highly detailed, maple leaf in the lower right reverse field. Laser-etched onto the coin; this design features a two-digit number matching the last two digits of the year, which changes according to the year of issue. The numeral is so small that it is visible only when viewed under magnification. Additionally, in 2015 the Royal Canadian Mint added a series of repeating radial lines on both sides of the coin.
Most recently, the Mint has added a micro-engraving and registration process to ensure that the coin in question is authentic and registered with the Mint. Named digital non-destructive activation (DNA) technology, the Mint has stated on their official website that by using “specialized device[s]”, collectors can read the “images” that are “encrypted with a string of code” within the maple leaf laser mark and match them against authenticated examples. These same features can be found on the silver bullion version of the Maple leaf.
Over the years, the Royal Canadian Mint has offered collectors and investors the opportunity to purchase many different denominations with the maple leaf design. Initially, from 1979 until 1982, the Mint struck only the 1 oz bullion coin denominated with a legal tender value of $50 CAD. Released simultaneously with the new four 9s purity coin in November 1982 were two new denominations: the 1/4th ($10 CAD face value) and 1/10th oz ($5 CAD face value). The ½ oz ($20 CAD face value) was added to the run in 1986, the 1/20th ($1 CAD face value) in 1993, and the 1 gram (50 cents CAD face value) in 2014. The 1/15th ($2 CAD face value) was released in 1994 as a limited run from 1994 to 1996, with a total cumulative mintage of only 7,400 pieces. Unless purchased individually, 1 oz maple leaves are sold by the Mint in secure tubes of 10 and the fractional denominations come sealed between sheets of mylar.
The fractional denominations all have the same design as the original 1 oz type.
While the decision to issue a gold bullion coin at the highest possible purity was intentional, it has led to one of the more notable complaints that collectors have with the Maple Leaf coins: the prevalence of handling marks. While this is primarily due to the incredibly soft nature of pure gold, it is further exacerbated by the coin’s design. The coin’s milled edges and extensive smooth fields on both obverse and reverse also invite handling marks.
Despite these complaints, the Mint’s Maple Leaf bullion coin has been a massive success. Within the first three years of production, the Canadian Mint had sold almost three million 1 oz coins. Additionally, by 2013, the Mint’s sales totaled almost 30 million ounces worth of Maple Leaf coins, averaging approximately 757,000 ounces per year.
Despite their continued popularity, gold Maple Leaf coins trade at a relatively low premium compared to the American Gold Eagle. When this article was written, gold was trading at $1,864 USD per ounce, and ungraded 1 oz gold Maple Leaf coins were being sold by the large bullion dealers for between $2,015 and $2,030, or an 8.1% to 8.9% premium. At the same time, the same companies were selling American Gold Buffalos for between $2,050 and $2,200, or a 10% to 18% premium.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).