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Rare 1681 silver Halfcrown of King Charles II, with mark of the Royal African Company

Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #239

A CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds………..

Halfcrowns, 2½ Shillings silver coins, of English King Charles II are not rare overall. Thousands survive of those minted during his reign from 1660 to 1685. The 1681 Halfcrown ‘in the news’ is unusual and rare in that it was minted with the symbol of an elephant (and castle) on the front (obverse) below the bust of the king. A relatively small number of Charles II silver coins of any denomination survive with the mark of an elephant, which relates to a semi-private company that dominated British business activities in Africa. This PCGS graded “AU-55”  1681 Halfcrown, ‘in the news,’ will be auctioned by Heritage on Sept. 5th at the Long Beach Expo. A wide variety of other world coins, ancient coins and U.S. coins are also being auctioned this week at the same location.

halfcrownelephant1The quality of this specific coin is very impressive. It is well struck and features, pleasing, mellow brown-russet natural toning with neat blue-green tints. Further, it scores very high in the category of originality. Although there are some noticeable defects in the prepared blank (planchet) that was used to produce this coin, there are very few contact marks and hairlines. Indeed, it is technically sound and was properly stored for generations. In regard to silver coins from past centuries, this piece is exceptional.

Its pedigree is extraordinary, having been in landmark collections in the past. All 17th century British coins with an elephant (or ‘elephant & castle) mark are historically important and highly demanded by collectors. As it is a coin from the reign of English King Charles II, why refer to it as a British coin rather than as an ‘English coin’?

 I. Is this coin English or British?

Although the Kingdom of Great Britain was not officially formed until May 1707, it is best to refer to pre-1707 English coins as British coins. England is the main nation of the British Isles and was the dominant force in the region for many centuries before formal unification with Scotland in 1707.

It would be confusing and counter-productive to refer to pre-1707 coins minted in England as ‘English’ coins and later issues as British coins, especially since most people around the world now think of ‘English’ as a language rather than as a word to be used to identify items of a particular nation. Besides, the formal annexation of Wales by England was completed in the early 1540s.

Britain has been around since well before 1707. In ancient times, the Romans ruled a region they called the “province” of Britain, also termed “Britannia,” which included England, most of Wales and varying parts of Scotland. As it is clear enough to refer to many United States items as “American,” it is relatively more correct to refer to English coins as being British, and is logical. England is the core of the British Isles.

 II. What is a Halfcrown?

An uncirculated, silver Halfcrown, dating from 1551 to 1816, weighs around 11% more than a United States Bust Half Dollar (1794-1836). Such a British Halfcrown weighs a little less than half a troy ounce and was specified to be 92.5% silver, the sterling standard. Eight Halfcrowns (four Crowns) equaled one pound sterling, which also equaled twenty shillings. Put differently, a Halfcrown was one-eighth of a pound (£).

For many centuries, the British had a system that featured coins denominated in pence, shillings and ‘pounds sterling,’ literally of silver.  The ‘pound sterling’ is still the name of  the main British monetary unit, though its current meaning is different from its original meaning as an amount of silver bullion.

Before 1971, twelve pennies (pence) equaled one shilling. A Groat was the name for a four pence coin. Two pence and three pence silver coins were, at times, minted over the centuries. A “Maundy” set is comprised of four silver coins, a penny, two pence, three pence and a Groat (four pence.) There were also sixpence coins. Though I refer to an old Halfcrown as equaling two and a half shillings, it was generally thought of as two shillings and sixpence ( “2s 6d” or 2/6).

A Crown coin amounts to five shillings. A two shillings coin was called a Florin. When the terms Crown and Halfcrown were defined in terms of British coinage, influential people probably had international trade in mind. Silver coins of similar diameters and weights were widely used in international trade.

The values of gold denominations are a little more complicated. The theoretical concept behind most British gold denominations was for them to be one-half a pound (10 shillings), one pound (20 shillings), one and a half pounds (30 shillings), two pounds (40 shillings) or five pounds (100 shillings). In reality, the value of gold coins in terms of silver was not so clear.

When the Guinea gold denomination was first introduced in 1663, it was valued at twenty shillings, ‘one pound.’ The Guinea was later valued at twenty-one shillings and, at times, twenty one shillings, sixpence (21/6).

Although twenty shillings or four Crowns, thus 240 ‘old’ pence, continued to equal one British Pound (£) until a decimal coinage system was formally adopted by Britain in 1971, the British framework of silver coins that had been in effect since 1551, including Halfcrowns and Crowns, was modified in 1816 and really ended in 1920, when the amount of silver in coins of silver denominations was lessened to the point that British silver coin denominations were then redefined. Silver Halfcrowns were introduced in 1551 and are an important part of British history, sizable silver coins that were spent by millions of British citizens over a period of centuries.

The continuity of the silver Halfcrown denomination, and of the British silver coinage system in general, from 1551 to 1816, is amazing. Throughout the history of the world, politicians in power in many societies have often manipulated coinage standards and currency values.

 III. African Trade and The Elephant Mark

royalafricacompanySoon after his ascension to the throne in 1660, King Charles II granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa, which was renamed the Royal African Company (RAC) in 1672. This company was given a monopoly over British trade with a region in western Africa. The RAC lasted until 1752.

From 1688 to 1722, the RAC supplied gold to the Royal Mint and many British coins struck from such gold featured a hallmark of an elephant. In another words, a small portrait of an elephant on a British gold coin, as part of the design, indicated that it was struck with gold that was mined in West Africa and then brought to England by the RAC.

An elephant and a castle was part of the emblem of this company, and many gold coins struck in London by the Royal Mint featured an ‘elephant & castle,’ though a substantial number had just a portrait of an elephant. Each elephant mark, with or without a castle, is found below the bust on the obverse (front of the coin).

These are regular issue coins of the Royal Mint of England, not atypical strikings elsewhere. Such elephant marks are not mintmarks in the sense that the term ‘mintmark’ is employed in the U.S. The Royal African Company did not produce coins.

British gold coins of the era were called Guineas because much of the gold used to strike them came from West Africa. The word Guinea has more than one meaning. Undoubtedly, the British traded in the area that is now known as the Republic of Guinea, a former French colony. Over the centuries, however, the name Guinea generally referred to a particular region of West Africa, not to any one specific kingdom, nation or colony.

The RAC brought gold from the region of Guinea to England and the gold denominations that began in 1663 came to be known as Guineas. Soon, gold coins were issued with denominations of Half-Guinea, One Guinea, Two Guineas and Five Guineas. Much later, One-Third-Guinea coins were minted as well.

 IV. Elephant Marks Are Scarce

The majority of gold coins of Guinea denominations were not struck with elephant (or ‘elephant & castle’) marks. Those with such marks are much scarcer and are more historically important. Accomplished collectors of British gold coins have tended to favor coins with elephant marks to represent the relevant design types, including the collectors who formed the epic Millennia and Thomas Law Collections, which I examined.

Only a miniscule percentage of silver coins of the era had elephant (or ‘elephant & castle’) marks. During the reign of Charles II, some Shillings, Halfcrowns and Crowns, dated 1666 and, later, 1681, had elephant (or ‘elephant & castle’) marks. No other silver coin issues in the 1600s had such marks, as best I can recollect at the moment. There are more than a few gold issues, though, during the reigns of James II, William III & Mary II, and Anne, that have such marks.

A 1701 William III silver Halfcrown issue has an ‘elephant & castle’ mark and is rare. At the moment, I recollect this as the only silver coin issue, dating from after 1681, that has an elephant (or ‘elephant & castle’) mark. Have I overlooked any others? It is important to keep in mind that such marks were punched into the obverse (front) dies; genuine elephant (or elephant & castle) marks were not added after such coins left the Royal Mint in London

Silver coins with either such elephant mark are much rarer than gold coins with elephant marks. More than ten times as many ‘elephant marked’ gold coins survive.

As the RAC traded in a variety of items, it is not surprising that the RAC would have accumulated quantities of silver on occasion. Although some of the activities of the RAC were not ethical and are disturbing to learn about, this semi-private firm played an important role in history and the connection of the RAC to coins is fascinating.

There are two different subtypes of Charles II One Shilling coins, both dated 1666, that carry the elephant mark. One of the two was struck with an obverse (front) die that was also used to produce One Guinea gold coins. A later Charles II One Shilling issue has an ‘elephant & castle’ mark and may survive only as an overdate, 1681/0.

In 1666, silver Halfcrowns and Crowns were minted with the elephant mark. Although there were many issues of British silver coins dating from 1667 to 1680, none of these have an elephant mark. The coin ‘in the news’ now is a 1681 Halfcrown with an ‘elephant & castle’ mark. The ‘big brothers’ of these are 1681 Crowns with such a mark.



On Jan. 4, 2010, in New York, Heritage auctioned a Charles II 1666 Crown with an elephant mark and a Charles II 1681 Crown with an ‘elephant & castle’ mark. Curiously, both are PCGS graded VF-25.

In March 2014, St. James Auctions offered a non-certified 1666 Crown, with an elephant mark, that might possibly grade EF-45 by U.S. standards. In April 2014, Heritage auctioned an NGC graded VF-35 1666 Halfcrown with an elephant mark.

In June, St. James Auctions offered three 1666 Crowns, with elephant marks, in London. I am not sure that any of these merit a numerical grade. One has the details of a VF grade coin. A second, which could be gradable, has the details of a Fine-15 or VF-20 grade coin. A third could possibly grade Good-06 or higher by U.S. standards, though it might not be gradable. I cannot tell without examining the coin.

In Jan. 2009, Heritage auctioned an even more heavily worn 1666 Crown that is likely to be non-gradable, though is clearly identifiable. The ‘elephant & castle’ 1681 Halfcrowns seem to be much rarer than 1666 elephant Crowns.

An NGC graded VG-08 1681 Halfcrown, with an ‘elephant & castle’ mark, was sold by Heritage in April 2013. A non-gradable coin of this same 1681 issue, with Very Fine level details, was offered by by Baldwin’s in Feb. 2008 and by St. James Auctions in Sept. 2008.

The 1681 Halfcrown that will be offered this week is PCGS graded AU-55 and scores unusually high in the category of originality. It is worth vastly more than lower grade representatives of the same or similar subtypes.

Of all the PCGS or NGC graded, ‘British’ coins with an elephant (or elephant & castle) mark, that Heritage has auctioned since Jan. 2002, I believe that this coin is the highest graded, including both gold and silver coins. The Goldbergs, though, have auctioned some gold coins with such marks that are of higher quality. I do not recollect ever having seen an elephant or ‘elephant & castle’ marked British silver coin that is of higher quality than thus 1681 Halfcrown that will be offered on Friday.

 V. Distinguished Pedigree

The pedigree of this coin is extremely distinguished. The Heritage cataloguer notes that it was in the sale of  the “George Wakeford Collection, Chapman 11/1884, Lot 200.” I have not found a copy of the catalogue for this auction. My impression, though, is that most of Wakeford’s coin collection was auctioned by Sotheby’s, probably in London, during 1875. Further, there was an auction somewhere in March 1883 that included some of Wakeford’s coins. T. Chapman and Son was an auction firm in Edinburgh, which is not related to the famous auction firm of the Chapman brothers that was active in the coin business in the United States during the 1880s as well.

For more than 125 years, the collection of George Wakeford has been favorably cited in literature relating to British coins. It is probably true that his collection was comprehensive and excellent overall.

Surely, Hyman Montagu’s collection was better. Indeed, Montagu assembled one of the five all-time greatest, private collections of British coins. In the May 1896 Sotheby’s catalogue of the Hyman Montagu Collection, the description for lot #805 is, as follows, “805  Half Crown, 1681, usual type, but with elephant & castle under King’s bust; date 1681; … exceedingly rare, believed to be the finest specimen known … *** From the Wakeford collection.”

My copy of the May 1896 Montagu sale catalogue does not have pictures. The three asterisks (or stars) before the citation of the Wakeford pedigree are printed in the original Sotheby’s catalogue, which indicates that Montagu acquired dozens of coins that were in the Wakeford Collection. According to the Heritage cataloguer, the coin being offered this week is the exact same ‘elephant & castle’ 1681 Halfcrown that was in the Wakeford and Montagu Collections.

The Heritage catalogue also states that this exact same coin was owned by John G. Murdoch, who also assembled one of the five all-time greatest collections of British coins. Again, I include pre-1707 English coins in the category of British coins, broadly defined, for reasons already stated. Unfortunately, I have never seen a copy of the pertinent Murdoch catalogue, that of June 1903. I have read innumerable references to it. The Montagu and Murdoch Collections are legendary.

©2014 Greg Reynolds

insightful10 {at} gmail.com


Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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