By Louis Golino, special to CoinWeek …..
The February 22 launch and instant sell-out of The Royal Mint’s Three Graces silver and gold coins underscores the intense demand that exists for modern tributes to classic coin designs. The release of such coins needs to be handled very carefully with as level a playing field as possible since they often amount to the numismatic version of a winning lottery ticket with huge aftermarket potential much as did the November 5 launch of the V75 American Gold Eagle.
In November 2019, the Royal Mint launched a new series of silver and gold collector coins called “The Great Engravers”, which pays homage to the most famous numismatic motifs in British numismatic history and the engravers who created them with tribute coins made using the original dies combined with 21st-century coin minting technologies.
Una and the Lion
The debut release – issued in 2-ounce silver Proof and five different gold Proofs including 1 and 5-ounce and 1, 2, and 5-kilo coins — was William Wyon’s legendary Una and the Lion design that first appeared an 1889 £5 gold Proof commemorative coin that was issued to mark the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837 at age 18. It is widely considered the most beautiful coin in British history – the equivalent of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ design on the $20 gold Double Eagle for Americans.
It was also the first coin to feature an allegorical depiction of a British monarch – Queen Victoria as crowned Una as she walks with a large lion next to her (representing England), holding an orbit and a scepter, which was inspired by a 1590 poem by Edmund Spencer. Issued at a time when the world was waiting to see how the young monarch would guide Britain at the height of the British empire when it accounted for a quarter of the world’s landmass. The design was intended to convey that Victoria was a strong and honorable woman with integrity.
Around 400 were struck in 1839 with no more than 15 believed to have survived with one of the finest examples – an NGC Proof 65 – having sold in Japan at auction last May for the equivalent of about $930,000 USD. Earlier in 2020, the finest one – an NGC Proof 66 Ultra Cameo — brought $1,148,000. The coin is especially popular in Japan, where several examples have been sold at auction.
Performance of the 2019 Restrike
The 2019 silver coin, which has a mintage of 2,000 and was priced by the mint at £180 (or about $250), recently sold in eBay auctions for $8,805 and $8,255 in Proof-70 and $3,945 in Proof-69–a performance that has not to the best of my knowledge ever been seen before with a modern silver coin in a short period of time. The gold pieces are so rare, they are almost never seen for sale.
That coin sold out at the mint in two days in November 2019, and for the first few months saw its value jump first to $400-500 and then over the course of 2020 prices went crazy, especially for Proof-70s that have gone for tens of thousands of dollars and Proof 69’s bringing as much as $6,000 and more.
In fact, something similar happened with another Una and the Lion series issued by the East India Company for St. Helena (with an original design by British artist Glyn Davies) in 1-once silver Proof and bullion versions that have also done extremely well, as discussed in my piece on the best-performing coins of 2020.
The Royal Mint recently added its own modern reinterpretation of the Una design to a series of silver and gold bullion bars with limited mintages.
The only modern coin whose performance has been as strong out of the gate as that of the 2019 Royal Mint Una releases would be the 2019-W American Gold Eagle V75 Proof coin issued for the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. And as I will explain, the frenzy surrounding that coin and what happened during its launch has some interesting parallels with the February 22 launch and instant sell-out of the Royal Mint’s Three Graces coins. The episode may also hold some lessons for future coins with intense demand and very small mintages.
The Three Graces
Naturally, collectors who are familiar with what happened to the first issue in the mint’s series have been eagerly awaiting the second release with much discussion in recent months on blogs that focus on modern silver coins about when the new coin would be released.
That piece, the Three Graces, which was originally planned for a late 2020 release, depicts another iconic British numismatic motif and another masterpiece by Wyon – who started in 1818 at the Royal Mint as Second Engraver and became Chief Engraver in 1828 – a position he held until his death in 1851.
The Three Graces has a lot of interesting symbolism and history behind it, which combined with its alluring design, is why it has intrigued collectors for so long. The original idea of the Three Graces or Charities is rooted in Greek mythology, specifically, in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Three females–Euphrosyne, Aglaea, and Thalia— who were the daughters of Zeus and Eurydome were said to personify respectively elegance, joy, and festivity. Together, they symbolize the power and strength of unity.
Over the centuries the three women have appeared together, usually naked, and embracing each other in numerous sculptures such as Antonia Canova’s Tre Grazie (featured on a 2020 Palau 2-ounce silver Proof coin), countless paintings such as Primavera by Botticelli, the Three Graces by Raphael and others, operas and even a situation comedy.
Wyon’s Three Graces
In numismatic terms, it is Wyon’s neo-classical 1817 pattern crown of the Three Graces that has made the design so famous and led to its reappearance on many modern world coins, while others pay tribute to the earlier Three Graces from mythology and art such as a 2020 Cameroon silver coin called Celestial Beauties.
The Wyon pattern’s obverse featured a high-relief effigy of King George III, while its reverse shows three female figures in a circular embrace with a neoclassical style of dress that are intended to anthropomorphize Ireland on the left, England in the middle, and Scotland on the right with respectively a harp, a shield bearing a cross of St. George, and a large thistle at the feet of each respective lady. There is also a rudder and a palm frond at the bottom to represent British naval supremacy. Surrounding the reverse motif is a Latin inscription that translates as “Inviolable and Unbreakable League”.
Wyon crafted this design early in his career at the Royal Mint to showcase his talents at a time when the new silver coin designs of Benedetto Pistrucci had received criticism. His Three Graces is a nod to the theme’s mythic origins but more importantly is an allegorical representation of the union of the United Kingdom from Ireland, England, and Scotland (leaving out Wales), which had come together in 1801 to form the UK.
It is estimated that about 50 of these patterns were struck, and surviving examples today are worth at least $170,000. An NGC Proof 65 example is currently listed by Heritage Auctions for a March 25-27 sale.
In creating his medallic masterpiece, Wyon was influenced by his mentor John Flaxman, a leading proponent of neoclassicism, a style popular in the late 18th and early 19th centuries known for its simple, clean lines in homage to the realism of ancient art.
In addition, the pattern was made as Britain sought to stabilize its currency after the end of the Napoleonic wars. The gold Guinea would be replaced by the gold Sovereign and silver was also reintroduced.
Thus, just as his Una and the Lion sought to reassure the British that the young Queen Victoria was up to the task of governing and leading a huge empire, the Three Graces was aimed at calming England, appealing to British national pride, and unifying the peoples of the UK after a difficult period of decline following Britain’s defeat by Napoleon.
Three Graces Tributes
And just as very few collectors have the means of owning an original 1839 Una and the Lion gold coin, very few can acquire a Three Graces pattern from 1817. Over the past few decades, countries around the world (usually members of the British Commonwealth) have issued their own tributes to both designs but none of them is as stunning as the Royal Mint coins, which are so well crafted that they closely resemble the original issues while being technically superior.
In fact, about a month before the mint launched its Three Graces silver and gold coins, the Britannia Coin Company commissioned its own Three Graces silver and gold Proofs struck by the Commonwealth Mint for the British territory of Alderney, which were sold already graded in PCGS holders. Proof-70 examples of the two-ounce £5 silver Proof with a 1,000 mintage are currently offered by the company for the equivalent of about $1,700, but they were briefly available (less than two minutes) for about $650 for the first 100 before the price was doubled. Back in 2019, Alderney also issued Una and the Lion silver and gold tribute coins.
Launch of Three Graces Tributes
On February 22 at 9:00 am London time, the Royal Mint began selling its 2020-dated Three Graces coins, which included some changes. The 2-ounce silver mintage was increased to 3,500 and other silver versions were added, including a 5-ounce with 500 made and a 2-kilo silver with mintage of 50 that was not available from the mint at release time. As for the gold, this time there are 2- and 5-ounce versions with mintages of 325 and 150 plus 1- and 2-kilo versions with mintages of 20 and eight (which, like the 2-kilo silver, appear to have been pre-sold with at least some going to one of the mint’s foreign distributors).
In addition, buyers were limited to no more than one example of each coin per order.
When the coins went on sale, buyers were placed in a queue that moved fairly quickly depending on your place in it, but by the time most were allowed to reach the site, all the gold coins were gone as was the 5-ounce silver and only the 2-ounce silver was listed. That was gone by 9:20.
The problem for many was that when trying to pay for the 2-ounce silver, it was necessary to manually input credit card information even if one had a saved card, and then the payment did not go through. And the same thing happened again and again until the coins were gone.
Based on reports from buyers in coin forums, some UK buyers were able to get through with telephone orders and seemed to have better luck online than foreign buyers did with many of the latter unable to secure anything.
Some buyers who successfully placed an order have reported that their orders were canceled because the product was sold out, while others speculate about whether some were using bots to place multiple orders. Perhaps the most troubling issue is the queue system since some people say they got right in and many others say there were thousands in front of them, yet both groups claim they went to the mint site at about the same time just minutes before launch.
The situation was reminiscent of what happened last November 5 when the United States Mint launched its ultra-low mintage V75 American Eagles with the gold version in particular having by far the lowest mintage of any coin in the series and increasing in market value by almost 1000% very quickly (from $2500 to as much as $20,000 for PF 70s). Many buyers had it in their carts but were unable to check out because the payment would not go through, and often they had to manually input their credit card info.
On eBay there is an auction for a 2-ounce Three Graces coin (about $350 from the mint) with nine days left is already bid to $1,658 (and buy it now sales start from $4,200) and the 5-ounce (that was about $780 from the mint) is being offered for $10,000. In percentage terms, these prices are comparable to the performance of the V75 Gold Eagles except that either Three Graces silver coin could be had for a fraction of the cost of a V75 Gold Eagle.
When mints offer coins for which the level of demand far outstrips the number of coins made, it is essential that the launch goes as smoothly as possible and buyers not be thwarted by payment processing that fails to work. Also, saved credit card information needs to remain saved as manually inputting it wastes precious time.
In addition, while those able to secure coins naturally want them to increase in value and to keep mintages low, the Royal Mint could have offered a good number more of the silver coins. Perhaps 1,000 of the silver and 5,000 or 6,000 of the silver, which would still be low enough to ensure a strong aftermarket.
The Three Graces launch at the Royal Mint confirms how much today’s modern coin collectors love classic coin designs, especially those with a rich history, recreated with modern minting technology and that there remains enormous demand for well-made examples of such tribute pieces.
eBay sales data current as of February 22
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Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer, specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in CoinWeek since 2011. He also currently writes regular features for Coin World, The Numismatist, and CoinUpdate.com, and has been published in Numismatic News, COINage, and FUNTopics, among other coin publications. He has also been widely published on international political, military, and economic issues.
In 2015, his CoinWeek.com column “The Coin Analyst” received an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) for Best Website Column. In 2017, he received an NLG award for Best Article in a Non-Numismatic Publication with his piece, “Liberty Centennial Designs”.
In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his 2017 article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif” that appeared in The Clarion.