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GOLD SOVEREIGN: THE WORLD’S MOST SOUGHT AFTER GOLD COIN

By Mark Rogers

The Gold Sovereign is a highly collectable investment coin and the oldest coin struck by the Royal Mint. It is perhaps the World’s most famous gold coin and is the most widely traded semi–numismatic gold coin. The Sovereign is 22 Carat and is a highly collectable investment coin.

It was first minted at the order of King Henry VII in 1489; the modern version first appeared in 1817 with the now famous image of St George slaying the dragon engraved on the reverse. Today’s sovereign contains 0.235421 ounces (7.315 grams) of gold and is highly sought after throughout the world.

Henry VII

On October 28th 1489, Henry VII issued instructions to the Royal Mint to strike “a new money of gold”. Gold coins had been in circulation for the previous 150 years, this was the largest yet both in size and volume. It had yet two other intriguing features: while being large, it was also very thin, with a diameter of one and a half inches.

“The king is seated on a throne of elaborate design which fills the field of the obverse; the reverse type is the same which he adopted for the ryal, but usually the work is more crowded, a fleured tressure being added around the rose, and lions and fleurs inserted in the small intervening spaces. The coin, in spite of the somewhat restless effect produced by the massing of detailed ornamentation on the reverse, is a wonderful creation of Tudor art; the compositions of the throned figure, adapted most skillfully to the circular field, and the powerful handling of perspective to defeat the limitations of the shallow relief which was necessary in the engraving of the dies for striking so thin a flan, show a complete mastery of technique combined with the highest artistic inspiration.” (Coinage, by R.H. Dolley, Assistant Keeper of Coins and Medals, British Museum, in Lane Poole, Austin: Medieval England, Volume I, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1958).

The coin weighed 240 grains and had a current value of twenty shillings. The king is in full coronation regalia on the obverse, and the reverse shows the royal arms against a double rose symbolizing the union under Henry VII of the Yorkists and the Lancastrians after the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses.

It was named a Sovereign and it is interesting to speculate why, the Wars of the Roses being an indication. England had been long troubled by the conflicts between the nobles and their contending champions for the crown. A weak Henry VI who could not rule France and barely controlled England was usurped by Richard III, who in turn was beaten at Bosworth Field by Henry VII, who was duly crowned king as victor in battle. However, Henry did have legitimate claim: he was Earl of Richmond in his own right, and claimed descent from the Lancastrian side, while politically he was a Yorkist. He was a powerful ruler, aided in this by his subjects who craved a quiet life and the dissipation of the nobility, many of whose lines died out on the battlefield as male heirs perished, often enough upon capture and execution.

While it is true that plots and subterfuges continued behind the scenes of Henry’s rule, the country at large was at peace and united for the first time under his reign. This imposing gold coin, emblazoned with the image of the victorious sovereign was perhaps intended as a symbol of how he had and was to continue to rule, hence the name. It set a seal on this the reign of the first Tudor, which was to be consolidated in the reign of his son, Henry VIII.

“Large and handsome, it was clearly intended to augment the dignity of the king and to propagate a political message of stability and prestige rather than to fulfill any commercial or domestic need. As such, it was struck in turn by each of the Tudor monarchs, its issue coming to an end early in the reign of James I. A Sovereign was not to appear again for 200 years.” (The Royal Mint) (Clicking on this link will not only give readers the Royal Mint’s perspective on its oldest and most famous coin, but a view of the obverse and the reverse of Henry’s Sovereign: a coin that richly merits the fulsome description given above by Assistant Keeper Dolley.)

The first modern Sovereign

Gold sovereigns were re-introduced as legal tender in 1817 as part of a major coin reform conducted by the Master of the Royal Mint, William Wellesley Pole.  A young Italian engraver, Benedetto Pistrucci, was appointed to create the reverse design of the new sovereign; he realized the beautiful image of St George slaying the dragon.  This design has been varied over the years but is essentially the same.  As a testament to its greatness, it still appears on sovereigns today.  Other designs for the reverse designs have appeared at times, during the reigns of William IV, Victoria, George IV and Elizabeth II.  A royal shield, as used on the 1489 sovereign, has often been used in various different formats.  The obverse of the sovereign followed the trend established for the original sovereigns and portrayed an image of the reigning monarch which remains the case up until today.

Gold sovereigns were withdrawn from circulation at the start of World War I in 1914, although production continued at the Royal Mint until 1917.  They continued to be struck in other mints of the British Empire but in lower quantities than before.  Sovereigns not produced at the Royal Mint in London carry a mintmark to show which mint produced them.  Production of sovereigns at other mints stopped in 1932.

In 1957 the Royal Mint began producing gold sovereigns once more, in part to meet world demand and  in part to prevent counterfeit production – which became rife after the Royal Mint stopped production in 1917.  They were not however reintroduced into everyday circulation.  Prior to 1979 only gold bullion coins had been issued and it was in this year that the first gold proof sovereigns were issued.  Between the years 1983 and 1999 the Royal mint ceased producing gold bullion sovereigns and only minted gold proof sovereigns.  Gold bullion sovereigns were re-introduced in 2000.

1989

To celebrate the 500th anniversary  a special 500 commemorative design was produced, showing Queen Elizabeth II seated facing on a throne. This was only issued as a proof and demand  has grown steadily over the past few years, because as a single-date type coin, it is in demand by both date collectors and type collectors.

2005 – New Modernistic design

In 2005, the Royal Mint issued another new sovereign designed by Timothy Noad a herald painter at the Royal College of Arms actually a modernistic version of Saint George slaying the dragon with the shield as a focal point. This coin was issued in both normal circulation (bullion) and proof versions for 2005 only

2007 – 2010

The Royal Mint have used re-cut dies to take the design  back almost two centuries to portray Pistrucci’s St. George and the dragon in its neo-Classical glory

Types of Sovereign

Aside from the full sovereign, the Royal Mint today produces the following sovereigns in gold proof and gold bullion versions for general sale: quintuple (£5) sovereign, double (£2) sovereign, half sovereign and for the first time ever, 2009 saw the general release of a quarter sovereign.

Sovereign designs and dates

Monarch Obverse design Reverse design Dates
George III Laureate head St George and the dragon 1817-1820
George IV Laureate head St George and the dragon 1821-1825
George IV Bare head Shield 1825-1830
William IV Bare head Shield 1831-1833, 1835-1837
Victoria Young Head Shield 1838-1839, 1841-1866, 1868-1887
Victoria Young Head St George and the dragon 1871-1887
Victoria Jubilee Head St George and the dragon 1887-1893
Victoria Old Head St George and the dragon 1893-1901
Edward VII Bare head St George and the dragon 1902-1910
George V First Type (large head) St George and the dragon 1911-1928
George V Second Type (small head) St George and the dragon 1929-1932
George VI Bare head St George and the dragon 1937 coronation proof set only
Elizabeth II First portrait St George and the dragon 1957-1959, 1962-1968
Elizabeth II Second portrait St George and the dragon 1974, 1976, 1978-1984
Elizabeth II Third portrait St George and the dragon 1985-1988, 1990-1997
Elizabeth II Sovereign portrait Shield and Tudor rose 1989
Elizabeth II Fourth portrait St George and the dragon 1998-2001, 2003, 2004, 2006-2009
Elizabeth II Fourth portrait Shield 2002 Jubilee
Elizabeth II Fourth portrait Modern St George and the dragon 2005

Technical specifications of modern sovereigns (post 1817)

  Quintuple sovereign Double sovereign Sovereign Half Sovereign Quarter sovereign
Purity 22 carat gold 22 carat gold 22 carat gold 22 carat gold 22 carat gold
Weight (grams) 39.94 15.98 7.99 3.99 1.997
Diameter (mm) 36.02 28.40 22.05 19.30 13.50
Actual gold content (troy ounces) 1.1771 0.4708 0.2354 0.1177 0.0588

Gold sovereigns: to invest or not to invest?

As one of the oldest coins in the world the British gold sovereign is highly sought after by both investors and numismatists alike.  As with all gold coins, the price of sovereigns fluctuates with the price of gold because of the gold content of the coin.  However the price of sovereigns is not entirely based on its gold content.  Gold sovereigns generally fetch a higher premium than the price of gold for the same gold content.  For example the 2009 gold proof sovereign retails at about £299 for 0.23 ounces of gold.  The current price of an ounce of gold is around £680 therefore the price for 0.235 ounces is around the £160 mark.  Therefore the 2009 sovereign is worth almost twice as much as the price of gold.

The premium of a sovereign obviously depends on its quality and whether it is easily available or not.  Some sovereigns fetch a much higher premium than others.

While there is no official grading system in existence, sovereigns are generally graded in the following manner in the UK:

FDC/proof  – perfect quality

UNC – uncirculated

EF – extra fine

VF – very fine

F – fine

(see article on quality of gold coins)

Whilst older sovereigns were produced in much larger quantities than those produced today it is much more difficult to source a good quality sovereign from these times.  Sovereigns from the reigns of George III, George IV and William IV are extremely rare in good quality.  EF quality coins can be found but are quite rare and as such would fetch a high premium.  FDC and UNC coins are extremely rare for these periods and when sold fetch very high premiums.  A George IV sovereign from 1825 made £14950 in a sale in March 2004.  Early Victorian shield sovereigns are also highly sought after and therefore an EF quality coin would fetch a high premium whilst extremely rare FDC and UNC coins would fetch incredibly high premiums.  Later Victorian sovereigns are less rare than the earlier coins in good condition, however they are again fairly rare in top condition therefore sovereigns of UNC and FDC grade would fetch a high premium.

Edward VII and George V sovereigns are also fairly easy to obtain in EF condition and were produced in very large numbers so do not fetch such a high premium.  As with later Victorian sovereigns, it is more difficult to find UNC and FDC grade coins and these would therefore fetch a higher premium.  No sovereigns were issued for Edward VIII, however a few official pattern coins were produced.  If any of these were ever to be sold they would fetch an incredibly high price due to their extreme rarity.  During the reign of George VI no sovereigns were issued apart from a very limited amount of collectors sets to commemorate his coronation.  This was a gold proof set and as such can be found today in FDC condition.  This set would today fetch around double the price of a 2009 4 piece gold proof set.  When gold sovereigns were reintroduced during the reign of Elizabeth II they were produced at much lower quantities than for other monarchs as they were no longer in everyday circulation.  However despite the fact that much fewer coins were produced they were all of FDC or UNC quality.

The majority of coins were released during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign and are not difficult to find in prime condition.  For this reason they fetch a lower premium than UNC or FDC coins from earlier periods, although they are still worth investing in as they do fetch a higher premium than the price of gold and are likely to become more sought after in the future.

Certain sovereigns are much rarer than others; some that are worth looking out for include:  1817 sovereign – the first modern sovereign and any other UNC or FDC coins from the reigns of George II, George IV and William IV (or even EF graded sovereigns from these periods), 1838 the first Queen Victoria sovereign, 1841 the rarest Queen Victoria sovereign, 1917 London minted sovereign (very few in existence as it was the year London stopped producing sovereigns) and out of Elizabeth II sovereigns the 1989 special commemorative 500th anniversary sovereign.   British sovereigns are an excellent investment choice and will continue to be so. For as long as Britain keeps its currency, it seems inevitable that the Royal Mint will continue issuing sovereigns every year for collectors, investors and enthusiasts.  However, if the UK joined the Euro would this signal the end for this iconic coin? If that were the case gold sovereigns would surely become more sought after than ever and consequently represent an even greater investment opportunity.

How to spot a fake

Many fake sovereigns have been produced over the years.  To avoid buying a fake you should always buy from a reputable source such as LinGold.com.  We have however, created a list of key things to look out for to avoid buying a sovereign forgery:

  • The feel of the coin: fakes are often very smooth or can have sharp edges
  • Be wary of coins that are too shiny with blurred details. It’s a sign that they have been cleaned and, therefore, some gold has been worn away
  • Dates: check for missing dates or check that sovereigns were actually produced in the year stated in the design shown
  • Mintmarks: if there is no mintmark check that the London mint produced sovereigns in that year, if there is a mintmark check that the mint in question produced sovereigns in that year
  • Weight, size and depth: check these correspond with official figure

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