An introduction to modern Australian coins

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13 November 2018
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We explore the rich picking of commemorative coins to be found from Australia

Until relatively recently Australia pursued a very conservative policy with regard to its coinage. Coins adhered to the British system of weights and specifications and ranged from the bronze halfpenny to the silver florin (2 shillings).

Although some pictorial elements appeared in 1938 the only changes were confined to the effigy of the reigning monarch.

Apart from a crown in 1937-8 inspired by the Coronation, the preferred medium for commemoratives was the florin and only four special issues appeared between 1927 (opening of the parliament in Canberra) and 1954 (Royal Visit).

Decimal currency in Australia

The advent of decimal currency in 1966 led to a new range of coins from the bronze cent to the silver 50c. The latter was replaced by a polygonal coin in cupro-nickel in 1969 and this became a popular denomination for commemorative coins, beginning in 1970 with a coin marking the bicentenary of Captain Cook’s first voyage of discovery. 

This policy was still rather conservative, subsequent issues being confined to single coins for the Queen’s silver jubilee (1977), the wedding of Charles and Diana (1981), the Commonwealth Games at Brisbane (1982) and the Australian bicentennial (1988).

The pace quickened in the 1990s and a number of 50c coins ranged from the 25th anniversary of decimal currency (1991) to the Royal Visit (2000). At the same time, however, the bronze 1 and 2 cents were discontinued after 1991 due to inflation, while a brass dollar was introduced in 1984, followed by a $2 coin four years later.

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Australian coins in the 1990s

In the 1990s Australia embarked on a much more liberal policy.

At one end of the scale were the bullion-orientated coins struck at the Perth Mint, which had originally been established as a branch of the Royal Mint to refine ore from the goldfields of Western Australia and strike sovereigns.

In recent years Perth has produced some very attractive series in gold or platinum, beginning with the Nugget series in 1986 and continuing in more recent years with the Kangaroo and Koala sets which rival the Panda coinage of China.

Meanwhile the Royal Australian Mint, based in Canberra, has stepped up production of commemoratives and special issues. Most of these are in silver or gold with nominal legal tender values of $1, $2, $5 or $10, but there have also been quite a few commemorative dollars intended for general circulation, and therefore struck in the same brass alloy.

Some of the special issues have been produced in thematic sets, such as the $5 coins honouring explorers (1994), personalities associated with the development of Australia in the 19th century, from Elizabeth MacArthur, the sheep pioneer, to Charles Todd who installed the trans-continental telegraph line (1995), sportsmen and entertainers (1996) and major sporting events such as the Sydney Olympics (2000) and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games (2006).

The highly distinctive fauna and flora of Australia have also been given prominence in sets of mainly $5 or $10 coins, including some very tiny gold or platinum coins.

Commemorative Australian coins

In the past few years, however, there has also been an upsurge in commemorative coins, often released as singles or pairs.  
 
A recurring theme is the development of Australia, ranging from the exploration and survey of different regions to the anniversaries of statehood. The expansion of the railway system has yielded several coins in recent years, from the 150th anniversary of the very first steam locomotive to the opening of the famous ‘Ghan’, the line linking Adelaide and Darwin, both subject of $5 coins in 2004.
        
The 150th anniversaries of the mints established at Adelaide and Sydney have been marked in 2003 and 2005 by large silver coins which have a gold replica of the original coins inset.

The Australian Mint has become something of a world leader in the field of coinage technology, developing not only bimetallic or trimetallic coins but also coins with a multicoloured or holographic surface. 

Australia is often perceived as rabidly republican, but this is belied by the extraordinary number of coins which continue to celebrate royal events.

Read the latest guides on Australian coins