Celebrating the Sovereign


19 February 2018
Great-Britain---1-Sovereign-1841-(slabbed-and-graded)---Victoria---gold-(1)[15]-91016.jpg Great Britain - 1 Sovereign 1841 (slabbed and graded) - Victoria - gold
Still considered to be the Royal Mint’s flagship coin, hundreds of years since it first appeared, the sovereign has a colourful history and examples are eagerly sought after by collectors. By Paula Hammond

Still considered to be the Royal Mint’s flagship coin, hundreds of years since it first appeared, the sovereign has a colourful history and examples are eagerly sought after by collectors. By Paula Hammond

In 2016, to mark the ninetieth birthday of the Queen, the Royal Mint produced the latest version of its flagship coin, the sovereign. For one year only, this world-renowned coin featured a celebratory obverse portrait, by British sculptor James Butler.

Remembering the first ever Sovereign

This was only the second time during Her Majesty’s reign that a commemorative portrait featured on sovereign proof coins. Previously, in 1989, sculptor Bernard Sindall produced a spectacular design that featured The Queen seated as for her coronation. On the reverse, was a crowned shield and double Tudor rose. The coin was issued to marked the 500th Anniversary of the first ever sovereign, and the images chosen echo the gothic glory of Henry VIII’s ‘new’ coin.

In fact, that new gold coin took its name from the majestic portrait that graced the coin’s obverse. Never one to undersell his accomplishments, the inscription read: “A DNO’ FACTU’ EST ISTUD ET EST MIRAB’ IN OCULIS NRS” (“This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes”.) The quotation is from Psalm118 but it’s easy to imagine that, in this context, Henry considered himself to be ‘the Lord’ whose orders had produced such a magnificent coin.

The first sovereigns

These first sovereigns were 23-cart gold and weighed half a troy ounce. Later, this was reduced to 22-carats, which quickly became Britain’s gold standard.  From 1498, every Tudor monarch until James I issued their own sovereigns. After that, the coin ceased production and it wasn’t for another 200 years that a new gold coin was born and given the old name of sovereign. Almost half the weight and diameter of the original sovereigns, in terms of beauty and craftsmanship, these coins were stunning.

In place of the heraldic reverse, a St. George and the Dragon image by Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci was adopted. This proved so popular that, since 1817, every king ad queen apart from William IV has used it at least once. In fact, during the reign of H.M. Elizabeth II, Pistrucci’s George and the Dragon has only lost poll position four times - in 1989, in 2002 (replaced by the Golden Jubilee shield), 2005, and 2012 (Diamond Jubilee). Both Timothy Noad’s brutal George and the Dragon and Paul Day’s later, modernist reworking remind us just how hard it is to create a true classic.

Sovereigns have become so iconic that not only are they preferred to other bullion coins, like the krugerrand, but the Royal Mint has, at a various times, authorised production in Australia, Canada, South Africa, and India (where it’s illegal to import gold coins) to cope with collector demand. Some of these - such as the 1908 Edward VII Ottawa Mint and the 1923 George V Sydney Mint coins - are quite rare. And rarity isn’t just about low production numbers. Even quality coins have the occasional errors and these can make a valuable coin even more desirable. For instance, if you should find the word “Victoria” on the 1880 Sydney Mint shield sovereign, in which an upside down A replaces the V then you can add an extra naught to the value.

The real deal?

Gold coins have always been hard to fake convincingly. The weight, texture, and lustre of gold is unmistakable - even when forgers have used 9-carat gold or gold-plated platinum. Buy from a reputable dealer and know your subject. Spink’s “Coins of England & the United Kingdom” details many known fakes, including some expensive coins (so high value isn’t necessarily an indication that a sovereign’s genuine.). As a guide here are some of the easiest ‘tells’:

•               Image quality

•               Dates (forgers may use non-existent issue dates)

•               Texture. Some fakes are cast, which makes them feel/look grainy

•               Sharp edges

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Coin interview

James Butler MBE, RA is the designer of the obverse portrait of The Queen that appeared, for one year only, on proof coins in The Sovereign 2016 Collection. Born in London in 1931, James is a widely-respected sculptor with a prolific portfolio and a notable reputation in the numismatic world. He talked to Paula Hammond about his work.

You’re famous for your towering, bronze sculptures. Is it difficult to work on such a small scale?

It is always difficult to change from working on a large scale to adjust to the very small detailed work that is necessary for a coin. For large works I am perched high up on a scaffold where a great deal of physical effort is required and then to adjust  to delicately modelling fine detail on a small clay relief takes quite a bit of getting used to.

A lot of your work is in the ‘public domain’ - on streets and in public squares…

It is certainly very nice to come upon one of my large works that are now part of the daily scene and extra enjoyable to find one of my coins in my change.

You’ve worked on several commissions for the Royal Mint. What was the most memorable commission and why?

My most memorable commission for the Royal Mint has been the Great Seal of the Realm. For which the Queen gave me a sitting. She was very gracious and allowed me to arrange her cloak to fit my design. She also gave me a cup of tea.

When working an iconic coin, like the sovereign, how flexible is the brief?

The brief is usually quite flexible and allows me a reasonable artistic licence.

Can you talk us through the process, from sketch to final coin?

The making of a coin is as follows. The Mint will give me a brief  which is usually quite a challenge. My way of working is to do a number of quick sketches, which are all very brief, but are variations on the design and general look of the  possible medal. The Mint will sometimes  ask a few artists to compete for the design. When the rough design has been chosen, it is up to the chosen artist to produce a plaster model which can be scaled down to the coin size by computer. A die is made and medals are produced.

What was the biggest challenge when working on the new sovereign?

The biggest challenge on working on a portrait is always the likeness.  The smallest mark can make such a difference.