This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of the Coin News magazine. Subscribe for as little as £1 a month.
Across almost every Australian coin series, there are unanswered numismatic questions. Whether the questions arose from poor record keeping, botchy die punching, bad policy, experimentation, or something else altogether, the result is often a mystery that leaves numismatists and collectors scratching their heads for years to come.
The Australian gold series is not immune from mystery, so it was with curiosity that I answered a call from an English collector who claimed to have information about a 1934 Melbourne mint sovereign. Every sovereign collector knows that Australia stopped minting sovereigns in 1931, while the very last currency-issue sovereigns were struck in Pretoria, South Africa, in 1932. News of a supposed 1934 sovereign—one struck in Melbourne, no less—therefore piqued my interest, and I arranged to meet the English collector at the Millennium Hotel during London’s Coinex Coin Show last year.
Sovereigns from the Melbourne Mint always bear an "M" minmark.
As a coin dealer, you are used to expecting certain things: A grandfather’s collection is usually never in as great a condition as the grandchildren, who wish to sell, claim. If a non-collector has a “1930 penny” for sale, it is more likely to be British than Australian. And if I happen to have a Proof Canberra Florin on my website for sale, I will receive calls from collectors who also claim to have one—but, upon inspection, their coins are inevitably not proof at all, but are instead low-grade and worn. You develop a certain scepticism whenever something is offered to you, no matter how flatteringly the coins are described. So it was with that mindset that I ordered a £4 cup of percolated coffee and waited for the collector to arrive.
I didn’t have to wait long, and in ten minutes the collector and I were knee-deep in conversation. The collector had unfurled a bundle of documents from his satchel and flattened them on the coffee table between us. The documents, he explained, came from the National Archives in Kew, and provided evidence for the manufacture of reverse sovereign dies bearing the date 1934 and the mintmark “M”. So was it possible, he posed, that sovereigns dated 1934 were minted?
The hypothetical appearance of a 1934 Melbourne sovereign.
Firstly, I want to summarise the content of the documents.
- Page 1, 5th January 1934: A letter from the Royal Mint Melbourne to the Royal Mint London requesting that three sovereign dies dated 1934 be manufactured and shipped to Melbourne.
- Page 2, 16th February 1934: A short telegram from London to Melbourne asking only “For what reason are sovereign reverse dies requisitioned.”
- Page 3, 19th February 1934: Melbourne’s response to London’s telegram: “Coinage sovereigns requested for centenary.” This, of course, refers to Victoria and Melbourne’s centenaries in 1934 and 1935.
- Page 4, 16th February 1934: This note from the Superintendent of the Royal Mint London summarises the previous letters and telegrams, noting that Melbourne had requested reverse sovereign dies. Noteworthy is the reference that the dies be “suitably marked” for use at the Melbourne Mint. Presumably, this is a reference to the “M” mintmark on all Melbourne-minted sovereigns.
- Pages 5 and 6, 20th February 1934: Two separate letters written by the Deputy Master of the Melbourne Mint, Hugh Douglas McCay, providing background to the request to procure 1934 sovereign dies. McCay states that the mint had received a request from the solicitor of the organisers of the Centenary People’s Fair to strike sovereigns dated 1934. The sovereigns, he states, are intended to be given away “with cake”, and will be issued to the public with a “certificate”. McCay expresses his reluctance to strike sovereigns, and explains that he had advised the solicitor that a minimum order of 1,000 ounces of gold would be required. (This suggests that the hypothetical 1934 sovereign would have a mintage of 4,248 pieces as a minimum.) Despite his reluctance to strike sovereigns, McCay laments that the law states that sovereigns must be “coined when demanded… and it appears to [McCay] that the Mint has no option but must strike the coins.”
- Page 7, 26th March 1934: A friendly letter from London states that the 1934 sovereigns would “have special value, since… they will be the only gold coins struck [by the Royal Mint or any of its branches]”. The author then jokes that he “would not mind a piece of cake if you can guarantee that it contains a sovereign!”
- Pages 8 and 9, 22nd March 1934: The Royal Mint confirms via letter that “4 reverse sovereign dies for 1934” were shipped to the Royal Mint Melbourne. There is also a bill to the Royal Mint Melbourne for £3/6/6, the cost of the four dies.
- Page 10, 26th April 1934: This final letter is a confirmation that the Royal Mint Melbourne received the four reverse dies.
So, asked the collector, were the 1934 sovereigns ever minted? And what happened to the dies? He had hoped that I, as an Australian, might have knowledge or information that was not available to him, but unfortunately I was as uninformed as he was.
We parted company, and I promised to investigate this mystery further upon returning to Australia. I was curious myself as to how the potential production of sovereigns might have gone unnoticed. If there were records for the production of sovereigns in 1934—even if the coins were subsequently destroyed—collectors would know about it, so my conclusion was that no coins were ever minted. However, if this were the case, what happened to the dies? Further research was certainly warranted.
Like the 1934 Melbourne sovereign, the 1934-35 Centennial Florin was issued to commemorate the founding of Victoria.
I contacted several authorities, including the Melbourne Museum (which had acquired some of the artefacts from the Melbourne Mint) and the Royal Australian Mint (to where any coining equipment, including dies, would have been sent when the Melbourne Mint was closed). All leads were dead ends, and after several weeks I was no closer to resolving the mystery.
Finally, a numismatist colleague suggested that I contact John Sharples, a former Curator of the Numismatics at the Museum of Victoria, Melbourne. Mr Sharples was kind enough to reply to my inquiry and explained that the mint had indeed received four sovereign reverse dies in the half-year up to 30 June 1934, according to Melbourne Mint records. The records did not clarify the date or details of the reverse dies, but as this corroborates with the mint records from London, it is straightforward to conclude that these four dies were in fact the 1934 sovereign dies. Mr Sharples continued that another mint report dated 3 January 1935 indicated that four sovereign reverse dies were destroyed in December 1934. Again, although the report did not clarify the details of the dies destroyed—only that they were reverse sovereign dies—it stands to reason that the four dies destroyed were the four dies shipped from London only seven months earlier: the 1934 sovereign dies.
So, what started off as a coffee in a London hotel and ended with an exchange with a former Curator of Numismatics from Melbourne led to some interesting discoveries. It solved the riddle of the fate of the unused 1934 sovereign dies, and provided an insight into the inner workings of the mints from early last century. Had the coins been minted, they would have been the very last of the pre-modern sovereigns made anywhere in the empire. And had the dies survived, they would have made a fascinating exhibit at the Royal Australian Mint and a nice pair to the 1932 Perth Mint sovereign dies on display at the Perth Mint.