How an Italian engraver produced the most British coin of all time
Across the world, one coin is seen to epitomise all that it is British in a way that compares with nothing else. That coin is the Gold Sovereign. And at the centre of its international reputation is a quintessentially British design – St. George slaying the dragon.
Yet it is not, as you may first think, the work of a classical British artist, but instead that of the second son of an Italian federal court judge, who only came to England just two years before his portrayal of St. George and the Dragon first adorned a British coin in 1817.
In fact well before his arrival in England in 1815, Pistrucci was already well established as a leading gem engraver and producer of fine cameos amongst European high society. He rapidly made an impression on his arrival in London, winning the approval of the well-known antiquarian William Richard Hamilton.
Despite having no coin or medal experience, he was quickly commissioned by the Master of the Mint Wellesley Pole, brother of the Duke of Wellington, to produce a new portrait of George III as part of the Great Recoinage. His model, created in the unusual medium of red jasper, was re-engraved by Thomas Wyon for its final use on coinage losing, in Pistrucci’s eyes at least, much of the detail.
However, his work was clearly of sufficient quality to impress Pole, who followed up with a commission for the design that has forever since been the synonymous with the name Benedetto Pistrucci – St. George and the Dragon.
A design nearly lost the annals of history
Yet within just eight years it looked like Pistrucci’s design might disappear forever, as the Royal Mint changed the Sovereign reverse design to an heraldic shield, which was to remain in place for the next 46 years.
It was only a drive to improve the design quality of the coinage, led by new Deputy Master, Charles Fremantle that saw the re-introduction of St. George in 1871. However, both reverse designs were struck concurrently until 1887 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer declared that “by tradition and recommended by the great beauty of the design” Pistrucci’s design should once again appear on all Gold Sovereigns.
“The chief coin of the world”
By the mid-1850s the “new” Gold Sovereign had become a coin of true international status. Indeed an official list identifies no fewer than thirty-six colonies and dependencies in which the gold sovereign or half sovereign was recognised as legal tender.
More surprisingly, so great had become the reputation of the British sovereign that it was also in regular use in other countries outside the Empire, including Brazil, Egypt and Portugal.
However, it was the opening of the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint in 1855 following the discovery of gold in Australia that really marked the international growth of the Sovereign. Initially authorised to strike Sovereign’s to a different design, in 1871 Sydney finally started to strike coins of the same designs as the UK (just in time for the Pistrucci revival), only identified by a small “S” mintmark.
Further Australian Royal Mint branches followed in Melbourne in 1871 and Perth in 1899, before the Mint’s reach extended to other Empire countries with branches opening in Ottowa (1899), Bombay (1918) and Pretoria (1923) – all producing Gold Sovereigns.
It is no wonder that the eminent economist of the early 20th Century, Sir John Clapham, proclaimed the Gold sovereign as “the chief coin of the world”.
A worldwide modern icon – good enough for 007
The last international sovereign was struck in Pretoria in 1932. By then the international interest in Gold Sovereign, which started in Victorian times was well and truly established. And it is a reputation that continues right up to today.
Ian Fleming chose to equip James Bond with 50 Gold Sovereigns in his attaché case in the From Russia with Love, whilst Special Forces are still believed to carry Gold Sovereigns, as an emergency international currency.
In 2012 the Royal Mint once again authorised the striking of the St. George and the Dragon Gold Sovereign outside the UK under licence in India, so great is its popularity amongst the people there.
“The Royal Sovereign 1489 – 1989”, Ed GP Dyer
“A New History of the Royal Mint”, Christopher Edgar Challis
The Royal Mint Museum Website
The 2014 Gold Sovereign is available in a limited edition DateStamp™ Presentation of just 995 pieces –now sold out.
Just 15 days since it went on sale, the complete 495 edition of DateStamp™ “958” and “999” Silver Britannia Set has been fully reserved by collectors looking to capture an unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated moment in the history of this most iconic of British coins.
Here’s the background. For the last quarter of a century, the 1oz Britannia Silver has been struck in, not surprisingly, ‘Britannia Silver’ with a purity of 95.8% silver – or more commonly 958/1000. Out of its total 32.45 gram weight, 31 grams was pure silver (1 troy ounce), the rest an alloy.
New year, new Britannia
Until recently that is. Other silver 1oz classics have always been struck in 999/1000 silver, the trademark standard of silver bullion coins the world over. Britannia at 958/1000 was the odd one out.
And so, from 1st January 2013, we waved goodbye to the old ‘958’ Britannia and for the first time ever, welcomed in the new ‘999’ silver 1oz coin – bringing her in line with the US Eagle and Canadian Maple Leaf but also securing Britannia’s status as Britain’s purest silver coin.
The end of one era – the beginning of another
Specification changes like this one don’t come along very often. And when they do, collectors look for something very special to remember it by.
The limited edition Silver Britannia ‘DateStamp™’ Set pairs up one of the last 2012 strikes of the ‘old’ 958 Britannia with one of the very first brand new 2013 versions minted in the purest 999 silver.
A moment captured in time
To mark this unprecedented change in Britannia’s history, each of the two ‘DateStamp™’ Set coins is presented in a tamper-proof capsule alongside a gold 1st class stamp, postmarked on the first or last day of issue – 31st December 2012 for the ‘958’ coin and 1st January 2013 for the new ‘999’ coin. The perfect way to capture and preserve a real piece of coinage history.
Also adding extra value, each set also has its own unique serial number guaranteeing its authenticity and limited edition status.
Missed out on owning one of the 495 sets? Other DateStamp™ coins are available, click here to see the full range.