Sovereign (British coin)
|Composition||22 Carat Gold|
|Years of minting||1817–present|
|Design||Queen Elizabeth II|
|Design||Saint George and the Dragon|
The sovereign is a gold coin of the United Kingdom, with a nominal value of one pound sterling. Prior to 1932 it was a fully circulating coin within Britain's then Gold Standard currency. Today it is used as a bullion coin and is sometimes mounted in jewellery.
Named after the English gold sovereign, last minted in 1604, the name was revived with the Great Recoinage of 1816. Minting these new sovereigns began in 1817. The gold content was fixed by the coin act of 1816 at 1320/5607 (0.235420) troy ounces (7.322381 g), nearly equivalent to 113 grains. This weight has remained almost constant to the present day — rounding at 10-6 g took place on its legal redefinition in the decimalised rather than fractional system of coin weights.
Sovereigns have been minted in the United Kingdom from 1817 to 1917, in 1925, and from 1957 to the present. In the past Australia, Canada, and South Africa all occasionally minted the coins. Today, they are minted at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Wales, and under licence by MMTC-PAMP near Delhi, India.
In addition to the sovereign, the Royal Mint also struck ten-shilling half sovereigns, two-pound double sovereigns, and five-pound quintuple sovereign coins. Only the sovereign and the half sovereign were commonly struck for circulation.
In 2009, The Royal Mint released a new coin in the sovereign series: the quarter-sovereign, similar in some ways to the original gold English crown of the rose.
Sovereigns minted since 1817 have been produced according to the act of 1816 (56 George III chapter 68):
- Weight: 7.988052 g (calculated from original definition; the Coin Act 1971 rounded the standard to exactly 7.98805 g.)
- Thickness: 1.52 mm
- Diameter: 22.05 mm
- Fineness: 22 carat = 916⅔ / 1000 (± 2/1000)
- Gold Content: 7.322381 g = 0.235420 (exactly: 1320/5607) troy ounces or 113.0016 grains (original definition; actual gold content may differ due to allowed tolerances and abrasion, see Reminting worn coins below.)
The initial reverse type for gold coins was the shield and crown motif, supplemented on the sovereign with a heraldic wreath. This was succeeded by a portrayal of Saint George killing a dragon, engraved by Benedetto Pistrucci. This same design is still in use on British gold sovereigns, although other reverse designs have also been used during the reigns of King William IV, Queen Victoria, King George IV, and Queen Elizabeth II.
Reminting worn coins
In Victorian times it was the practice of the Bank of England to remove worn sovereigns and half sovereigns from circulation and to have them recoined. Consequently, although a billion sovereigns have been minted in total, that figure includes gold that has been coined and recoined a number of times. In addition, when coins were sent to places such as the United States for international payments between governments, they were frequently melted down into gold bars because of the Federal regulations then in force. When gold coins were finally withdrawn from circulation in 1933 in the US, many thousands of British gold sovereigns were consigned to the melting pot in this way.
It is estimated that in circulation a sovereign could have a lifespan of up to 15 years before it fell below the "least current weight", that is, the minimum amount of gold below which it ceased to be legal tender. English law allows a sovereign to be legal tender so long as it weighs 7.93787 g, or more; and the difference between this and the full standard weight of 7.98805 g (approx. 0.6%) represents the margin allowed for abrasion. It was actually the half-sovereign that had the most circulation in Victorian Britain. Many sovereigns languished in bank vaults for most of their lives. In 1889 and 1890 Orders in Council were made permitting members of the general public to hand in any gold coins that were underweight and have them replaced by full-weight coins. A proclamation was subsequently issued in November 1890 that any gold coin struck before 1837 would cease to be legal tender with effect from 28 February 1891. This recycled gold was subsequently reminted into 13,680,486 half sovereigns in 1892 and 10,846,741 sovereigns in 1900. (Both figures for the London branch of the Royal Mint).
Sovereign obverse (heads) dies were also used in the nineteenth century to create farthings once they had become worn. (An obverse die could typically produce 100,000 coins.)
Sovereigns were produced in large quantities until World War I, at which time the UK came off the gold standard. From then until 1932, sovereigns were produced only at branch mints at Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bombay, Ottawa, and Pretoria (except for some in 1925 produced in London as part of Winston Churchill's ill-fated attempt to return the UK to the gold standard). The last regular issue was in 1932 (at Pretoria).
Production resumed in 1957, ostensibly to prevent the coin being counterfeited in Syria and Italy. Subsequent publication of treasury papers appear to indicate that sovereigns were widely used in pursuance of British foreign policy in the Middle East, and it was felt that the coin could not be allowed to fall into disrepute, as many individuals were receiving payments in the form of sovereigns for services rendered to the British government.
Sovereigns were produced most years as bullion until 1982. From there to 1999, proof coinage only versions were produced, but since 2000, bullion sovereigns have been minted. Modern sovereigns are minted at the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, Rhondda Cynon Taff, Wales. The coins are produced in the precious metal unit which is sealed off from the rest of the Mint, the Mint itself being protected by Ministry of Defence Police.
Mintage figures for the latest British coin production are given below. Please note: these are the actual number of coins issued, not the official issue limits often advertised. In addition, the Mint will strike extra coins for the purposes of quality control, i.e. samples of coins are submitted for the Trial of the Pyx which involves their destruction. Thus, an issue limit figure never fully reveals the true number actually created. Furthermore, the date on a bullion coin refers to the year the die was made, not necessarily the year in which it was struck. It is not unknown for the Mint to strike gold sovereigns with the date of the previous (or even older) years, e.g. bullion sovereigns struck during the reign of George VI were all dated 1925 and featured the head of George V. Additionally, the Royal Mint was selling sovereigns dated 2010 in December 2009.
To modern eyes the gold sovereign appears quite a small coin, but with a face value of £1 it had, in 1895, the same purchasing power as £94.78 in 2011. Gold is also a highly dense metal, so a small coin like a sovereign can contain about a quarter of an ounce of metal, the sovereign itself containing 0.23542 ounces of gold, with a total weight of 0.25682 ounces. Another reason for limiting the production of double sovereigns (£2) and quintuple sovereigns (£5) was the relative ease of removing gold from these larger coins — chemically, by filing, or using other techniques; for example, the drilling of small holes into the coin followed by hammering to conceal the holes, or "sweating": shaking a leather bag full of coins for a long period and collecting the gold dust that was knocked off.
Detection of counterfeit coins can be done either visually by comparison with known genuine coins, by using a coin gauge, or by precise weighing and measurement against standard dimensions (see Specifications above). This picture shows a sovereign balance or sovereign rocker, which was used to check that the weight was adequate, that the thickness and diameter were not excessive, and that the shape was a good circular cylinder.
There are many recorded fake or counterfeit gold sovereigns in circulation, although they are still relatively scarce in comparison to the numbers of genuine coins due to the difficulty of accurately replicating such a small coin economically. With numismatic fakes, the counterfeiter might use the correct proportions of gold, but try to replicate an older coin with special rarity value. Such fakes present a potential problem only to the numismatic collector as they still contain standard bullion content.
Occasionally one comes across fake sovereign coins where the gold is replaced or alloyed with a substitute metal to look like gold. For example, a limited number of fake sovereigns did appear in circulation which were produced with 9ct gold instead of the correct 22 carat composition. Such fakes can be relatively easily detected by measurement and weighing using jewellers scales. Experienced coin dealers will generally detect such fakes immediately as they are obviously underweight or have incorrect size or thickness dimensions, as well as often having minor differences or lack of sharpness in the design details. It is more common to come across counterfeit copies of larger gold coins such as the Krugerrand which are easier and more economical to copy.
Gold is, however, a difficult material to counterfeit without detection due to its unique density and colour. Gold is one of the densest metals and therefore much heavier (for equivalent size or volume) than the common metals such as lead, brass, copper and steel that are used to make fake bullion coins. Fake gold coins are either oversize or underweight, or both. A fake made from lead to exactly the same thickness and diameter as a genuine sovereign would be 35% lighter than the genuine coin. If made the correct weight and diameter, it would be 54% too thick.
Current sovereigns are struck in the same 22 carat (91⅔%) Crown gold (11/12 gold and 1/12 copper) alloy as the first modern sovereigns of 1817. Alloys are used to make gold coins harder and more durable, so they can resist scratches and dents during handling.
The only time there has been a deviation from this composition was in the production of early Australian sovereigns, which used silver as part of the alloy, and in London sovereigns dated 1887, when an additional 1.25% silver was added in order to make the blanks softer for the new Joseph Boehm relief of Queen Victoria: 1887 London Mint sovereigns are more yellow than other London-produced sovereigns. This additional silver affected the amount of copper in the coin, not, of course, its gold content. (Nineteenth century techniques of refining were not as advanced as today, and nineteenth century sovereigns became more accurate in terms of their gold weight as silver — which is often naturally combined with gold — was removed as an impurity from the "pure" gold used. Such minor inconsistencies would not affect either their numismatic or bullion value).
Sovereigns usually have a higher premium to the price of gold than some other bullion coins, such as the Krugerrand. This is due to a number of factors: the higher unit cost of the Sovereign (at under one-quarter of an ounce); the higher demand for the Sovereign from numismatists (compared to the Krugerrand which is not sought-after numismatically); and the higher costs of identifying and stocking a numismatic coin.
Sovereigns have been produced as follows:
- London: 1817–1917, 1925, 1957 onwards
- Melbourne: 1872–1931
- Sydney: 1855–1926
- Perth: 1899–1931
- Bombay: 1918
- Ottawa: 1908–1919
- Pretoria: 1923–1932
- Delhi: 2013 onwards
During the 1850s, Victoria alone contributed more than one-third of the world’s gold output. Although a Mint opened in Sydney in 1855, it had difficulty keeping pace with the output of the goldfields and in 1871 a new branch of the Royal Mint opened in Melbourne. Melbourne sovereigns carry a small ‘M’ to identify them.
Millions of pounds of gold bullion were shipped from Australia to London each year to be minted into coin. However, it soon became apparent that it would be easier to refine the gold and turn it into coins at source, rather than transport it to Britain and have it turned into coins there. Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide each submitted to be the venue of a branch of the Royal Mint and after some deliberation the British government awarded it to Sydney, which began issuing coins in 1855. This mint issued coins with its own design from 1855 until 1870 then, in 1871 the Royal Mint insisted that all gold sovereigns regardless of Mint should carry the British design.
The coins minted by Sydney carry a small ‘S’ mintmark to identify them for quality control purposes.
The gold mines at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie in Western Australia, once discovered, quickly became recognised as two of Australia’s richest. The problems of transporting the raw gold over 2,100 miles to the nearest Mint in Melbourne were obvious and so a new branch of the Royal Mint was authorised and opened in 1899.
Sovereigns minted at Perth carry a small ‘P’ mintmark.
- Bombay (India)
Another branch of the British Mint was established in Bombay in India in 1918, where the demand for sovereigns was particularly high. The Bombay mint only produced coins for one year and all are dated 1918. Nonetheless, the Indian mint struck more sovereigns (approximately 1.3 million) in its single year of operation than the Ottawa branch managed in more a decade.
Sovereigns from the Bombay mint were distinguished by the letter ‘I’ for India.
- Ottawa (Canada)
The Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-1898 saw more than 25,000 people seek their fortune in the frozen North of Canada. For some time all of Canada’s coinage was struck in England but these new gold strikes made this impractical.
In 1908 a Canadian branch of the British Royal Mint was opened in Ottawa. As well as producing silver and base metal coins for everyday use, the new Canadian mint also turned the recently discovered gold into sovereigns striking intermittently between 1908 and 1919.
Sovereigns of this mint carry a small ‘C’ mintmark.
- Pretoria (South Africa)
The next branch mint was established in Pretoria (South Africa) in 1923. Like the Australian and Canadian mints, this was set up to turn locally mined gold into coins. Significant quantities of gold were discovered in Johannesburg in 1886, setting off another mass migration as speculators, prospectors, fortune-seekers, and adventurers from all over the world descended upon the region.
By the end of the 1890s the area was responsible for a significant percentage of global gold production. Sovereigns, identical to the British coins except for the inclusion of an ‘SA’ mintmark, were struck at Pretoria between 1923 and 1932.
- Delhi (India)
To address the high demand for gold coins in the Indian market, which does not allow gold coins to be imported, the minting of gold sovereigns in India has resumed since 2013. Indian/Swiss joint venture company MMTC-PAMP mints under licence in its facility close to Delhi with full quality control from the Royal Mint.
As with the 1918 Bombay minting, these coins are UK legal tender, and are of identical design and specification as UK-minted sovereigns except for the 'I' for India mintmark.
- “The so-called "Great Recoinage" that began in 1816 was principally concerned with the re-introduction of a silver coinage and a change in the gold coinage from the guinea valued at 21 shillings to the slightly lighter sovereign worth 20 shillings. The value of the shilling remained unchanged at twelve pence.” From The Coinage of Britain By Ken Elks
- Coinage Act 1971 (PDF). London: HMSO. 1971. p. 9. ISBN 0-10-542471-4.
- British Royal Mint makes first gold sovereigns in India in century Reuters 18 February 2013
- "Benedetto Pistrucci". Retrieved 2012-03-27.
- .Jevons, William Stanley. "Money and the Mechanism of Exchange".
- Matthews, Robert. "Counterfeit Coin Newsletter July 2004".
- Measuring Worth
- Encyclopædia Britannica (2008): Money
- Fisch coin gauge
- Fake sovereigns in circulation
- The Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, section 27(1), as read with the Forgery and Counterfeiting (Protected Coins) Order 1981 (S.I. 1981/505), article 2 and Schedule
- Matthews, Robert. "The Production of the Proof Sovereign" (PDF).
- "London Mint Office Gold Sovereign Guide". London Mint Office.
- "Chindambaram rules of lifting band on import of gold coins". The Hindu.
- "MMTC PAMP Sovereign web page". MMTC PAMP.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sovereign (British coin).|
- The Royal Mint
- Royal Mint History of the Gold Sovereign
- Royal Mint Museum - Benedetto Pistrucci
- London Mint Office Gold Sovereign Guide
- The verdict of the jury from the Trial of the Pyx 2007, with confirmation as to the purity of gold and silver British coins
- Sovereign mintages from 1887