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The Adelaide Sovereign—Australia's First Gold Coin

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Although the British Gold Sovereign is very well known, even amongst non-collectors, the Adelaide Sovereign remains a hidden gem and is much underrated. Like the British Gold Sovereigns minted in Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth, the Adelaide Sovereign owes its existence to a gold rush, a coinage shortage, and colonial ingenuity.

1852 South Australia £1 KM-1 Adelaide Type-1A Fine Edge Reeding, PCGS AU58. Click image to enlarge.
1852 South Australia £1 KM-2 Dentilated Adelaide, PCGS MS64. Click image to enlarge.

In the 1850s, as South Australian treasure hunters struck it rich in the Victorian gold fields, gold dust and small nuggets were sent back home to Adelaide, where the metal was used as currency by those who stayed behind. Unfortunately, raw gold was an awkward means of purchasing “the commodities of life,” prompting a local business group to lobby the governor to establish a mint. Legislation was passed in record time, despite the legality of a provincial government establishing a mint, and by February 1852 the first assayed gold was struck. This gold came in the form of ingots or small bars, with the weight and purity hand-stamped on the bars to assist valuation and trade. However, as the ingots were of irregular weight, trading the bars in day-to-day commerce was inconvenient. As a result, the government authorised the minting of coinage in standard denominations of £5, £2, £1, and 10 shillings (£1/2). Dies of the £1 piece were promptly cut, and thus the first pieces of what was called the “Adelaide Sovereign” were minted.

As is well-known in Australian numismatic lore, the Adelaide Sovereign reverse die cracked shortly after production began. Mint workers did not notice the crack immediately, as a few dozen coins bearing evidence of the die crack were released before the offending die was replaced. While the original die bore a serifed font, the replacement die had a san-serifed font. A concentric circle was also removed while toothed dentilations were added to better balance against the obverse. The subsequent striking was relatively problem-free, although it is clear that the die pressure was reduced, perhaps to avoid ruining another die. According to C.P. Hyman, a total of 24,768 pieces were struck with the replacement dies, while Andrews states that 24,648 pieces were issued.

Because the Adelaide Sovereign contained £1, 1 shilling, and 10-1/2 pence of gold at the gold price of the time (over 5% more gold than the £1 face value), the coin was exported and melted in large numbers by arbitrageurs, diminishing the coin’s population. Today, both the cracked die version and the replacement version (known as the Type I and Type II, respectively) are scarce, with the former especially so. Around 50 examples of the Type I are known today, while there appear to be only a few hundred Type II Adelaide Sovereigns available to collectors and students of numismatics.

As one of Australia’s most popular coins, Adelaide Sovereigns have been keenly submitted to PCGS. As of March 2021, seven examples of the Type I have been awarded numerical grades, while 88 Type II coins have earned numerical grades, one as high as MS65. An average Type I is worth around $50,000, while decent Type II pieces with luster can be obtained for as little as $15,000. Even pieces damaged in jewelry are coveted.

Today, the Adelaide Sovereign, or Adelaide Pound, as it is frequently referred to, is an essential component of the Australian colonial coin series, Australian Sovereign set, and Australian gold coin set, and as Australia’s first gold coin, it will always be sought after by numismatists, collectors, and historians alike.

Sources:

  • Andrews, A. (1921). Australasian Tokens and Coins. Sydney: Trustees of the Mitchell Library.
  • Hyman, C. P. (1893). An Account of the Coins, Coinages, and Currency of Australasia. Sydney: New South Wales Commissioners for the World's Columbian Exposition.
  • McDonald, G. (1991). Collecting and Investing in Australian Coins and Banknotes. Sydney: Greg McDonald Publishing.

Australian