Volume 54, Number 6, June 2017
Striking Gold This month’s magazine is an unashamed celebration of one of this country’s most iconic coins—the sovereign (or rather the modern sovereign because of course the coin was originally minted in the reign of Henry VII, falling out of use in favour of the Unite and the Guinea). Whilst it wasn’t the first “£1 coin” as such, that honour went to the early guineas, it was certainly a coin most people would have been familiar with in the 19th and early 20th centuries when it circulated freely as legal tender (even if they never actually got to own one) and that familiarity has endured today. Ask any man or woman in the street to name a gold coin and two will usually spring to mind—the Krugerrand and the sovereign—the former still seems to be the foremost foreign bullion coin on everyone’s minds, probably because it was one of the first and most widely circulated of the gold bullion coins and the sovereign—well it’s the sovereign! Immortalised in a thousand Victorian era films, in jewellery across the decades and even as a nickname for the modern £1 coin, the sovereign has entered our consciousness and our lives in a way that no other coin not in everyday use has. Few people outside the worlds of numismatics or investments will have ever handled a sovereign but you ask any millennial today if they know what a sovereign is and even if they aren’t familiar with its denomination (it is still officially legal tender by the way—I’ll happily give you a pound each for yours!) or the fact that it’s still minted, most will have heard of it and many will be able to describe it, somehow it’s just there in the back of their minds somewhere. This familiarity with the coin, even amongst those who have never actually seen one, might have something to do with the fact that we are talking about gold. There is something about the yellow metal that entrances us all, its allure is timeless and from gold cards to gold medals it is a byword for the best of the best (I fully accept that some frequent flyer programmes have platinum as the top tier and credit card companies pride themselves on their platinum cards, but with the recent performance of that metal on the world’s markets I wonder how long that will last!). For centuries gold has been sought after by pharaohs, kings and emperors (not to mention Scrooge McDuck) and has been gazed upon in awe by the common man. It has caused huge population shifts and has been the driving force behind exploration and conquests across the ages. It has been used by the earliest civilisations and is mentioned in the earliest writings and even today in the world of electronic transactions, bitcoin et al it holds a certain magic for many. I wonder if the recent discovery of over 900 sovereigns and half-sovereigns in a piano donated to a college (see news and views on page 35) would have made quite the same headlines if it hadn’t been gold that was found … There is something about a hidden hoard of gold coins that captures our imaginations. Silver, even platinum, just doesn’t quite cut it in the same way; diamonds, perhaps, come close but there is little else out there with the sheer romance that gold seems to have. This is, perhaps, down to the aesthetic appeal of the metal —something the sovereign tapped into very well. From the very start the modern sovereign was a masterpiece, a perfect size and a beautiful design were coupled with the natural beauty of gold to create an icon and it is testament to the enduring power of that masterpiece that it remains practically unchanged today. The famous Pistrucci reverse has been modified slightly in the intervening two centuries (if you don’t believe me look at St George and the weapon he is using to slay the dragon…) but it is, in essence, the same fabulous design it was 200 years ago. Coinage, indeed any monetary system, only works if people trust in it—that they have faith that what they have in front of them is worth what they believe it is and to build that trust there has to be consistency. Of all the coins we have the sovereign is perhaps the perfect example of that consistency—in 200 years the size, weight, composition and look of the coin have remained constant (yes, I am aware of the shield backs and the other designs but you get my drift!), it screams stability, shouts out that it can be trusted, that it is exactly what is purports to be and that is why it has been such a success in the past and will continue to be so in the future. It is perhaps, the perfect coin. Long may it remain so.
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