Australia 1879-S sovereign Fr-11

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Heritage sale 3037, lot 30999
photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries
This specimen was lot 30999 in Heritage sale 3037 (New York, January 2015), where it sold for $51,700. The catalog description[1] noted,
"Victoria gold Specimen 'Shield' Sovereign 1879-S SP65+ PCGS, Sydney mint. A marvelous sovereign and exceedingly rare in this enhanced 'Specimen' format; presumed unique! Not to be confused with the British proof issues of the 19th century, any branch mint Proof or Specimen issue of the same period is of the greatest rarity. Less established than the Royal Mint, the primary faculty of these sovereign outposts was to facilitate the commercial adoption of coinage. Whereas collectors in Britain numbered high enough to justify the production of sets, the same could not be said for countries such as Australia. Thusly, special productions were typically only created for dignitary or exhibition purposes. It is in fact the latter reason that is responsible for the present coin's existence.

Through much of the 19th century, Europe had been sheltered from Australia, even with its British affiliations. In 1879, Australia was determined to make that change. For the first time on the continent (and anywhere in the southern hemisphere!), Sydney held an International Exhibition; an event that not only was a symbolic opening of the country to the Western world, but was also an opening in a real sense. From September 17, 1879 through April 20, 1880, Sydney played host to the world, putting its best foot forward to showcase and promote commerce, industry, art and science. During this period, over 1,000,000 visitors were in attendance to see, amongst other things, the Royal Mint in Sydney's exhibit. In preparation for the event, strikings (for later public display) of various coins and medals in gold and silver took place; it was at this time that the 1879-S (and 1880-S) specimen sovereign was created!

While not quite reaching the heights of British proof quality of the period, one look at the present coin, and even the casual observer has to concede that it's undeniably special. Evidently struck on a specially prepared planchet, with a likewise specially prepared die, the surfaces present remarkable qualities throughout. On the obverse, the fields are distinctly reflective and Victoria's chiseled portrait shows moderate cameo-producing frost. To a slightly lesser magnitude, the same is true of the reverse, with reflective fields and a full and equal strike within all the quadrants of the shield; the all-important 'S' of Sydney below is also sharp and clear. Free of all but the most trivial handling, this piece was evidently held apart for generations. To think this a product of a branch mint is truly breathtaking! Certainly, a coin of inestimable importance to Australian numismatics, and for the enthusiast of Australian sovereigns, a coin that will immediately elevate any collection to an exalted status. Absolutely, among the finest pre-1900 Australia Sovereigns one will ever see."

This "shield" type was struck 1871-87 at the Sydney and Melbourne mints simultaneously with the familiar "St. George and the dragon" type. The SCWC does not attempt to separate the mintages of the two types. The Sydney mint was opened in 1855 to strike the gold found in Australia and was not employed to strike ordinary circulation coinage until 1920.

Recorded mintage: 1,366,000 (including the St. George reverse).

Specification: 7.99 g, .917 fine gold, .2354 troy oz AGW.

Catalog reference: S-3855, Fr-11; KM 6.


  • Michael, Thomas, and Tracy L. Schmidt, Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900, 9th ed., Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2019.
  • McDonald, Greg, The Pocket Guide to Australian Coins and Banknotes, 23rd ed., Lavington, Australia, 2017.
  • Friedberg, Arthur L. and Ira S. Friedberg, Gold Coins of the World, From Ancient Times to the Present, 7th ed., Clifton, NJ: Coin and Currency Institute, 2003.
  • Skingley, Philip, ed., Standard Catalogue of British Coins: Coins of England & the United Kingdom, 46th edition, London: Spink & Son, 2011.
  • [1]Bierrenbach, Cristiano, Warren Tucker and David Michaels, Heritage Signature Auction 3037, featuring the Empire, the Santa Catarina, the Law and the Santa Maria Collections, Dallas, TX: Heritage Auction Galleries, 2014.

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