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Revisiting the 1860s Victorian half-crown coins/counterfeits

26th November 2010

I am afraid October and the first part of November were rather busy with a short holiday, some good and bad rugby to watch, a couple of fine art lectures to attend at the National Museum, Cardiff and some interesting coin research - so unfortunately no blogs in October and part of November.

Obverse of the 1861 Victorian counterfeit half-crown

Obverse of the 1861 Victorian counterfeit half-crown.

Reverse of the 1861 Victorian counterfeit half-crown

Reverse of the 1861 Victorian counterfeit half-crown.

Re-visiting the 1860s Victorian British half-crown coins/counterfeits

I recently have had the chance to examine an 1861 Victorian half-crown coin/counterfeit. This caused me to re-visit the small group of half-crown coins/counterfeits from the 1860s. I find it a fascinating story of numismatists including the Royal Mint struggling to come to terms with this group of probable counterfeits. We have the published record but it would be even more interesting to know the dialogue that must have taken place hidden behind these reports.

The British florin, two shillings, coin was introduced in 1848, it was a failed attempt to begin the decimalisation of the British coinage. This meant no circulation half-crown coins were issued in Britain by the Royal Mint between 1850 and 1874. In the second(revised) edition of "The English Silver Coinage from 1649", published in 1957, except for proof coin entries the only half-crown listed between 1850 and 1874 was an entry for 1866 saying, "Struck for Colonial use1". The note read:

"Although no half-crowns were struck for use in the U.K. between 1850 and 1874 we have recently seen two of 1866. We first thought they must be forgeries, but as they seemed of good style we submitted one to the Royal Mint. Mr Stride looked into the matter carefully, the consensus of opinion there was that it was genuine. Further investigation showed that half-crowns were supplied to some colonies during these years and maybe in 1866 and perhaps other years some may have been minted especially for overseas."

This catalogue was unable to ascribe a variety or class to these 1866 coins as "the specimens were so worn.."

In the “Bulletin on Counterfeits”, Summer/Autumn 1979, Vol 4 No 2/3 pp 36-38, E.G.V. Newman, a former Royal Mint Chemist and Assayer, described the examination of a 1861 and a 1871 half-crown. The article says, "Both pieces appear to be well worn but this does not account for their very low weights.. Both pieces have obverses and reverses which lack many design details whilst of those present many are defective - this applies particularly to the letters of the inscriptions.... The 1871 piece was submitted to the Royal Mint some years ago and on that occasion the opinion was expressed that it was probably genuine. Experience since that time has failed to substantiate this view and the Royal Mint is now of the opinion that it is a counterfeit, as is the 1861 piece. It is certain also that similar pieces dated 1866 and 1868 are counterfeit, despite any opinions to the contrary expressed in the past. The publication, "The English Silver Coinage from 1649" by H.A. Seaby and P.A. Rayner, 4th (revised) edition, 1974 page 105, footnote 1, suggests that these coins are probably contemporary forgeries and points out that they are all of type A5 instead of type A4 which would have been expected of this period."

The latest edition of "The English Silver Coinage from 1649" is the 5th (revised) and was published in 1992. A note on page 83 states, "The official view expressed by the Royal Mint now is that the coins are all very clever forgeries, struck from false dies, probably from around the turn of the century; they are all light in weight and struck in silver around .915 fine instead of .925." Further in note 2 on page 85 it is suggested that, "the most likely source is that of a counterfeiter operating in the 1890's who was not aware these dates had not been officially struck at the Royal Mint.".

Kevin Clancy from the Royal Mint confirmed to me in October 2010 that it is still their position that these pieces are counterfeit. So summarising both the bible on British milled silver coins and the Royal Mint has stated that this group of coins are counterfeit. Yet these coins are still being bought and sold in Britain, often with rather ambiguous descriptions. The question is why, some in the coin trade and many collectors are not convinced about the correct status of these coins? It is my opinion that more of the evidence on these coins needs to be published and even then it has to be stated that because of the "worn" state of the existing coins we are unlikely to ever remove all their ambiguities.

The silver fineness of these pieces

In his article in the “Bulletin on Counterfeits”, Newman stated that he would expect a sterling [925 parts per thousand] silver coin of this period to have a relative density of 10.37 g/cc. He found that the relative densities of the two half-crowns examined were both 10.35 g/cc. He stated that this probably meant the coins had a 915 parts per thousand silver content. It dismays me to disagree with my old boss but this is nonsense. This difference is well within the experimental error for this method of measuring relative density. When I measured the relative density of the 1861 coin I obtained a result of 10.36 g/cc. I obtained the same figure on a genuine 1841 half-crown. Just in-case the reader wonders what my qualifications are for disagreeing with Newman I should mention for a time in the 1970s I was one of the junior laboratory staff providing him with relative density measurements on suspect coins.

These relative density figures mean one can only say that these 1860s Victorian British half-crown coins/counterfeits are broadly sterling silver standard.

Speculation on the source of these pieces

Rayner speculated that these coins were made by a late Victoria circulation coin counterfeiter. I have seen it asked how a circulation coin counterfeiter could make any profit using sterling silver. It must be remembered that thieves at this time often disposed of stolen silver by melting and casting it into counterfeit coins.

Another possible source would be a post 1940s collector coin counterfeiter. To substantiate this speculation research is needed on when this group of coins started to surfaced in the coin trade.

The first of these blogs was posted in July 2010. The blog will remain posted for one calendar month and then will be archived. Previous Blogs:
 July 2010

 August 2010

 September 2010

 No blogs for October 2010

The archives can also be examined by date via the coin information page.

Copyright Robert Matthews 2010

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