Australian Gold Sovereign Reverses.

Australian Gold Sovereigns ST GEORGE Reverse.

The St George reverse design we see on Australia’s gold sovereigns was first introduced during the reign of King George III in 1817. A certain Sir Joseph Banks suggested that the St George & Dragon theme would do well to remind the world of Britain’s victory over Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

There are numerous stories explaining the myth of St George and the dragon, and even more as to how he came to be the patron saint of England. One that is more prevalent is that he was a Greek soldier who saved the citizens of an ancient village by slaying a beast that had been terrorizing them for some time – after slaying the dragon he devoted his life to serving God. The English adopted him as patron saint during medieval times, sometime during the crusades.

The designer & engraver brought to the Royal Mint “to make models for the dyes for the new coinage” was an Italian engraver by the name of Benedetto Pistrucci, “an artist of the greatest celebrity”. His depiction of St George as a naked Greek warrior is widely recognized as one of the most enduring numismatic symbols of all time. A brief description of the design follows:

“The saintly knight is mounted on horseback, his left hand holding the bridle reign. He wears a crested helmet with a plume of hair floating behind. A chlamys flows freely behind him, and is fastened in front by a fibula. On his right shoulder is a battens for suspending the gladius. His feet and lower legs are protected by armor, except for the toes, which are unprotected. The horse appears to half advance; half shrink from the dragon at its feet. St George has broken his lance in wounding the winged monster, and a portion of the lance remains in the animal’s body.”

To the untrained eye, it may seem that this design remained unchanged in its use on Australian sovereigns between 1871 and 1931, however a number of minor details were altered over the years. It is difficult for anyone who has not carefully studied the wide range of years in existence to distinguish them, and when the majority of collectors examine a sovereign with the St George reverse, there are a certain number of points which are examined closely for strike & wear. From top to bottom, they are:

1. The crest of St George’s helmet;
2. St George’s chest, together with the strap & pin fastening his cloak;
3. The bridle as it crosses the horse’s neck;
4. The muscle separation in St George’s upper thigh;
5. The horse’s forequarters & rump;
6. The “bloodline” in the sword;
7. The upper band across St George’s boot;
8. The dragon’s torso below it’s neck.

The above points should not be regarded as a definitive list upon which to grade the quality of a St George reverse sovereign, however it does provide a useful starting point. A minor loss of detail on any of these points should not lead the novice collector to assume that the coin is worn, even to a minor degree. Collectors should keep in mind that each of the Australian mints often produced hundreds of thousands of sovereigns a week, and that there can be not insignificant differences in the depth to which this design was struck onto the metal blanks. Differences are evident from mint to mint, from year to year, and even in some instances from the start to the finish in a coin’s production run, or in the life of a pair of dies.

It should be said that it is very difficult for the novice collector to accurately determine whether a loss of detail on any of these points is due to wear, damage or merely strike. However a collector knowing where to examine a sovereign first at least has a starting point from which to discuss a sovereign’s grade.

Australian Gold Sovereigns Shield Reverse.

The shield reverse is the second of the two reverse designs found on Australian gold sovereigns between 1871 and 1887, and is something of an enigma to Australian collectors. Not many are clear on why two designs were used during this period, and none are certain of the exact numbers issued. The design can best be described by the Master of the Royal Mint, when writing to Queen Victoria regarding its proposal in 1837: “…. the Ensigns Armorial of the United Kingdom …. Contained in a plain shield, surmounted by the Royal Crown and encircled with a Laurel Wreath, with the inscription BRITANNIARUM REGINA FID DEF, having the united Rose, Thistle and Shamrock placed under the shield.”

This shield design was also used on London Mint sovereigns between 1838 and 1874, and the design described above was adapted slightly from that first seen on the new coinage of King George IV in 1825. Interestingly, the vast majority of, if not all shield sovereigns struck were exported to India. Evidently, there were some objections there to the St George reverse design on religious grounds. St George being the patron saint of England, in their opinion his image on coinage nigh constituted idol worship – taboo in a number of Eastern religions. To ease the situation, pragmatically “the Master of the Sydney Mint had instructions from the Royal Mint to use the St. George type reverse, and to only strike sovereigns with the shield reverse to special order, mostly for export to India.” Another less sensational explanation for the use of this reverse type in India is that “the people there had become accustomed to that pattern.”

Although India has been a voracious consumer of gold over the years, its demand was not such that the entire output of Australian sovereigns would have been sent there. Indeed, in the only two dates in which the shield mintage is known exactly – 1882 & 1883 Melbourne – shields comprise between a mere 15% & 20% of the total amount struck. Although the exact number of shields & St George reverses struck each year would have fluctuated, it is a general rule that shields are the scarcer of the two types. Collectors having difficulty obtaining some of the Melbourne dates would certainly back that up. To finish either a date or complete set of shield sovereigns is a significant achievement indeed, and one that is seen perhaps only once every few years.

The nature of this design is such that shield sovereigns tend to be marginally concave on the reverse – because it is to a small extent protected by the rims, it can be difficult for the novice to accurately distinguish between different grades. For the same reason, shields are generally well struck. As with all coins however, some small differences will occur. From top to bottom, some of the more prominent points however are:

  • 1. The orb at the peak of the crown, the gems directly below this point, and the cross directly below the gems;
  • 2. The diamonds across the base of the crown, and also the fur directly at the base;
  • 3. The edge and separators of the shield;
  • 4. The upper edges of certain leaves comprising the surrounding wreath;
  • 5. The faces on the lions in the upper left and lower right quartiles of the shield;
  • 6. The bust and torso of the angel in the lower left quartile of the shield.

It should be said that it is very difficult for the novice collector to accurately determine whether a loss of detail on any of these points is due to wear, damage or merely strike. However, a collector knowing where to examine a sovereign first at least has a starting point from which to discuss a sovereign’s grade.

By Alexandre Laurent

Alexandre Laurentl is working in the jewelry and investment gold since 2002. Alexandre graduated from The Normandy School of Business and from the University of Perpignan a Bachelor of economics in 1995.

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