The Quartermaster 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign, the jewel in the crown of the Sydney Mint Half Sovereign series

The Quartermaster 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign, the jewel in the crown of the Sydney Mint Half Sovereign series
The Quartermaster 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign, the jewel in the crown of the Sydney Mint Half Sovereign series
Available now
About Uncirculated and the finest by far of the forty known examples
William L S Barrett, Canada • Sale by Private Treaty to Robert Jaggard, Sydney • Sale by Private Treaty to J Lawton • Sale by Private Treaty to Tom Hadley Quartermaster Collection • Sale by Private Treaty to H.A.G Collection
This 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign is from the esteemed Quartermaster Collection and is one of the great coins of Australian numismatics. It is the very finest example of the nation’s first half sovereign. The ultimate quality ranking of the very finest. And the ultimate historical standing as being the first half sovereign produced at the Sydney Mint, the nation's first mint. Its first recorded owner was Canadian coin dealer, William Barrett, the coin acquired in the 1970s. But it was the exchange in the 1980s, to Sydney gold coin dealer, Robert Jaggard, that was for Australian collectors, the most momentous. The jewel in the crown of the Sydney Mint Half Sovereign series was brought home to its country of origin. And its city of origin. Barrie Winsor and Tom Hadley were acutely aware that, when it came to acquiring an 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign for the Quartermaster Collection, there really was only one option. This coin. And so, they played a waiting game.
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The Sydney Mint opened on 14 May 1855 and struck its first sovereign on the 23 June. The final mintage in 1855 was 502,000 sovereigns.

Half sovereigns were struck on 27 July 1855, a small batch comprised of 3000 coins. A second and final batch of 18,000 coins was struck on 18 August.

The final mintage in 1855 was a minuscule 21,000 half sovereigns.

This coin, the 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign from the famed Quartermaster Collection, is the jewel in the crown of Australia's Sydney Mint Half Sovereign series.

It is the very finest example and is presented in a quality of About Uncirculated,

Visually the coin is powerful. The reverse fields are mirror-like with beautiful old-gold tone through the design detail. The obverse fields also are highly reflective, the old-gold tone through the legend. The edges are strong and undamaged, framing the coin.


Obverse of the Quartermaster 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign. Note the hairline across the forehead and the detail in the hair. Also note the edges.

There are challenges galore for the collector seeking out an 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign. Perhaps forty examples of the nation's first half sovereign are available to collectors.

That's not a lot when you compare it to the number of examples available to buyers of the 1813 Holey Dollar (200) and buyers of the 1813 Dump (800). Or the Adelaide Pound Type II (200).

While securing an 1855 Half Sovereign will test a collectors resolve, the challenges are enormous if the buyer sets a quality focus.

As the Half Sovereign was a low denomination coin, and circulated widely in the colony, most examples are found today well worn and virtually denuded of detail.

Many are damaged with scratches, spade or metal detector marks. A number are noted as having been holed to wear on a necklace. Some have also been mounted as a jewellery item.


Reverse of the Quartermaster 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign. The fleur de lis in the crown. left and right, are well shaped and the pleats in the cloth are detailed. The cross on the orb is complete.  

It is a fact that most of the 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereigns that have come onto the market over the last century have been defined by their shortcomings, their extensive wear and the resultant obliteration of the design. Or they have been defined by their defects. The gouges that have occurred in the fields when the coin has hit the metal detector. Or been dug up by a spade. 

Our experiences confirm that of the approximate forty examples available to collectors, three are viewed as problem free and visually impactful.

• This 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign, at About Uncirculated, from the esteemed Quartermaster Collection and the finest by far.

• The second finest known example has a quality grading of Extremely Fine and was formerly owned by Barrie Winsor.

• The third finest known example is the Roy Brook 1855 Sydney Mint Half Sovereign graded Good Very Fine.

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In 1851, the Sydney Morning Herald published an editorial championing the establishment of a branch of the Royal Mint in Sydney to buy gold at full price and strike it into sovereigns.

The plan for a branch of the Royal Mint received great support from the diggers. Solid opposition came from the banks and a prominent group of private individuals both of whom had become major buyers of gold on the fields at prices discounted well below the full London price. Profits were at stake! Both factions had earlier joined forces to quash a proposal for a Sydney Assay Office that would have also impacted negatively on their commercial interests.

While it is true that New South Wales had in 1851 formally petitioned the home office in London for a branch of the Royal Mint, the decision had already been made in the British Parliament to give the colonies greater autonomy and establish a branch mint to allow them to strike coins of the realm, the sovereign.  

The Sydney Mint would strike sovereigns and half sovereigns to exactly the weight and fineness levels at the Royal Mint but they would have their own design. This was to protect the international reputation of the imperial gold coins in the event that Sydney was unable to meet the exacting standards demanded of the coin.

On the 19 August 1853 Queen Victoria gave formal approval to establish Australia’s very first mint at or near Sydney in New South Wales. In the same year, the Royal Mint London prepared designs of Australia’s first gold coinage and manufactured the dies.

The sovereign and half sovereign obverse design was a filleted bust of Victoria, only slightly different to that used on British sovereigns. The obverse quickly fell out of favour and James Wyon was ordered to engrave a new obverse that would be uniquely Australian to easily distinguish the colonial sovereigns from their British counterparts. To this end, a new portrait was introduced in 1857 that featured Queen Victoria with a banksia wreath in her hair instead of the band.

The reverse design was based loosely around contemporary reverse designs of the British sixpence and shilling. Its strong point of difference to the British sovereigns was the inclusion of the words 'Australia' and 'Sydney Mint'.

The use of the word Australia, a fascination with historians. At the time the nation was operating as separate colonies. Australia did not operate under a single Government until Federation in 1901.

The first Deputy Master of the Sydney Mint was Captain Edward Wolstenholme Ward, a trained member of the Royal Engineers. (Photo shown at top.)

Ward arrived in the colony in October 1854 on the ship Calcutta, along with other members of the Royal Engineers, a sergeant, three corporals and twelve privates. The group was deposited on Circular Quay with the bales and boxes of Sydney's new mint, along with the dies.

The Sydney Mint was established in a wing of the 'Rum Hospital' in Macquarie Street, Sydney. The mint began receiving gold on 14 May 1855 and issued its first gold sovereign soon after on June 23.

In their infancy the Sydney Mint sovereigns and half sovereigns were legal tender only in the colony of New South Wales.

In January 1856, the British tested the quality of the colonial gold coins and the results showed that they had a higher intrinsic value than their British counterparts, primarily due to their 8.33% silver content. Once these facts became known, profiteers began melting them down.

The colonial gold coins also became legal tender in Tasmania and Western Australia in 1856. South Australia and Victoria were reticent to enshrine the Sydney Mint as Australia's official mint as each colony had independently requested their own and were miffed at missing out.

By 1857, the legal tender scope was widened to include all Australian colonies and Mauritius, Ceylon and Hong Kong. In 1868 the Sydney Mint Sovereigns and Half Sovereigns became legal tender throughout the British Empire.

The design of the Sydney Mint Half Sovereign lasted until 1866 and was the only time the word Australia appeared on our gold sovereigns. From 1871, Australia's half sovereigns took on a traditional British design.

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