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1852 Adelaide Pound. A prized collectible.

1852 Adelaide Pound Second Die

The 1852 Adelaide Pound has a unique place in Australia’s history as the nation’s very first gold coin, minted at the Government Assay Office in Adelaide. The coin is a national treasure: recognised worldwide as one of Australia’s most prestigious rarities. The appeal of the Adelaide Pound is timeless.

The production of the nation’s first gold coin at the Government Assay Office was plagued with problems. Excessive pressure exerted during the early stages of the minting process cracked the reverse die in the DWT area of the legend.

Approximately 40 – 50 Adelaide Pounds were however issued before the Crack was even noticed. We refer to it today as the ‘Cracked Die’ or Adelaide Pound Type 1.

A second die, prepared by die maker Joshua Payne, came into use and by adjusting and lowering the pressure on the dies during the minting process a further 24,000-plus Adelaide Pounds were struck. We refer to them as the Type 2 (or second die) Adelaide Pounds.

A point that is often overlooked in discussions about the Adelaide Pound is that the first and second reverse dies were very different: the first was prepared with a beaded inner circle, the second showed a crenellated inner circle.

Very few Adelaide Pounds actually circulated. When it was discovered that the intrinsic value of the gold contained in each piece exceeded its nominal value, the vast majority were promptly exported to London by profiteers and melted down.

That goes a long way towards explaining why so few Adelaide Pounds survive today:  approximately 30 to 40 of the Cracked Die and less than 200 struck from the second die.

Owning an example of Australia’s very first gold coin, the 1852 Adelaide Pound, is for many collectors a lifetime’s ambition. The coin is rare and only a handful would appear on the market annually.

Finding a quality Adelaide Pound is no easy task. Gold is a soft metal and the rigours of even minimal circulation have treated the majority of Adelaide Pounds harshly. Most of the coins that we see have serious knocks and obvious flaws that are clearly visible to the naked eye.

The Cracked Die

The majority of Cracked Dies minted appear to have moved into circulation for a high percentage out of the original production run of 50 have survived. Those employed at the Assay Office would have viewed the ‘Cracked Die’ as a defective coin and few specimens would have been held aside as ‘perfect’ examples of the striking of Australia’s first gold coin. Who would keep a ‘cracked coin’ as a keepsake?

That’s the very reason why most Cracked Dies come well circulated. And for some unknown reason many of them have been mounted into jewellery further impacting on their edges and surfaces.

It also is the reason why top quality specimens are so genuinely scarce and extremely valuable.

There are three known top tier Cracked Dies, all of which have been sold by Coinworks during the last six years and all for sums around the half million dollar level. Two are uncirculated and come with revered provenances having been owned by noted collectors such as Baron La Renotiere Ferrari (England) and Mortimmer Hammel (USA): reflecting the international appeal of Australia’s top coin rarities.  A third example is known, in about Uncirculated, the former property of renowned Australian collector Tom Hadley.

The Adelaide Pound struck with the second die

While a little easier than the Cracked Die, finding a top quality, well struck example of the second die Adelaide Pound is also challenging.

While the reduction in pressure applied on the second die achieved its purpose in preventing cracking, it impacted heavily on the finesse of the striking. The majority of Adelaide Pounds struck with the second die show extreme weakness in the edges and in the “Assay” area of the legend. We occasionally see examples where the edges and legend in this area of the coin are almost non-existent.

When we select an Adelaide Pound we obviously look at the degree of circulation. But we also give due consideration to the strength of the striking and the edges.

There is only one example of the second die 1852 Adelaide Pound in Gem Uncirculated. Sold by Coinworks at the Eminent Colonial Auction in 2012 for $370,000, the coin has a pedigree that can be traced back to Harold Hastings Deering in 1962. Fully struck up, satin surfaces, immaculate strong edges it truly is the benchmark coin by which all other Adelaide Pounds can be judged.

Perhaps 8 to 10 Adelaide Pounds have survived today in Brilliant uncirculated quality, with maybe 15 to 25 in Uncirculated quality.

The majority of second die Adelaide Pounds are found in the lesser quality levels of poor to about Extremely Fine.

How one state's misfortune created a lasting legacy of the Adelaide Pound.

Ah, what a year it was in 1852 - what momentous events were happening in that year! A small sampler for history buffs:

  • Louis Napoleon took his throne as the head of the Second French Empire.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was published – as was the first edition of Roget's Thesaurus.
  • The now-famous cartoon figure of Uncle Sam made his first appearance.
  • Oh, yes … and Emma Snodgrass was arrested in Boston for wearing pants!

Meanwhile, in the far-off colony of South Australia, a humble gold coin was minted. Its face value was one Pound.

It’s accepted wisdom that the gold rush that brought people and prosperity to Victoria and New South Wales in the mid-19th Century was good for everyone. However, for the people of South Australia, it could well have signalled a catastrophe. It took a master stroke on the part of that state’s legislators to avert disaster and lay the foundations for a stabilised currency in the young colony. It also led to the creation of Australia’s first gold coin, the Adelaide Pound.

In 1850 South Australia was, like any fledgling colony, struggling to find its feet after the inevitable financial difficulties of its foundation years. With a population reaching 50,000, burgeoning mining, agricultural and pastoral industries, and an estimated cash value of £211,480, there was an air of increasing prosperity.

This, however, masked an over-confidence that resulted in rising prices, high wages, unwise speculation and an over-stocking by merchants.

For those who cared to see it, the year 1851 opened up with all the portents of a coming crisis. The discovery of gold in NSW led some of the more venturesome males to strike out for the diggings; when the Victorian goldfields opened up the following year, the trickle became a flood, and by March 1852 over 8,000 of the menfolk had gone east, taking with them not only manpower but also cash resources - about two-thirds of the available coin travelled out of the state.

As the two main pillars of national activity, labour and capital, literally walked out, prices plummeted, property plunged, mining scrip nosedived, and Adelaide took on the air of a ghost town, with row after row of tenantless houses.

It got worse. The cash-strapped banks pressed their debtors for cash payments, but as the majority of debtors were merchants with their capital tied up – disaster beckoned.

The general pessimism lessened in January 1852, when about £50,000 worth of gold arrived in the colony. Even so, on account of the scarcity of coin the merchants and banks were forced to accept gold dust in payment for goods.

Calls were made for the establishment of a mint and the issuing of a coinage, but this was seen as being in direct violation of the Royal Prerogative – the colony had no authority to mint and issue coins. In desperation a reward of one thousand Pounds was offered for the discovery of a gold field in SA.

Then came the Bullion Act - one of the quickest pieces of legislation on record, with the whole proceedings taking less than two hours. It was an invasion of the Royal Prerogative and a blatant interference with the currency, but it saved the South Australian colony from insolvency.

In short, the Act allowed the receiving, assaying and stamping of gold into ingots. The ingots were never intended to form a currency, but could be used by the banks to increase their note circulation, based on the amount of assayed gold deposited.

The Act compelled the banks to increase their note circulation to meet all assayed gold deposited, effectively depriving them of control over their currency issues. The notes were payable in Sterling or coin, which put huge pressure on the banks to import sovereigns to support their note issues. Sudden termination of the Act could mean temporary insolvency if the banks had insufficient Sterling or coin to redeem their notes.

Needless to say it didn’t receive unanimous approval in South Australia, with the Bank of Australasia declining to issue notes in exchange for ingots. This placed a huge burden on the other two banks.

Neither was there support from the eastern states: Melbourne’s Argus condemned the Act as dangerous, radically unsound and interfering with the natural laws of commerce. But these protests were motivated by self-interest, as South Australia posed a real threat to the Victorian economy by re-directing capital and labour away from the Victorian gold fields.

The first Assay Office opened on 10 February 1852. Its activities were supported by a state government initiative to provide armed escorts to bring back the gold from the Victorian diggings. By the time the first escort arrived, a second assay office had been established, and Joshua Payne was appointed die-sinker and engraver. By the end of August 1852, over £1 million worth of gold had been received at the assay offices.

In the second Annual Report of the Chamber of Commerce, the value of the Bullion Act was summed up in the following words:

“The effect of this measure was little short of miraculous. Credit and confidence was restored, the extreme tightness in the money market was relieved, and the public mind was at once raised from a state of paralysing despondency to one of hopefulness and vigour. In its more permanent results, the measure has greatly exceeded the expectations which were formed of it.”

In his opening address of the third session of the Legislative Council on 1 September, the Lieutenant Governor stated:

“The Bullion Act has up to the present time in its practical results, almost compensated for the absence of a mint, has surpassed the expectations of the most sanguine and has completely vindicated the prudence and sagacity of the Legislature of SA.”

But the banks were still under enormous pressure, being forced to import sovereigns to meet the extent of their note circulation. On 23rd November 1852 the government responded to agitation from both the banks and the public for the coining of gold tokens, and passed the second part of the Bullion Act. Within a week 600 coins (Adelaide Pounds) had been delivered to the SA Banking Company, 100 of which were sent to London.

By this time, however, the Act had only three months left to run, so the relatively small number of 24,768 coins were minted at the Assay Office and delivered to the banks. Of those, very few were actually circulated. When it was discovered that the intrinsic value of the gold contained in each piece exceeded its nominal value, the vast majority were promptly exported to London and melted down!

That goes a long way towards explaining why so few Adelaide Pounds survive today – and why the highest-quality examples command such high prices. That, and the fact that Australians are at last developing some pride in their own rich history.

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