A Gold Sovereign is a British gold coin, first issued in 1489 for Henry VII, generally with a value of one pound sterling. The name "sovereign" related to the majestic and impressive size and portraiture of the coin, the earliest of which showed the king facing, seated on a throne, while the reverse shows the Royal coat of arms on a shield surrounded by a Tudor double rose. These original sovereigns were 23 carat (96%) gold and weighed 240 grains or one-half of a troy ounce (15.6 grams). Henry VIII reduced the purity to 22 carats (92%), which eventually became the standard; the weight of the sovereign was repeatedly lowered until when it was revived after the Great Recoinage law of 1816, the gold content was fixed at the present 113 grains (7.32 g), equivalent to 0.2354 Troy ounces .
Three Gold Sovereigns and a Gold Krugerrand. These gold bullion coins are often purchased as an investment in Gold.
Sovereigns were discontinued after 1604, being replaced by Unites, and later by Laurels, and then guineas. Production of sovereigns restarted in 1817, their reverse design being a portrayal of Saint George killing a dragon, engraved by Benedetto Pistrucci. This same design is still in use on British gold sovereigns, although different reverse designs have been used during the reigns of William IV, Victoria, George IV, and Elizabeth II.
In Victorian times it was the practice of the Bank of England to remove worn sovereigns and half sovereigns from circulation and have them recoined. Consequently, although a billion sovereigns have been minted in total, that figure includes gold that has been coined and recoined a number of times. It is estimated that in circulation, a sovereign could have a lifespan of up to 14 years before it fell below the "least current weight", that is, the mimimum amount of gold below which it ceased to be legal tender. It was actually the half-sovereign that had the most circulation in Victorian England. Many sovereigns languished in bank vaults for most of their lives. It is estimated that only 1% of all gold sovereigns that have ever been minted are still in collectable condition.
Sovereigns were produced in large quantities until World War I, at which time the UK came off the gold standard. From then until 1932, sovereigns were produced only at branch mints at Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Bombay, and Pretoria (except for some in 1925 produced in London as part of Winston Churchill's ill-fated attempt to return the UK to the gold standard). The last regular issue was in 1932 (at Pretoria).
Production resumed in 1957, ostensibly to prevent the coin being counterfeited in Beirut and Italy. Subsequent publication of treasury papers appear to indicate that sovereigns were widely used in pursuance of British foreign policy in the middle east, and it was felt that the coin could not be allowed to fall into disrepute—as many individuals were receiving payments in the form of sovereigns for services rendered to the British government.
Sovereigns were produced most years as bullion until 1982. From there to 1999, proof coinage only versions were produced, but since 2000, bullion sovereigns have been minted. Modern sovereigns are minted at the Royal Mint in Pontyclun, Mid-Glamorgan, Wales. The coins are produced in the precious metal unit which is sealed off from the rest of the Mint, the Mint itself being protected by Ministry of Defence police. Employees are not allowed to use any coins within the Mint — plastic tokens replacing coin of the realm for the staff canteen!
Sovereigns usually have a higher premium to the price of gold than some other coins, like the Krugerrand. This is due to a number of factors: the higher unit cost of the Sovereign (at under one-quarter of an ounce); the higher demand for the Sovereign from numismatists (compared to the Krugerrand which is not sought-after numismatically); and the higher costs of identifying and stocking a numismatic coin. For other ways to invest in gold, see gold as an investment.
Current sovereigns (2000 onwards) are struck from an alloy of 99.99% pure gold and pure copper. Each coin contains 11/12 gold and 1/12 copper. This alloy is known as Crown Gold. The only time there has been a deviation from this composition was in the production of early Australian sovereigns, which used silver as part of the alloy and in London sovereigns dated 1887, when an extra 1.25% silver was added in order to make the blanks softer for new Joseph Boehm effigy of Queen Victoria. Consequently, 1887 London Mint sovereigns are more yellow in appearance than other London produced sovereigns. This additional silver affected the amount of copper in the coin, not, of course, its gold content. (In fairness it must also be pointed out that nineteenth century techniques of refining were not as advanced as today, and nineteenth century sovereigns became more accurate in terms of their gold weight as silver—which is often naturally combined with gold—was removed as an impurity from the "pure" gold used. Such minor inconsistencies would not affect either their numismatic or bullion value).
Care should be taken when purchasing the new bullion sovereigns (2000 onwards) featuring Ian Rank Broadley's portrayal of the Queen. It is not uncommon to see a weak striking on the obverse side which carries the Queen's effigy. One should look out for lack of detail in the depiction of the Queen's hair and ear. Such weak strikings appear to be relatively common and may be due to wear on the dies. This defect in striking seems to have been addressed with the 2006 bullion issue. In summary, sovereigns were produced as follows:
London: 1817–1917, 1925, 1957 onwards
Bombay: 1918 only
Half sovereigns, two pound double sovereigns, and five pound quintuple sovereigns coins were also produced.
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