‘British gold sovereigns are the largest coin market in the world, and have an unrivalled status among collectors,’ says Andreas Afeldt, Managing Director of The Coin Cabinet, whose monthly auctions feature many examples of this iconic coin.
Minted almost continuously for two centuries in an unaltered size and weight, its famous reverse design of St George and the Dragon, created by the Italian engraver Benedetto Pistrucci (1783-1855), has become an internationally recognised symbol of value, quality and integrity.
Andreas puts its enduring popularity down to a mix of characteristics that make it unique: ‘sovereigns span a historically long period of time — originally the 15th century, then the modern sovereign in 1817. They were produced so consistently, and with incredible variety. And there’s also the global recognition of British culture, its empire and the Commonwealth.’
The first English sovereigns were created in 1489 following King Henry VII’s victory in the War of the Roses. They were minted for a little over a century until the death of Elizabeth I, which marked the end of the Tudor dynasty.
After Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the government passed a coinage act to review the nation’s currency. Initially the 21 shilling guinea was poised to be reintroduced, but it was found that ‘a very general wish prevails among the public in favour of a coinage of gold pieces of the value of 20 shillings and 10 shillings, in preference to guineas, half guineas and seven shilling pieces.’
A new gold 20 shilling coin was born and given the name of its Tudor predecessor, with half sovereigns representing the lower value. George III was the first monarch to appear on a sovereign for more than 200 years, and ever since it has remained the Royal Mint’s flagship coin.
An 1817 George III gold sovereign, with St George and the Dragon on the reverse
The 19th century’s global coin
With the expansion of the British Empire in 19th century the sovereign became the leading international bullion coin, and the only coin ever minted in five continents — by the Royal Mint and its branches in Australia, Canada, India and South Africa.
‘It holds a unique place among gold coins due to its long production history and use around the world,’ Andreas notes. ‘It can be considered the first truly global coin, valued equally across countries and cultures, and its history is intertwined with the story of Britain and its empire.’
A 1918 George V Bombay Mint gold sovereign, St George and the Dragon on the reverse
The sovereign in production
It is estimated that more than a billion sovereigns have been minted, although many were subsequently removed from circulation and reminted. Since the end of the Second World War, it has mostly been produced in the UK as former colonies adopted their own gold coins after independence.
An exception is India, where it is minted in New Delhi by the Indian-Swiss venture MMTC-PAMP under licence from the Royal Mint, which maintains quality control. The coins minted in New Delhi are similar to those produced in the UK with the exception of a small ‘I’ for India mintmark — and like the 1918 Bombay Mint sovereigns are legal tender in the UK.
A 2002 gold sovereign proof showing the Ian Rank-Broadley portrait of Elizabeth II and the shield of the Royal Arms designed by Timothy Noad on the reverse
The bullion coin for every collector
Irrespective of condition or rarity, a sovereign is always worth at least the value of its gold weight. Despite the high number of sovereigns minted, however, it is estimated that as little as 1% are in collectable condition, leading to higher demand from collectors and investors.
The rarest is the 1937 sovereign minted for the short reign of Edward VIII, of which only six were produced. One of the last remaining in private hands sold for US$2.28m in March 2021, at the time a record price for a British coin.
1937 is an important date in the history of the coin. In response to Britain leaving the gold standard in 1931, and compounded by the Great Depression and Second World War, sovereigns weren’t minted from 1937 to 1957 when it returned as a bullion coin.
Sovereigns have also been issued as commemorative coins on occasions such as coronations and jubilees celebrating milestones in a monarch’s reign. ‘Traditionally collectors seek 1817-1937 sovereigns, branch mints, Victorian or George III coins due to the rarity of examples in top condition,’ says Andreas, adding that ‘Japanese collectors appreciate coins with female effigies, particularly Victoria’s young head sovereigns dated from 1838-87.’ These historical sovereigns are less likely to follow the gold price, with a generally steady price direction.
‘There’s a number of reasons why the sovereign holds such an allure for collectors and investors,’ says Andreas. ‘It has the gold price to fall back on, and there’s extensive data on auction results and prices out there,’ he says. ’Few other coins can match its record when it comes to returns — it’s an essential acquisition for any collector or investor.’
Read more about British gold sovereigns
- Michael A. Marsh, The Gold Sovereign (revised by Steve Hill, Token Publishing)
This popular and long-standing work is currently the most comprehensive book on the coin, covering all types of milled sovereigns to date, and includes many anecdotes and accounts of the Royal Mint’s processes along with a price guide. A must have for any serious collector or investor.
- Kevin Clancy, The History of the Sovereign: Chief Coin of the World (the Royal Mint Museum)
Kevin Clancy’s masterpiece details not only the coin’s history alongside its equivalent unit-of-account denominations, but provides a contemporary economic and social context throughout its history. The book is crucial for anyone wishing to understand gold coin production in the UK.
- Emma Howard, Coins of England and the United Kingdom (Spink)
Since the 1960s, this has been the most reliable, internationally referenced price guide for British coins. Cataloguing refers to ‘Spink’ (‘S.’ or ‘S-’) or sometimes ‘Seaby’, the original publishing house. We recommend a recent edition, as prices are updated annually.