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The largest copper coin ever issued in Great Britain is this sixpence token issued for the Birmingham workhouse in 1813. Weighing five and a half ounces each, they owe their existence to the temporary low price of copper relative to silver at the time. To one side is an elevation of the building and to the other a crest and the words One Pound Note Payable at the Workhouse For 40 Tokens. There are thought to be only about 10 specimens known. This very fine example, which sold for £7500 (estimate £2000-3000) at the Dix Noonan Webb (24% buyer’s premium) October 3 sale of tokens, came from the collection of the late Francis Cokayne. It was sold with a letter dated February 1891 signed by a previous owner, Thomas Emery Davies of Court Chambers Corporation Street in the City of Birmingham. The last time the token was sold at auction was in 1905 when it brought £17 10s (the equivalent of around £2100 today).

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Sales at numismatic auctions in London enjoyed a new high watermark in 2019.

The January to December hammer total for sales of coins, medals and banknotes held in the capital topped £48m – an increase of close to 13% on the previous year. The previous high was in 2014 when the total was £45.2m. By way of comparison, when the ATG’s annual tabulation of the London coin market began in 1994 (this is the 26th) the aggregate total was a more modest £9.3m.

It is not just values that have increased. In 2019 a total of 81,413 lots were offered for sale, almost a third more than in 2018 and close to four times the number offered back in 1994 (23,125).

Download a PDF of charts showing Coins & Medals totals from London auction houses here

Dix Noonan Webb continues to hold its now established position at the head of this yearly feature with total annual sales of £13.09m, up close to 15% on the previous year. The firm set a house record in June when a gold aureus from the brief reign of Allectus took £460,000 (see highlights, page 14).

Pierce Noonan, chairman and CEO of DNW, said: “The market for coins and medals continues to be extremely solid, as demonstrated by the 95% selling rate achieved across the year.

“It has been very encouraging to see a record number of new buyers in both coins and medals. With more and more younger people taking up collecting the future for the market looks very bright indeed. The market for ‘best in class’ items continues to appreciate the most. However, the wonderful thing about coins and medals is that you can put together a meaningful collection to suit almost any budget.”

DNW developments

DNW introduced a dedicated Russian coins and historical medals sale to its calendar in September.

In the same month it also became the first UK numismatics auction house to set its buyer’s premium beyond 20%. The firm says the change to a 24% premium follows a decade of technological revolution which has brought about a sea change in clients’ needs and expectations.

“The last time that we increased the buyers’ premium was in 2009 and since then the auction world has changed almost beyond recognition,” said Noonan. “New technology has been the driving force behind this and DNW has stayed ahead of the game providing our clients with a unique range of services [a recent addition has been 360 degree viewing technology on its website]. But the time has come when we have to pass on to our buyers some of the considerable costs of this revolution in the way that customers purchase lots at auction.”

Currently no other firm has indicated it will follow suit. But, if charging a higher premium to the buyer allows DNW to win consignments by cutting premiums to vendors, that could change.

Tough at the top

Competition is certainly tough at the top with the ‘low-hanging fruit’ available to the market in previous years now well and truly picked.

Tellingly perhaps, only one Victoria Cross group was offered at auction in 2019: a First World War VC and DCM group of five awarded to Sergeant Arthur Evans of the Lincolnshire Regiment sold at Spink for £190,000.

Spink generally enjoyed a fine year. Its £10.9m total was up 32% on 2018 and included total sales of coins and medals of £8.87m – the highest of any London auction house. This number included the star lot of the London Coinex sales (the Edward VIII pattern penny sold for £111,000) and two outstanding collections of Bank of England and Treasury notes, that of Lou Manzi and Tony Simms. It also represented on a fraction of Spink’s total coin sales across the world: the auction house now sells from host of different global centres.

Spink’s coin sales in New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Switzerland totalled more than £20m in 2019. As COO Mira Adusei-Poku pointed out to ATG: “More vendors are looking to sell in other currencies than British pounds and will continue to do so after Brexit.”

Baldwin’s of St James’s is another firm with a transatlantic focus. Its London take fell by a third (32.23%) in 2019 but only at the expense of its developing worldwide operations. Some of its most significant sales were held in the US.

Relative newcomer Sovereign Rarities held only a single sale in London during Coinex week but followed it up last month with contributions to the New York Sale held as part of NYINC. The firm, tied in with shareholder the Royal Mint, is particularly strong in the best British hammered and milled coins. The robust demand here continues, although auctioneers and dealers stress the importance of condition in every strong price.

Year-on-year Roma has gone up a notch in the tabulation, with a total share of the market of around one fifth – its £9.78m take coming almost exclusively from coins of the classical era.

With a significant proportion of its business coming from Europe (particularly Germany), the Brexit process might have a significant impact on the flow of consignments. This and the on-going challenges presented by German cultural heritage legislation might yet bring more business to the London-based market.

Every auction house is subject to the vagaries of chance – the arrival or otherwise of a large or high-value consignment. In the field of orders, medals and decorations, Morton & Eden harvested a relatively modest £593,810, mainly because the major properties sold in 2018 could not be repeated.

However, the firm’s take in the coins sector was massively up – fuelled by the £3.1m sale of a single Islamic dinar (see page 15). This matched the sum achieved by another example of this exceedingly rare coin also at Morton & Eden in 2011.

The 2019 results do suggest a decline in the contribution of the firms with a smaller share of the numismatic market. Does this demonstrate that the fat are getting fatter and the slim slimmer?

An exception is the share of TimeLine that, alongside its core business in antiquities and works of art from the medieval period, increased its interest in the coins market by over 6%.