While year on year the overall value of London’s numismatic auctions was largely unchanged in 2023 at £61.6m, the manoeuvring within the market was less subtle. The share of business enjoyed by capital’s nine specialist salerooms changed significantly.
Overall, Noonans (now successfully rebranded from Dix Noonan Webb) posted a hammer total of £19.5m for its coins amd medals auctions, some 39% up on £14m in 2022 and the highest aggregate in the firm’s history. Its market share sits at a dominant 32%.
Pierce Noonan, chairman and CEO, said that 2023 “turned out to be a record trading year for Noonans. Not only did we sell more lots than we have ever sold before [more than 33,000 across its numismatic calendar] but our total auction hammer price exceeded £20m for the first time ever [the firm also sold an additional £2.58m of jewellery, silver and watches].”
The Mayfair, London, firm made its most significant gains in coins and banknotes. By offering close to twice the number of lots as Spink (25,037 compared to 12,592) it made sales of £13m, up by more than three-quarters. A Canadian collection of coins related to the East India Company sold for £1.6m in February was the financial highlight. It has also hit the ground running in 2024, announcing it will sell the Phillips collection of ancient Greek coins.
Another significant mover up the pecking order was Morton & Eden.
The firm secured the year’s stellar single consignment: a collection of 561 coins from all over the ancient Greek world formed by a European connoisseur over the past 20 years. Specialist Tom Eden described it as “probably the finest to appear on the market since the sale of the ‘Prospero’ collection in New York in 2012”. Estimated to realise over £4m, it hammered for £7m (£8.4m including premium) over two days just before the Coinex fair.
This lucrative one-off consignment helped filled some of the small cracks that began to appear in the coin market for the first time since the pandemic. Without it, business overall would have dropped significantly – and this despite the underlying inflationary trend and a high gold price for much of the year. Of course, the old rules still apply.
Those items that are both rare and in excellent condition have shown few signs of decrease. The first month of 2024 has already spawned a new record for a British silver coin – the $800,000 (£631,000) bid at Heritage in New York in January for a near mint strike of the Charles II petition crown. But more generally, the modern commemorative issues that peaked during Covid have tailed off and – while still bringing healthy results for consignors – many British coins are a little more affordable.
The primary reasons for this are twofold: the end of the Covid price spike as some of the investment-centred buyers left the market and the increased competition from the Continental and US auction houses that have had some success plucking choice consignments from the UK. The ‘flipping’ of blue-chip coins from one saleroom to another in quick time has been a feature of the market in recent years.
As the contest for vendors becomes more competitive, Spink’s head of department Gregory Edmund described a “more surgical focus on high-value specialised collections”.
Among the highlights of the Spink 2023 season was the full quartet of early 19th century proof £5 pieces from the reigns of George III (1820), George IV (1826), William IV (1831) and Victoria (1839). It was the first time since 1993 that all four trophy coins had been offered by the auction house in the same calendar year and the cumulative sale price was over £1m.
Spink also held its first dedicated ancient coin sale in over two decades (the Kyrios collection in October) and set a house record for a classical coin in April when a Julius Caesar and Octavian gold aureus hammered at £220,000.
However, the lot generating most column inches was the tiny gold quarter stater carrying letters from the name Esunertos. This record of a hitherto unknown Iron Age king sold for £17,000 at Spink’s Official Coinex Sale in September.
The rise of paper money continues. In 2023 banknotes sold at Spink’s London sales totalled £3.64m (5749 lots were offered), accounting for almost a quarter of its business.
Helped by a single Iraqi 100 Fils specimen note sold for a cool £100,000, equivalent sales at Noonans were £3.13m (5166 lots). The market is especially strong with overseas buyers for notes from India, east Asia and the Persian Gulf. The first auction Noonans has conducted overseas (the Frank Good collection in Singapore in March) was dedicated to Malaysian banknotes, hammering at Sin$2.3m (£1.4m).
Orders, medals and decorations (a market worth £9.7m to London auction houses) also continued to prosper, although both revenue and lot numbers were down. Here the positive trends occasioned by lockdown collecting have continued apace.
Pierce Noonan says the embrace of digital technology is helping “demystify the complexities of collecting”.
“In the past locating enough material to form a meaningful collection was the biggest challenge for collectors, but in today’s world dominated by online auctions and one-stop aggregators you can buy almost anything so long as you are willing to pay one bid more than the next person. The result for collectors is that collecting is only as time consuming as they want it to be.”
A number of gallantry medal category records were broken. Leading these was the best-selling single lot of 2023, the Naval Victoria Cross awarded to Seaman James Gorman at Inkerman in the Crimean War hammered for £320,000 at Noonans late in the year.
Spink’s top lot was the ‘Operation Chastise’ Distinguished Flying Cross group of five given to Flt Lt Edward ‘Johnnie’ Johnson sold for £105,000.
The firm believes “the trend of surging interest in the Second World War will only grow as we march towards its centenary”.
It adds: “Numerous military anniversaries will be celebrated this year. Research is key and as more archives and files are made open to historians and collectors alike, the previously untold stories continue to fascinate.”
Tales of the unexpected
The year was not without its ‘shocks’.
Roma Numismatics, the highest-grossing auction house for coin sales in the UK in 2022 with total sales of over £16m, fell to £12.5m. However, the numbers were not the story.
Richard Beale, who founded Roma Numismatics in 2009, was arrested in New York and subsequently pleaded guilty to a series of charges in connection with unlawful sales of ancient coins.
Beale admitted two counts of conspiracy and three counts of criminal possession of stolen property including falsifying the provenance of the rare Brutus Eid Mar-type gold aureus that sold for £2.7m in London in October 2020 – an auction record for any classical coin at the time. He is next due to appear before the New York Supreme Criminal Court in March.
There was also another chapter written in the eventful recent history of Stanley Gibbons, which owns Baldwin’s.
The Gibbons group went into administration in December as debts mounted around a scheme to sell fractional shares in a $7m stamp (the famed British Guiana 1c Magenta) and re-emerged after a ‘pre-pack’ deal under a new parent entity called Strand Collectibles Group.
The firm will continue to trade much as before from 399 Strand in London although all auctions of stamps, coins, medals and other collectables will be held under the Baldwin’s name. In 2023 its sales at auction were up a fraction at just shy of £2m.
These and other results reported by a total of nine London-based coins and medals auction houses are featured in our tabulation in this issue.