British Coins, Victoria, pattern crown, 1837, by Bonomi, struck in gold, T and 4 on edge, sunken designs both sides, coroneted Greek-style young head l., incuse inscription around, incuse date 1837 split into two digits on either side of truncation, rev. full-length helmeted Britannia in flowing gown and holding body-length trident r., extended right hand supporting classic Victory image, royal shield partially obscured but glowing behind lower gown, incuse inscription BRITT MINERVA / VICTRIX FID DEF to l. and r., on each rim a border of tiny stars (ESC.320A [R5, 6 examples struck]; Bull 2613; L&S.14.2, 22-ct. gold; W&R.364 [R5]), certified and graded by PCGS as Proof 66, virtually as struck with toned, frosted surfaces
This intriguing, large gold coin has mystified many collectors since it first appeared in 1893. Dated 1837 and the size of a silver crown, it occurs in a variety of metals but its style had never been seen by any numismatist over the course of more than five decades since its apparent date of issue, 1837. Sceptical collectors at first rejected it as a fake, and this opinion continued largely unquestioned until the 1960s. Other collectors, finding its unique design appealing, called it a medal and eagerly bought up specimens as they appeared for sale. Research over the intervening years, however, ended the controversy and revealed that it was privately minted but is collectable as a legitimate pattern crown of Queen Victoria. Examples struck in gold, which are exceedingly rare as only 6 were struck, are now viewed as among the most alluring and important of Victorian pattern crowns.
In truth, the Bonomi patterns are indeed a web of fact and fiction, and they remain misunderstood by many. The coins bear a Greco-Roman-Egyptian inspired design: on the obverse, a diademed portrait of the young Queen Victoria, her hair coiled into a bun, facing left, clearly resembling an Egyptian princess. She wears a dangling earring and a thin tiara. In 1837, as the date on this coin suggests, Victoria was still a princess for some months before the crown passed to her upon the death of her uncle, King William IV. She was only 18 years old at the time. On the reverse, Britannia appears standing (not seated, as was tradition), presented as the Greco-Roman goddess Minerva holding Victory in her hand. All in all, the emblematic designs are elegant and suggestive of themes which captured the British public’s imagination circa 1837.
Despite the visual appeal of the Bonomi crowns, their means of manufacture remained mysterious for decades after their appearance. Derisive criticism of their origin accompanied examples offered at auction until the late 1960s, and occur even today, but the information in Linecar & Stone’s reference, English Proof and Pattern Crown-Size Pieces, published in 1968, essentially ended the controversy. The book cited the research of Capt. Pridmore, who had discovered that the proceedings of the Numismatic Society of London’s meeting of November 16, 1837, had disclosed the origin of this pattern. The discussion at that meeting mainly focused on the incuse method employed in the minting of these pieces, the intention being to seek to lengthen the life of the coinage by holding back obliteration, or wear from use. That was the primary purpose behind the design: to ‘defy injury’ to the coin’s images during use in commerce. No further proof is really required to label this piece a true pattern.
The proceedings of that 1837 meeting mention that Joseph Bonomi, gentleman, was a traveller in Egypt, and an antiquary. They state that Bonomi had designed what he called a medallion in ‘incavo-relievo’ style which would ‘maintain’ the queen’s image for a national coinage. Bonomi’s design was described in the proceedings as showing the queen wearing a tiara on which appeared the royal Uraeus of the pharaohs (a sacred serpent, the cobra, their image of supreme power), and that the surrounding stars of the borders represented the Egyptian emblem of the heavens. The idea of encircling so as to protect was an ancient one. The date of 1837 was meant to represent Victoria’s age at her accession.
Finally, the proceedings stated that the reverse inscription, or legend as we call it today, combines the name of a celebrated Egyptian queen with that of the British queen, and includes national emblems. The design for this so-called medallion was never submitted to the authorities of the Crown for consideration as a coin, and examples in any metal rarely appeared for sale until the 20th century. So, the question remains: when and where were they made?
Pridmore also revealed that, in May 1893, an advertisement appeared in a publication in England called Numismatology which at last provided some facts about the issuance of the now-famous Bonomi crowns. The 1893 advertisement revealed that the die-sinker was none other than Theophilus Pinches, and that in the same year his well-known company produced a number of pieces in aluminum (or ‘white metal’), tin, copper, bronze, silver, and even gold.
Back in 1837, when the coin was designed, Joseph Bonomi had sent nothing more than a cast of his proposed crown to the Numismatic Society. He had not struck any examples. On the cast, Britannia is not shown holding the long trident that appears on the struck pieces. The Pinches pieces were engraved using the cast as the model but added the trident, and also changed the original larger, elongated stars of the borders to small, uniform-sized stars. The 1893 advertisement offered the struck silver pieces for 21 shillings apiece, and included information (some of it nothing but imaginative advertising, for the purposes of selling the coins) indicating that the date of manufacture was 1893, and that all were produced under the auspices of J. Rochelle Thomas. From this source, we know that Thomas engaged the Pinches firm to engrave the dies and to strike the pieces, which in their incuse state faithfully carried out the original concept of the inventor, to use Thomas’s own words. The designs were sunk below the surface, a style that had never been used before and in fact was not used again until the early 20th century on two denominations of U.S. gold coins. In his advertisement, Thomas stated that 10 pieces were struck in white metal. He described his own product as being ‘specimen proofs’, although the presently offered coin has been graded as Mint State. Thomas further stated that the total mintage, in all metals, was 196 pieces. Linecar & Stone, as well as Pridmore, believed that additional pieces were made to order shortly after the 1893 advertisement appeared. However, they concluded that the final mintage figures are as follows: 150 in silver, 10 in tin, 10 in bronze, 10 in copper, 10 in aluminum or white metal, and 6 in 22-carat gold (each weighing the equivalent of five sovereigns, all numbered on the edge).