George III, proof penny, 1797, struck in gold, by C. H. Küchler, late Soho, thin flan (2.5mm.), wt. 39.11gms., small laur. and dr. bust r., 10 leaves, 2 berries (upper recut), rev. Britannia seated l. on rock, single incuse dot, ship of three masts at sea in distance, plain edge (S.3777; P.1111 [KP15]; WR.158), a splendid coin in full brilliance, virtually as struck in mint condition, universally rated R6, possibly four known
*ex Capt. F. Parr, Puttock and Simpson, 14-15 August 1871
J. Marshall, Sotheby, 13 August 1875, lot 62
S. Addington, purchased by H. Montagu, 1883
H. Montagu, Spink reference, section George I to Victoria, 1890, #571
J. G. Murdoch, part III, Sotheby, 31 March 1903, lot 213
G. Simmons, Glendining, 27 March 1946, lot 93
Maj. Gen. E. H. Gouldburn, Christie’s, 27 November 1962, lot 320
Ridgemount Collection, Spink auction 69, 20 April 1989, lot 357
This magnificent coin represents the finest possible presentation of the coinage that ushered in the modern era of British coinage. Normally this style of penny is seen in copper or bronzed copper state, the best of those being proofs made by the Soho Mint for collectors. In gold, the design is breathtaking. The question arises of why it exists, why any were struck in gold. There appears to be no evidence, aside from the coin itself, that its purpose was exactly as stated above—a special presentation—made on order by Matthew Boulton for an otherwise unknown reason. Boulton was clearly grateful to members of the Privy Council’s Committee on Coinage which, after seeing samples of earlier patterns made by the Soho Mint, recommended in March 1797 that King George III or his regent should instruct his government to enter into a contract with Boulton and Watt, owners of the Soho manufactory, to mint coppers that would defy counterfeiting.
The historical setting is well known but bears repeating here. Copper coins had not been produced since the Royal Mint issues of the 1750s and 1770s, which created a surfeit of the smallest pieces of money that was not exhausted for nearly half a century. The problem, though, was that copying the genuine coins was not difficult, and by 1787 the Mint reported that only 8 per cent of the coin then in circulation ‘had some tolerable resemblance to the king’s coin’ (noted Peck, p. 214). The passage of stricter laws was to no avail because it was nearly impossible in court to prove that samples of fake coins were made by those accused of making them; consequently, the copiers produced what was called ‘swarms’ of fake farthings and halfpennies (often made from melted real coppers using diluted metal). The seemingly inevitable result was the issuing of private tokens by tradesmen, most manufactured in Birmingham and of good copper. Most were handsome halfpennies but none had any official value. While the numerous counterfeits were generally traded by the public, it was clear to the government that a real solution needed to be reached. It was at this point that the Privy Council engaged the Soho Mint. Boulton stated that his manufactory could produce coins larger than halfpennies, of fine quality, and impossible to counterfeit, even though no larger denomination had ever been issued in copper, the reason being the difficulty of making lasting dies. The Royal Mint argued in favour of only making farthings and halfpennies. The Coinage Committee, however, countered, recommending that Soho should be directed to make the larger denominations which they had suggested—pennies and even two-penny pieces—so as not to drive the two smaller denominations out of circulation until Soho had proven itself capable of meeting its intentions. To frustrate any naysayer in the government who might seek to deny his application, Boulton even went a step further, promising to deliver his coins (for a fee) in casks across the kingdom, whereas the Royal Mint had always provided them to merchants and banks only at the Tower. The result was the creation of the first-ever, now-famous copper penny in 1797, as well as the massive twopence. Minting began in June 1797, with the first pennies appearing in July 1797 and twopences dated 1797 being released in January 1798. All deliveries of the new coins were completed by August 1799. While the new copper pennies were instantly pleasing and impressive, the double-sized two-penny coins seemed mostly to exist as advertisements of Soho’s capabilities, yet many entered commerce. The quality of the new coinage was undeniable; the coins were eagerly accepted and used by the public, even the big twopences. At the same time as the last delivery was made, the coinage committee recommended that Soho should also strike new farthings and halfpennies—the workhorse coins of commerce. Halfpennies and farthings were produced in larger quantities but did not appear in commerce for another two years. All quickly replaced the old-style copper issues of the Royal Mint, and stopped the counterfeiting. These ventures of the Soho Mint revolutionized the nation’s most used money.
We do not know if this gold proof penny, as the first of its kind ever made in Great Britain, was given to a member of Parliament or of the Coinage Committee, or even to someone in or close to the royal family, but it is a distinct possibility as its provenance has not been traced, yet, earlier than 1871. What a joy it would be to discover this lost fact!
There are four specimens, of which two are Taylor restrikes and two are late Soho, of which this is by far the finer. The other example was in the Farouk sale and is in fine condition, having been used as a pocket piece.