Design Changes to the Young Head Victoria Shield Sovereign, 1838 – 1887
One of the challenges confronting the collector of young head Victoria shield sovereigns is the lack of an overview of the transitions between design changes during the period. Because obverse and reverse changes were sometimes not concurrent, it is easy for confusion to arise. Most sources assume some advance reader familiarity. Some distinguish only between die and non-die numbered issues when assigning reference numbers and provide limited notes to guide the reader through transitions. Others provide more detailed reference numbers but the transitions between changes can still be difficult to follow. This article presents a summary of the transitions to clarify their sequence and relationships.
The discussion below is limited to major design changes made to young head Victoria shield sovereigns from 1838 to 1887. Errors, proofs, and minor variances in hair arrangement are not discussed unless they are pertinent to overall design change. Principal references cited are Marsh, The Gold Sovereign, and Spink, Coins of England and the United Kingdom, noted below.
a. The first major transition was the change from the first group Marsh describes, which Spink refers to as the first young head (S.3852 and 3852A and B), to the second group (Spink’s second young head; S.3852C). This second group was introduced in 1848. Both the first and second young head designs were produced that year, after which the first young head was discontinued. The obverse of the second young head design featured a larger head, resulting in a decreased distance between the bust and the legend lettering. The reverse design elements were rearranged on the second young head design, so that the end characters of the legend letters and the leaf tips below them were no longer vertically aligned. Figure A shows the changes to design elements.
b. Before continuing the description of transitions, it is worth turning aside for a moment to address the two first young head “narrow shield” variants that appeared only in 1838 and 1843 (S.3852A and B). These variants featured a reverse possibly engraved by Jean Baptiste Merlen. Figure B shows the reverses of the two narrow shield variants compared to the reverse of an 1839 sovereign to highlight the identifying characteristics.
c. For the two subsequent transitions, we will first examine obverse changes and return to reverse changes below. In the transition of 1853, two significant obverse design changes took place from the second young head described above (S.3852C) to the rest of the S.3852 series (D through F) and S.3853. Both S.3852C and 3852D were produced during 1853 through 1855. Marsh considers these changes significant enough to be considered a third group, while Spink treats them merely as variations on the second young head design. On the obverse, the “W.W.” relief on the bust truncation (for William Wyon, the Chief Engraver from 1828-1851) was changed to “WW” incuse, and the ribbon at the nape of the neck was changed from a narrow to a broader design, with pronounced edge lines. This changed obverse remained in production until 1870. Figure C shows the transitions described that took place in 1853 and those that took place in 1870, described below. There were two notable variants during this period. The first, the Ansell, appeared only in 1859 and featured an additional raised line on the lower part of the ribbon. It was a well-documented experiment in the use of brittle gold by Royal Mint chemist George Frederick Ansell, for whom it is named. Figure D shows the additional line on the neck ribbon that is the Ansell’s distinguishing feature. The second variant, the 827 sovereign of 1863 (S.3852E and F), we will return to below.
d. In the transition of 1870, the “W.W.” relief and narrow ribbon used before 1853 were reintroduced. Marsh describes this as a revision back to the second group (second young head; S.3852C). Spink describes this as the introduction of a third young head design (S.3853B). The 1872 sovereign without a die number, previously catalogued as S.3852C, clearly belongs with this later group. As noted, Figure C shows the transitions that took place in 1870.
e. Returning to the 827 sovereign, it is fairly well established that the 827 on the obverse truncation was associated with a specific ingot that, like the gold from which the Ansell sovereign was made, was at first thought to be unusable. Records show that refiners Rothschild’s and Brown & Wingrove conducted further processing on two 200-ounce ingots (numbered 816 and 830) for the Mint, so it is thought that the initial batch of 827 sovereigns with no die number (S.3852F) were made from a similar ingot and proved to be acceptable for circulation. The subsequent 827 sovereigns with die number 22 on the reverse (S.3853A) were evidently made from the melted scrap and “scissel” (cuttings) left over from making the initial batch. Because of this, it is probable that all of the non-die numbered 827 sovereigns were produced and the results evaluated before full rate production of die numbered sovereigns began in 1863 (S.3853). Figure E shows the 827 on truncation that distinguishes the variant.
f. The discussion of the 827 sovereign leads us naturally to the design changes to the reverse, which after 1848 did not take place in conjunction with changes to the obverse. Throughout the period from 1848 to 1863, the reverse design remained unchanged. In 1863, die numbers were introduced to the reverse in the space below the wreath and above the floral emblem. Die characters “M” and “S” were later associated with the Australian mints at Melbourne and Sydney. Die numbers enabled production to be pinpointed to a specific coin press and operator as a means of quality control, and recorded errors fell dramatically after 1863.
g. Production of shield sovereigns in London ended after 1874, but continued in Australia. Shield sovereigns first entered production in Australia at Sydney in 1871, during which time both the “WW” incuse and “W.W.” relief varieties were produced. Production of the “WW” incuse variety ended after 1871 and production of the “W.W.” relief variety continued at both Melbourne and Sydney until 1887.
Figure F presents a graphical overview of the design transitions discussed. The two top rows present columns that divide sovereign production into the groups described by Marsh and head designs described by Spink. The next two rows present columns to indicate the characterization of the truncation inscription (incuse or relief) and the presence of die numbers on the reverse. White boxes in rows below indicate production of the design described. The figure illustrates the transitions from the first group/first young head to the second group/second young head in 1848, from W.W. relief to WW incuse in 1853, and from WW incuse back to W.W. relief in 1870. The die numbers introduced in 1863 can be seen as independent of these major transitions.
- Victoria gold Sovereign 1838 Young Head, “narrow shield” variety, S.3852A, KM736.1, Extremely Fine. Lot 38, Baldwin’s Auctions Ltd, Auction 73, 8 May 2012, http://tinyurl.com/cwjkyp2, accessed June 25, 2012.
- Victoria gold Sovereign 1839, Young Head, Shield reverse, S.3852, KM736.1, MS64 PCGS. Lot 24993, Heritage 2011 September Long Beach Signature World & Ancient Coins Auction #3015, http://tinyurl.com/d7gxxrg, accessed 24 May 2012.
- Victoria gold Sovereign 1843 Young Head, “narrow shield” variety, S.3852B, KM736.1, Extremely Fine. Lot 45, Baldwin’s Auctions Ltd, Auction 73, 8 May 2012, http://tinyurl.com/boz8cpd, accessed June 25, 2012.
- Victoria gold Sovereign 1852, Young Head, Shield reverse, S.3852C, KM736.1, MS64 Terner PCGS. Lot 24997, Heritage 2011 September Long Beach Signature World & Ancient Coins Auction #3015, http://tinyurl.com/budtdey, accessed 24 May 2012.
- Victoria gold “Ansell” Sovereign 1859, Young Head, Shield reverse, S.3852E, KM763.3, AU55 PCGS. Lot 24235, Heritage 2011 January New York Signature World & Ancient Coins Auction #3012, http://tinyurl.com/ctolsq3, accessed 25 June 2012.
- Victoria Sovereign 1862, Young Head, Shield reverse, incuse WW, wide date, normal legends, S.3852D, KM736.1, MS64 Terner PCGS. Lot 24429, Heritage 2012 January 2-3 World & Ancient Coins Signature Auction- New York #3016, http://tinyurl.com/d3tzwup, accessed 23 May 2012.
- Victoria gold Sovereign, 1863, Young Head, Shield reverse, numbers 827 in relief on truncation, Die #22, S.3852F, KM736.2, Extremely Fine. Lot 106, Baldwin’s Auctions Ltd, Auction 73, 8 May 2012, author’s photo.
- Victoria gold Sovereign 1872, Young Head, Shield reverse, Die #108, S.3853B, KM736.2, MS63 NGC. Lot 24759, Heritage 2012 April 25-May 1 World & Ancient Coins CICF Signature Auction- Chicago #3019, http://tinyurl.com/bsu3a8l, accessed 23 May 2012.
- Steve Hill, “Baldwin’s Auction 73: The Bentley Collection, British Milled Sovereigns, Part I.” London: A H Baldwin and Sons Ltd, 8 May 2012.
- Michael A. Marsh, The Gold Sovereign. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Golden Jubilee Edition, 2002. (Note: Marsh’s discussion of the three young head design groups can be found on pages 29-30, and is illustrated on Plate 22.)
- Thomas Michael, Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900. Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 6th edition, 2009. (Note: Reference numbers assigned to non-die and die numbered issues and the Ansell variant only [KM# 736.1, 736.2, and 736.3, respectively.])
- Philip Skingley, Coins of England and the United Kingdom: Standard Catalogue of British Coins. London: Spink & Son, 47th revised edition, 1 December 2011. (Note: Spink reference numbers used throughout. The characterization of S.3853B as a third young head design does not appear in the 47th edition. It is anticipated in a future edition based upon observations presented by Steve Hill in the Bentley Collection catalogue noted above.
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of Coin News.