It might be 42 years ago this month since Britains coins went decimal D-Day was February 15, 1971 but the idea that the country should fall in with most of the rest of the world had been around since 1824. It was thrown out then, although the introduction of the florin, worth two shillings or a tenth of a pound in 1849 was a step in that direction.
Professor John H. Alexander of Baltimore had other ideas. In 1855, he published a pamphlet titled International Coinage for Great Britain and the United States, leading to his appointment by Congress as the U.S. representative to the London Royal Commission on Decimal Coinage in 1857.
His idea was simple: equalise the value of the British sovereign and the American $5 half eagle, with other denominations values based accordingly to their gold or silver content. He felt that this plan would have been of immense value to both nations. As he put it: ...the two great branches of the Saxon family will realize what history shows to have been the uniform destiny of their forefathers ... the establishment of one weight, one measure and one money, first for themselves, and then the world.
Commission chairman Lord Overstone and the then Governor of the Bank of England, John Hubbard, subsequently came out against the idea, claiming it had few merits.
In order to support his suggestion, in 1859 Dr Alexander presented Londons Royal Mint with a complete double Proof set of U.S. coins from the Eagle to the Cent. Since then they have remained in the Royal Mint Museum, being on public display for many years at the Mint on Tower Hill.
Now, however, after careful consideration, the museums trustees have decided to deaccession the coins in one of the two sets (with the single exception of the $3, where only one specimen from the original pair has survived).
They will be sold by specialist London auctioneers Morton & Eden
on Wednesday, March 6, at 5pm GMT when they are expected to bring a total of £150,000-200,000 ($25,000-350,000). The sale proceeds will be used to help fund future acquisitions for the museums collection, now housed at the Royal Mints present home at Llantrisant in South Wales.
Said auctioneer James Morton: Professor Alexanders presentation marked his enthusiastic lobbying for a new British-American coinage union, one of a number of proposals to emerge from debates on decimalisation and international coinage which took place in various European locations in the late 1850s. As it turned out, these were far ahead of their time.
The auction, which will start at 5pm London time so that American collectors can participate more readily, offers the chance to acquire some magnificent coins including the finest known 1859 Eagle and 1859 Half Eagle. Not only do the coins represent a unique piece of history, they have the most impeccable provenance imaginable.
During 2012, all 23 1859 Proofs in the Royal Mint Museum collection were submitted to PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service) for grading. The silver coins and cents, toned following side-by-side public display of obverses and reverses in glazed cabinets over many decades, range in grade from Proof 63 to Proof 65. The gold coins are of especially remarkable quality and have been graded between Proof 64 Cameo and Proof 65+ Cameo.
1859 marked only the second year that the United States Mint had produced Proof sets for sale to the general public. There has been a reasonably solid survival rate for the base metal and silver denominations (from the cent to the silver dollar) and the examples to be offered in the Morton and Eden auction have been graded from Proof 63 to Proof 65. Individual estimates range from £250-300 ($400-475) for the 3 cents silver in Proof 63 (PCGS) to £3,500-4,500 ($5,500-7,000) for the silver dollar, graded Proof 64 (PCGS).
Few gold Proof coins were struck in 1859 and, of these, the great majority failed to find buyers so were consigned to the melting pot in the following year. The Royal Mint Museum examples are all among the finest-known specimens:
1859 Proof Gold Dollar: The standard references estimate that only about 20 are known to exist. The Royal Mint Museum example has been graded Proof 65 Cameo, and is the single finest example graded by PCGS. Estimate: £7,000-10,000 ($11,000-16,000).
1859 Proof Quarter Eagle: Only 10 examples are known to have been submitted for grading to the two major services. At Proof 65 Cameo, this is tied with the specimen being retained by the Royal Mint Museum as the two second-finest specimens graded by PCGS. Estimate: £20,000-30,000 ($32,000-48,000).
1859 Proof Half Eagle: A coin of very great rarity, of which a total population of only about 7 to 10 examples (including those in museums) is known. PCGS has graded only three specimens (including both Royal Mint Museum coins). This, graded Proof 65+ Cameo, is possibly the finest in existence. The Royal Mint Museum half eagles coins are specifically referenced in the standard works by Breen and Garrett & Guth, as well as by David Akers who called them superb gems. Estimate: £50,000-70,000 ($80,000-110,000).
1859 Proof Eagle: It is believed that, including examples held in museum collections, only about 10 1859 Proof Eagles have survived, of which this is probably the finest known. Grading Proof 65 Cameo, it is certainly the finest example yet graded by PCGS (the other Royal Mint piece being Proof 64 Cameo). None finer is known to have been graded and none has been offered individually at auction since 1984. This pair of coins has also featured in references by Breen and Garrett & Guth, and were also cited by David Akers who described them as virtually perfect. Estimate: £70,000-100,00 ($110,000-160,000).
John H. Alexander was born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1812, a week after the outbreak of the War of 1812. A remarkable individual, he graduated from St. Johns College, Annapolis, at the age of 14, before independently pursuing (although not completing) studies in both law and medicine.
Focusing instead on geology, civil engineering, mathematics, and physics, he was, at age 21, appointed Chief Engineer of Maryland. Three years later, while retaining his state post, he became President of the Georges Creek Coal and Iron Company, which made him financially independent for the rest of his life.
Very much a renaissance man, he wrote on a wide range of subjects including metallurgy, chemistry, physics, poetry, theology and, at the time of his death, had prepared an unpublished manuscript dictionary of the language of the Lenni-Lenapé Indians (the Delaware tribe).
Other publications, notably on the placement of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Wheeling, West Virginia, would have brought him to the attention of his fellow Baltimoreans the Garrett family (whose coin collections were among the finest assembled by an American).
Dr Alexander, an incorporating member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, held various titles including Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland and Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He was also a Fellow of the American Philosophical Society. Aged just 55 at the time of his death in February 1867, he was about to be appointed Director of the United States Mint.
Although unsuccessful in their day, his proposals for a unified currency pointed the way forwards. Future deliberations would culminate in the production of the well-known $4 Stella patterns, struck in the United States a quarter of a century later.