British money has long been a source of confusion to Americans with its strange nomenclature and fluctuating exchange rate. The pound doesn’t weigh a pound—in fact nobody knows for sure how it got its name. Best guess is it relates back hundreds of years when large payments were specified in pounds of coins. And what in the world are guineas, florins, bobs, and schillings?
Fortunately for coin collectors, none of this matters much, since British coins have become a hot commodity at high-end coin auctions lately. In fact, according to the GB200 Coin Index, rare British coins have seen an average price increase of nearly 195% in the past decade, outperforming both gold and British real estate.
Here’s a look ten of the most valuable, based on sales tracked in a 2015 article on JustCollecting.com, starting with numbers 10 through 6.
The 1706 Queen Anne Five Guineas, AU58 - $94,000, Heritage Auctions, 2014
The United Kingdom of Great Britain was created in 1706 with the Treaty of Union joining England and Scotland as a single nation. Pre-union coins had the arms of England, Ireland, Scotland and France (France?) on their reverse, so to commemorate the new union, the back was changed mid-year to display the shields of the two just-joined countries. Its low minting numbers and historical significance add to the value of this milled gold coin.
The 1933 One Penny Circulation Strike Coin - $134,000 (estimated current value)
This coin’s value is an estimate because only one has ever sold (at Sotheby’s in the 1970s) and the price wasn’t disclosed. Because of a glut of penny coins, none were ordered for 1933. But tradition had it that a new penny should be placed in the foundation of new buildings, so 6-7 are known to have been minted for that purpose, and four of those are in the Royal Mint’s collection. When the coins under the Church of St. Cross near Leeds were stolen, the remainder was extracted from St. Mary’s Church and offered for sale. None have appeared on the market since the Sotheby’s sale 40 years ago. A less valuable “pattern strike” coin sold at auction in 2016 for £72.000 ($94,334 US), leading to the current estimate of the circulation coin’s value.
The 1839 Victoria I £5 Commemorative (PR63) - $141,000, Heritage Auctions, 2014
To celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria, who would become the longest-reigning monarch in British history and give her name to an entire era, the Royal Mint produced around 300 coins with a raised lettered edge in 1839-40 for wealthy collectors along with plain-edge coins that were made through 1886. It has an “Una and the Lion” design with the inscription "May God Direct My Steps" In Latin on its reverse. In its auction catalog Heritage called it one of the most beautiful gold coins ever struck.
The 1663 Charles II “Petition Crown” - $271,200, Spink & Son auction, 2007
Just as in the U.S., British coin designers sometimes submit their work for consideration by the government. When the Cromwell era ended and the monarchy was restored in 1660, medal maker Thomas Simon petitioned the new king to consider his design for a coin to honor the event. Unfortunately for Simon, a different design had already been approved, but his prototype survives and is considered one of the finest examples of British coin design. One example sold at auction for £207,000 in 2007.
The George III 1819 Gold Sovereign - $288,765, Spink & Son auction, 2013
Rare, in that only 3,574 were ever struck, and unusual in that it was struck on five separate occasions with private, rather than treasury gold, only 10 are known to still exist, making it one of the rarest of all gold sovereigns.
Up Next: The Most Expensive British Coins – Part 2!