Coin collecting is what I call the itch that must be scratched. From childhood, the question “why?” has always plagued my thoughts. In some ways it is a curse as many tire easily of questions, curiosity and the need to flesh out understanding of a subject. Strangely enough I’ve been comfortable with my own thoughts (red flag for the shrink you reckon?)

Whereas a couple of well established Australian dealers I know of had family or a solid apprenticeship in the trade, I began at 40 with “why?” Foregoing the question on this occasion as to why anyone would want to collect coins, the first coin that really had me scratching my head presented itself a few weeks ago (see first and 2nd image below).

It was a 1879 Sydney Half Sovereign purchased over the internet. The first thing I noticed upon inspecting it was the letter O in VICTORIA. I call it a ‘wonky O’ and it is quite different from other dated half sovereigns. The letter resembles more a ZERO as in the date 1880 – another coin I had on my desk at the time I was inspecting it. Now I know from social media spaces that everyone who thinks they’ve got something different about their well used ATM banknote ask reflexively “What’s it worth to the market?” without even attempting to discover if they had an error or variety that is of value to said market.

Seeking out the PCGS Population

First place I went to seek more information is the PCGS population report for the 1879 Sydney Half Sovereign. The following button will take you to PCGS’s pop report:

With only six coins examined and graded by PCGS, I knew straight off that I had my work cut out for me. But all is not lost. Note that one of the coins pictured in that population have a similar ‘wonky O’ (the VF25 example. Click on the coin to open the image at full resolution). PCGS have graded the coin as a stock standard 1879S half sov. That tells me that the coin is not considered a variety.

But what of the little tail sticking out of my letter O in VICTORIA. Could this be a reverse of the famous 1879 Sydney sovereign shield reverse, which has a C over the O in VICTORIA? Initially I thought yes, that could well be a letter under another letter, explaining why I have a wonky O with a tail on it. Dollar tags started flashing before my eyes!

But some further digging into other examples of half sovereigns of various dates on PCGS illustrated a reality. In the high definition photos taken when PCGS slabs its coins, one can see the numerous cuds and die breaks that plague Australian half sovereigns. This of course leads to other questions and avenues of research pertaining to die quality, die numbers, mint quality controls etc etc. But it does likely negate the probability that this particular coin is anything exceptional beyond a striking cud on the obverse legend.

Quartermaster Collection – The Final Word?

The limited research was put to rest when I opened the Quartermaster Catalogue (a vital resource to collectors of Australian gold) and looked at the 1879 Sydney half sovereign sold. It was the same obverse die. With no commentary from the experienced numismatists behind this amazing collection – Barrie Winsor and Tony Richardson – on this particular coin, I can only speculate why the O is wonky and appears to be a letter over a letter. It MIGHT be the case that the cud created by an old die required the manual restamping of the letter, creating a ‘wonky O’ that looks like it has a different angle from all the other examples I sought out on the net (see photos below).

“Why” will have to hold for another day. If you’re like me an insatiably curious, collecting half sovereigns might be your itch that’ll never be relieved. Go on, give it a scratch…




1879 Sydney Half Sovereign