Sean Ross 1 December 2014
Australia is home to the world renowned Perth Mint and is one of the leading nations for the production of precious metals and specialty coins. The country also has a suitably rich (and strange) coinage history behind it.
Here is a small window into some of the more notable and unique episodes in Australian coin history.
The first truly Australian coins weren’t so much minted as they were modified. In the early 19th century, the growing colony of New South Wales did not have a primary currency. Indeed, most transactions were carried out in a pseudo-barter system; trades were often made in livestock, rum or some other commodity.
That all changed when the colonial government imported a large number of Spanish Silver Dollars. In order to avoid an outflow of the new currency to other markets, the government had the center of these bullion pieces “punched out.” The new, donut-shaped silver coins became known as Holey Dollars, while the circular core came to called Colonial Dumps. In one fell swoop, the first two Australian coins were introduced. There are believed to be fewer than 1000 of each left, and they are among the most rare and sought after collectable bullion pieces ever minted.
In the mid-19th century, much of Australia suffered from a shortage of effective currency in circulation. The British Government drug its feet in finding a remedy for the situation, leading to illegal coin creation in one part of the country and the establishment of a Royal Mint in another.
Victoria and New South Wales took the “proper” route towards solving their problem. After a long petition, the Royal Mint established an official branch in Australia in 1855. The new Sydney Mint (and then the ensuing Melbourne Mint) began pumping out Sovereign and Half Sovereign gold coins until 1931.
The South Australian government, however, faced more dire circumstances and did not fancy waiting around until their British overlords got around to remedying the problem. Without approval, the South Australian legislature passed the Bullion Act of 1852. The resulting coins became known as Adelaide Pounds, and fewer than 25,000 were ever minted. Today, no more than 250 exist in private circulation.
There were other attempts - most complete failures - at minting and circulating coins during this time. In 1855, a set of Englishmen decided to profit from the shortage by opening a private mint in Melbourne that came to be called the “Kangaroo Office.” They closed their doors in less than a year.
Australian coins are really famous for three things: quality, depictions of geographically rare animals, and the 1930 Penny.
The many birds, insects, marsupials and other animals that are unique to the Australian continent have served as a point of Aussie pride. Names like kookaburra, koala and kangaroo have just as much meaning in the numismatic world as they do to the tourist industry. As the production of coins accelerated and became “Australianised”, animals became a prominent feature on many coins. Some of the highest quality investment coins in the world today are the Perth Mint’s animal series coins in gold, silver and platinum.
The 1930 Penny, however, is the most famous collectable coin to ever call Australia home. Prior. For those unfamiliar with the story and fabulous uniqueness of the 1930 Penny, here is a primer:
The Australian currency system did not have decimals in 1930. There must have been plans to create smaller, fractional currency, as mint records indicate a grand total of six Pennies were struck in “proof” quality, but none released.
By accident (it is assumed), some 2,000-3,000 Pennies were released into circulation. The release was instantly met with a fantastical reaction among the Australian population and it continues to this day. The coins became so famous and so valuable that whole families would, literally, tear their houses apart in search for one.
Those six 1930 “proof” Pennies? One is held in the British Museum, one in the Museum of Victoria, one in the Art Gallery of South Australia. The other three are held in private hands and have an estimated value above $1.5 million.