The Treasure from the SS City of Cairo

In 2013, Deep Ocean Search Ltd, a British-led team, successfully retrieved £34 million of silver coins from a shipwreck in the South Atlantic ocean. Working at a depth of 3.2 miles, the operation set the world record for the deepest salvage of cargo in history. When the news was made public in 2015, it was widely reported that the recovered coins had all been melted down.  But in reality, a small number were saved from the melting-pot. Collectors now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own treasure from this record-breaking operation and hold history in their hands.

The SS City of Cairo

On a cold November evening in 1942, the SS City of Cairo, a British passenger steamship travelling from India to the UK, was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-Boat in the middle of the South Atlantic. At the time of her sinking, few people knew that she was carrying top-secret cargo. A huge consignment of silver coins, which had circulated for decades through British India, was being transported to Britain to be melted down for their high silver content. 

As men, women and children struggled in the water, the U-boat that had sunk them surfaced alongside them. Commander Karl-Frederich Merten informed them that the nearest land was the small island of Saint Helena, 480 miles to the north-northeast. Privately, he considered their chances of reaching land or being rescued at sea to be almost zero, and U-boats were forbidden from attempting to rescue civilians on enemy ships. Merten concluded the conversation by saying, “Goodnight. Sorry for sinking you”, and then sailed away into the night.

With no distress signal having reached the mainland, meagre rations and only one sextant to navigate their course, the prospects for the 296 survivors huddled together in six damaged and overcrowded lifeboats looked bleak. Yet astonishingly, people were rescued from all six lifeboats. Four lifeboats were picked up after spending thirteen days in the shark-infested waters. Sadly, rescue came too late for many in the two remaining boats. A German vessel picked up three survivors after 36 days, though one later died of her injuries. The last lifeboat remained at sea for 52 days before it was spotted off the coast of Brazil. By that time, only two occupants were still alive.


Of the 302 people who sailed on the last voyage, six were lost on the night of the sinking. Sadly, 93 more would perish in the lifeboats as they waited for rescue, and a further eight would die shortly after being rescued. Against all expectations, 195 men, women and children survived their ordeal and made it safely back onto dry land.

For nearly seventy years, the wreck of the SS City of Cairo and her top secret cargo lay undisturbed on the ocean floor. Then, in November 2011, a company called Deep Ocean Search Ltd began searching for the ship, having been authorised by the UK Ministry of Transport to recover the silver coins on board.  

The plan to search for the ship and salvage her lost treasure was the brainchild of deep-sea salvage pioneer John Kingsford, who set up the company. In 1984, he read an account of the sinking by one of the survivors, the ship’s surgeon, Dr Douglas Quantrill, who described seeing boxes of silver coins after the torpedo had blown off the hatches in hold number four. 

Secret government papers confirmed that the ship had been carrying silver on her last voyage. A despatch from Embarkation Bombay to the War Office established that she left Bombay (now Mumbai) with 2,182 boxes of silver coins weighing 122 tonnes. DOS researchers scoured key documents about the sinking as they became publicly available. Military records from both sides provided details of how the ship had sunk and the likely location of the wreck.  

The scale of the challenge facing the team was formidable. The ship’s last recorded position was about 1,000 miles off the coast of West Africa, where the weather, swell, and currents are extremely changeable. Furthermore, there were contradictions between the last known positions of the ship given by the U-boat and the ship’s officers. It meant that the team, which included twenty French oceanographers, would have to search an area of the ocean floor that was around twice the size of London. 

A salvage operation at a depth of over five kilometres had never been successfully accomplished before. Nonetheless, Kingsford believed it was possible and signed a contract with the British Government authorising him to search and retrieve the lost silver treasure. 

Deep Ocean Search took the survey and salvage vessel John Lethbridge, equipped with sonar and robotics, to the target area and began scanning the seabed for signs of the wreck. On board was a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) capable of working in extreme depths and 11,000 meters of sonar cable which tethered it to the ship. It was slow and laborious work. The ocean floor was littered with rocks and canyons, and the team watched the monitor screen intently as the ROV sent back video. It would take a highly experienced eye to spot a man-made object amongst all the naturally occurring features. 

Deep Ocean Search at work

After several weeks of scanning, the team identified a small target that didn’t appear to be a natural occurrence. Kingsford was initially unconvinced that it was the SS City of Cairo because it didn’t correspond to his expectations of how the wreck should look. However, he trusted his team’s view that the seabed looked disturbed, and the curious anomaly was deemed worthy of further investigation. Closer inspection revealed that it was indeed a shipwreck that had broken into two parts and was partially buried in the silt and mud on the ocean floor. But was this the ship they were looking for? 

Images of the wreck site revealed no visible name or builder’s plaque to identify it. So, the team had to analyse photographs and plans of the SS City of Cairo to determine that they had found their target. Eventually, after six frustrating hours, they were able to make a positive identification using the ship’s porthole formation. Then, to confirm their discovery, they saw silver rupees struck with the portraits of British monarchs in hold number four, where they had laid undisturbed for 69 years.  

Silver coins from the SS City of Cairo wreck

The ship had come to rest at a depth of 5,150 metres (nearly 17,000 feet) which meant that any successful recovery of coins from the site would enter the record books as the deepest salvage of cargo from a shipwreck. By comparison, the RMS Titanic lies at a depth of 3,800 metres (12,500 feet).

Working remotely 3.2 miles beneath the waterline, Kingsford’s team overcame huge technical and logistical challenges to bring almost 100 tons of the silver coins to the surface. The operation took eight months, finally reaching completion in September 2013. Before leaving the wreck for the last time, the ROV left a plaque honouring those who had died. It read,

“We came here with respect.”

Plaque left at the wreck site

The recovered coins worth £34 million were handed over to the UK Treasury as per their contracted agreement, and Deep Ocean Search received a share of the sale. When the British authorities permitted the news to be made public in 2015, it was widely reported that all of the silver rupees had been melted down.

However, that wasn’t entirely accurate. 

When the momentous news broke that silver rupees had been recovered from the SS City of Cairo wreck, the Samlerhuset Group began a six-year quest of their own to rescue some of the coins for collectors before they all went into the melting pot. Realising that their customers would welcome the opportunity to own treasure recovered from the deepest cargo salvage in history, the European coin company approached Deep Ocean Search and asked to purchase a batch of the coins.

Their persistence eventually paid off. Almost 22,000 Indian rupees from the record-breaking salvage operation have now been professionally conserved by industry experts, giving international collectors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own these salvaged coins and hold history in their hands.

Coins recovered from the SS City of Cairo

Speaking about the sale, John Kingsford said,

“It is our wish that the history and amazing story of the SS City of Cairo continues to live on through the silver coins that survived her tremendous ordeal. We are delighted to confirm that the last surviving coins from her treasure have been saved from being smelted and have been professionally restored and made available to collectors worldwide.”

An Edward VII silver rupee recovered from the SS City of Cairo

The operation to recover the coins from a depth of over five kilometres will forever stand as a triumph of human engineering, ingenuity, and skill. Furthermore, each salvaged coin from the top-secret cargo provides a tangible connection with the people who used them in British India and who unknowingly travelled with them on the final voyage of the SS City of Cairo.


Vibece Furseth in the Samlerhuset Group is taking on a new role, becoming the first female mint master and CEO of the Norwegian Mint in Kongsberg.

Vibece Furseth will take on the role of CEO and mint master for the Norwegian Mint in March. She has held many important positions in the Samlerhuset Group over the course of 25 years, and currently holds the role of Operations Director in Samlerhuset Norway. Vibece will continue to lead Samlerhuset Norway’s operations department and is part of the company’s management team, while also becoming the mint master in Kongsberg.

She takes over from Ståle Løkken by the end of March.

The Mint has a first-class team that is in the international league in the field of coin minting, and with commercial insight and in-depth knowledge of the industry, I believe Vibece will be an ideal leader and bring many business opportunities to the Mint in the future,” says founder and chairman of the board of the Samlerhuset Group, Ole Bjørn Fausa.

We thank Ståle Løkken for his good years at the Mint and wish him good luck with new important tasks at a new, strong Kongsberg enterprise,” he continues.

The Norwegian Mint was established in Kongsberg in 1686 and has had almost 50 mint masters during this time, all of whom have been men. Furseth thus becomes Norway’s first female CEO and mint master for the Norwegian Mint.

I am taking over a well-run Mint with over 300 years of traditions in Norwegian industrial history, and I look forward to being part of the competence environment that the Mint represents in coin and minting technology. I have broad experience in the industry and am excited to explore new commercial opportunities for the Norwegian Mint,” says incoming CEO, Vibece Furseth.

The Norwegian Mint in Kongsberg is owned by the Samlerhuset group and produces coins and medals, including the official circulation coins in Norway, on behalf of the Norwegian Bank. The Norwegian Mint also produces the Nobel Prize medals annually.

A Million Silver Dollars

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair offered its ten million visitors many exciting sights.  Astronaut John Glenn brought his Friendship 7 space capsule, Elvis Presley even filmed a movie there, and Seattle’s famous Space Needle was built as the fair’s futuristic symbol.  However, if you had purchased your ticket and walked on the fairgrounds in the spring of 1962, you would have been treated to a spectacular display which has never been re-created:  a wire corn crib holding 1 MILLION gleaming US Silver Dollars!

This incredible display was the result of an unlikely partnership between the Philadelphia Mint and three Washington numismatists.  The three convinced a Columbus, Nebraska manufacturing company to build a steel building on the fair site, while two large semi trucks each carried 500,000 silver dollars in mint-sealed bags from Philadelphia all the way across country to Seattle.  (Of course, the trucks also carried armed Pinkerton guards, while state troopers and local police provided additional escort.)

To construct the Million Silver Dollars exhibit, 800,000 Morgan silver dollars in mint bags dated 1910-1915 were carefully stacked in the center of the aforementioned corn crib.  Then, once the mountain of bags was completed, the final 200,000 Peace dollars were poured in to completely cover the bags.  Fair visitors were allowed to pass within just a few feet of this amazing display from the Fair’s opening day, April 21, 1962, until it closed in October.   Anywhere from 25,000 – 40,000 visitors passed through the steel building every day to gaze upon this once-in-a-lifetime sight.  While most visitors considered themselves lucky to even be close to this treasure, one unsuspecting lady was the luckiest of them all!  In June, as the one millionth fair visitor passed through the gates, she was presented with 100 of the silver dollars from the exhibit.

In the fall of 1962, just after the World’s Fair has closed, an ad appeared in a national coin magazine offering actual dollars from this exhibit, in commemorative holders, for $1.95 each.  Or, you could purchase up to 5 bags per person for $1500 per bag of 1000.  

Oh for a time machine to travel back 48 years, eh?!!

Roman Britannia

History does not record the name of the engraver who first depicted Britannia on coins. She appeared for the first time during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), and is presented as a rather forlorn figure, with one hand resting on her chin as if she is contemplating her fate under Roman occupation. In some coins she appears to be wearing a rainproof, hooded woollen cloak known as a birrus Brittanicus, which was popular amongst native Britons to protect them from the inclement weather. Britannia sits with her foot on a pile of rocks, holding a spear and with a large spiked shield at her side.

Britannia, depicted during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian.

Hadrian is, of course, best remembered for building the impressive 73 mile stone wall across the north of England, which ran from coast to coast and marked the northwest frontier of his Empire. Perhaps this is what Britannia is guarding on the coin, ready to repel any invaders who try to breach the defences.

Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s decision to depict Britain as a female warrior may have been inspired by events that took place in Britain fifty-six years before his reign began. In 60-61 AD, Rome was left reeling from a series of devastating attacks that killed many thousands of their citizens living in this remote outpost of the Empire. The uprising was led by Queen Boudica of the Iceni tribe, who achieved what the Romans had thought impossible and united previously warring Celtic tribes against their common enemy.

Statue of Queen Boudica in London – © Anhad Arora

Under her command, the Celts fought with a ferocity that took the occupiers completely by surprise and had burned down the thriving cities of Colchester, London and Saint Albans before the Romans could assemble a sufficient number of soldiers to crush their revolt.

The Boudican Revolt (60-61AD)

During the final battle, it was reported that Queen Boudica drove her war chariot between the tribes shouting encouragement and spurring them on. When all hope of victory was lost, legend has it that she took poison rather than be captured. Her inspirational leadership, daring to challenge the might of the Emperor and refusal to take prisoners or become one herself earned her the respect of Rome, who considered her a worthy adversary, made all the more remarkable because she was also a woman.

Looking again at Hadrian’s coin, it is not a great stretch of the imagination to see Britannia seated next to the large wheel of a sythed war chariot, which Queen Boudica is believed to have driven.

Queen Boudica in her war chariot with her daughters

A similar design appeared on coins issued by Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius (138-161 AD) who, unlike Hadrian, never visited Britain. His army successfully pressed further north and built the 39 mile long Antonine Wal. It spans what is today known as the Central Belt of Scotland between the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. Constructed primarily in turf and timber, the Antonine Wall took about twelve years to complete and was abandoned after only eight years.

Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall

On some coins, Britannia is depicted holding a Roman military standard alongside her spear. This arguably reflects the Emperor’s pride in securing this remote region of his empire for the glory of Rome.

Britannia holding a shield and Roman military standard on a coin issued under Antonius Pius

Britannia continued to appear intermittently on Roman coins throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. During the reign of Commodus (177-192AD), she was depicted standing with a sword in one hand and a helmet in the other. However, after the Romans withdrew from Britain at the beginning of the fifth century, it would be more than a millennium before she would appear on a coin again.

Britannia Returns!

In 1661, King Charles II invited three Dutch brothers to move to London to join the Royal Mint as engravers. Their father, Philip Roettiers, a goldsmith in Antwerp, had loaned money to Charles during his time in exile and had been promised employment for his sons when the monarchy was restored. The royal invitation announcing the appointment of John, Joseph and Philip Roettiers stated that they were to be employed on account of the King’s long experience of their great skill and knowledge “in the arts of graveing and cutting in stone”.

Though it would appear that the appointment was made to return a favour, there is no doubt that all three brothers were extremely talented engravers. Within a year of arriving in London, John Roettiers (1631–1703) had been appointed one of the mint’s chief engravers and entrusted with the task of preparing the nation’s coinage. His younger brother Joseph, who acted as his principal assistant, later became engraver-general of the French mint in 1682. Their youngest brother, Philip, became engraver-general of the mint of the King of Spain in the Low Countries.

John Roettiers quickly acquired a reputation as one of the finest engravers ever employed at the mint. In 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys visited him at his studio in the Tower of London, where he saw “some of the finest pieces of work, in embossed work, that ever I did see in my life, for fineness and smallness of the images thereon.” Pepys was so impressed that he resolved to take his wife to see them (Diary, 26 March 1666).

Samuel Pepys

In addition to designing coins, Roettiers produced a new great seal of the kingdom of Great Britain and a large number of important medals. One commemorated the Peace of Breda, which marked the end of the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667. The large (56mm diameter) medal was struck in gold, silver and bronze, and the obverse was a portrait of the King, wearing a laurel wreath in his long hair. For the reverse design, Roettiers drew inspiration from an ancient coin, first struck during the reign of Emperor Hadrian during the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century.

That design depicted Britannia, the female personification of Britain, dressed in flowing robes and seated by rocks, with a shield in one arm and a large shield at her side. On the Roman coin, she rested her chin on one hand as if contemplating her fate under occupation. Roettiers gave her an olive branch to hold instead, to convey her desire for peace. She continues to hold a spear, and Roettiers emblazoned her shield with the Flag of Great Britain to symbolise the union of England and Scotland. Her proud gaze is fixed on a British Royal Navy ship as it sails out to sea to join others in the fleet on the horizon. The inscription can be translated as, “By the favour of God”.

The Peace of Breda Medal by John Roettiers, 1667

According to Pepys, Roettiers modelled his Britannia on Frances Teresa Stewart, the Queen’s lady in waiting, who became the Duchess of Richmond later that year. If correct, it was an inspired choice by the artist to secure royal approval for his work. When the sixteen-year-old Frances arrived at the royal court in 1661, she quickly attracted the attention of the King, who doted on her and tried unsuccessfully to make her his mistress. When Pepys saw her in the flesh, he described her as the greatest beauty he had ever seen and was in no doubt when he saw the medal that she had been the artist’s muse.

“At my goldsmith’s did observe the King’s new medall, where, in little, there is Mrs. Steward’s (sic) face as well done as ever I saw anything in my whole life, I think: and a pretty thing it is, that he should choose her face to represent Britannia by.”

Pepys Diary, 25 February 1667
Frances Teresa Stuart, believed to have been the inspiration for Roettiers’ Britannia

The medal was a little premature in celebrating the end of the Anglo-Dutch War. Four months after Pepys had marveled at the design,a flotilla of Dutch ships brazenly sailed up the River Medway near Rochester to launch a devastating attack on the English navy in their home port. Thirteen English ships were destroyed by fire, and the Dutch captured and towed away HMS Unity and HMS Royal Charles, considered the pride of the English fleet. The war finally came to an end in July 1667 with the signing of the Treaty of Breda.

The Raid on the Medway in June 1667

Roettiers design of Britannia was so well received that he was asked to adapt it for the reverse of the first copper halfpennies and farthings issued from 1672. It marked the return of Britannia on coins after an absence of more than a millennia. The transition to the smaller surface area meant that the artist had to simplify his design considerably. The maritime setting was lost, along with the ships under Britannia’s watchful gaze. The coins depict her with the Union Flag emblazoned shield at her side, an olive branch in one hand and a spear in the other.

The Charles II halfpenny from 1672 marked the return of Britannia on the nation’s coinage

Roettiers reputation continued to grow. The diarist John Evelyn described him as “that excellent graver … who emulates even the ancients in both metal and stone” (Diary, 20 July 1678). However, in later life, his Catholic sympathies led to him being removed from the engravers house at the Tower of London. In 1696, a House of Commons committee reported that, as a violent papist, he was unfit to remain as custodian of the dies, and he was forced to seek lodgings elsewhere for the last years of his life. When he died in 1703, permission was granted for him to be buried in the Tower that had been his home for thirty-five years.

The inspired decision to return Britannia to the nation’s coinage began an ongoing tradition of depicting her on British coins of the realm. Roettiers design would continue to appear on copper coins until 1775.

Full Steam Ahead! Britain’s Cartwheel Coins

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, transformed  Great Britain’s need for money. People living off the land in rural regions of the country had always been largely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and bartered with their neighbours for everything else. However, as more and more people streamed into the new urban areas looking for work in the factories, so the need for good quality money to pay their wages became acute. 

An official examination of coins in circulation in 1786 confirmed that the nation’s coinage was in a shocking state; badly worn, barely legible, underweight and mostly fake. It was determined that only about eight per cent of ‘halfpennies’ in circulation were genuine, and coins were often so badly worn that it was impossible to discern whether they were foreign, counterfeits or decades old. A population explosion between 1750 and 1800 did not help matters, putting additional pressure on the already inadequate coinage. Genuine coins were often hoarded, with the fakes spent first, thereby proving Gresham’s Law that “bad money drives out good”.      

Matthew Boulton (1728 – 1809) was one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution. Together with his business partner, the Scottish inventor James Watt, they developed and championed steam engine technology which powered the new factories and introduced a new era of transportation via the railways.

Matthew Boulton and James Watt appear together on the UK £50 note

The Royal Mint responded to the crisis by effectively shutting down and producing no copper coins at all between 1775 and 1821. It was left to others to come up with a solution to the problem of inadequate coinage. Some enterprising business owners began making copper tokens, which could be redeemed by their employees in company shops. Unlike coins, tokens did not require the value of the metal to match the face value of the coin, and so they could be struck in large quantities at little cost. Provided the tokens did not resemble official coins, they were also completely legal to produce.

In 1788 Boulton installed a set of steam-driven coin presses at his Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, Birmingham. Each was made to his patented specifications and could strike up to 84 coins per minute. Boulton had shares in several Cornish copper mines, which gave him access to large quantities of the metal when the mines could not sell it elsewhere.

Boulton’s steam powered coin presses

In addition to producing copper tokens and medals, the Soho Mint also signed lucrative contracts to strike coins for India, Sierra Leone and Russia. They also produced high-quality coin blanks for mints around the world to strike into coins. Over twenty million blanks were produced for the US Mint in Philadelphia, where Mint Director Elias Boudinot described them as “perfect and beautifully polished”.

The Soho Mint in Birmingham

Despite these successes, Boulton’s attempts to persuade the Treasury to let him use his pioneering steam-powered technology to strike new British copper coins repeatedly fell on deaf ears. He championed his machines at every opportunity, declaring that;  

“(they) will coin much faster, with greater ease, with fewer persons, for less expense, and more beautiful than any other machinery ever used for coining … It strikes the pieces perfectly round, all of equal diameter, and exactly concentric with the edge, which cannot be done by any other machinery now in use.”

Matthew Boulton

On 14th April 1789, Boulton wrote to the Treasury to complain that two-thirds of the halfpennies he received in his change as he travelled around the country were counterfeit. He offered to produce new copper coins at half the cost incurred by the Mint, but his offer was ignored. 

Boulton continued to pester the Treasury for the next eight years until he was awarded a contract to strike copper pennies and two pennies. They had to weigh one and two ounces respectively, so that the costs of the metal and production would match the denominational value. The Treasury hoped that this would restore the public’s confidence in the currency by making them uneconomical to counterfeit. This would encourage people to reject fake coins when they received them in their change.  

Boulton’s 1797 dated copper coins were unlike anything people had seen before. The first coins to be struck using steam power were by far the largest and heaviest coins ever to circulate in Britain, with the penny weighing in at one ounce (28.3g) and measuring 36mm in diameter. The two penny weighed two ounces (56.7g) and had a diameter of 41mm. Both coins featured the same design by the Soho Mint’s sole artist and engraver, Conrad Heinrich Küchler (c.1740-1810). 

The “Cartwheel” Penny

In addition to creating a new portrait of the King for the obverse, Küchler, a German immigrant, also presented a new maritime interpretation of the female personification of Britain. Britannia now sits on an island surrounded by water to convey Britain’s supremacy of the seas.

To reinforce the maritime theme, Küchler removed the spear that Britannia had carried since her first appearance on coins struck during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian during the Roman occupation of Britain in the second century. In its place, he gave her a trident, like the one wielded by Neptune, the god of the sea. In her other hand, she holds out an olive branch as a symbol of peace. To complete the design, a ship sails by on the horizon to symbolise Britain’s naval dominance. The ship is believed to represent a warship, with its gun ports visible. The small mint mark of the Soho Mint (the word ‘SOHO’) can be seen in the rock below Britannia’s shield.

The ship and the ‘SOHO’ mint mark that appear in the Britannia design

The new coins marked the first time that Britannia had appeared on the penny and two pence. Both denominations were struck with tremendous accuracy to a very high-quality standard. To further frustrate the counterfeiters, each coin had a broad raised rim on each side with letters and numbers stamped into it, which earned them the nickname ‘cartwheels’. Although fraudsters did try to imitate the coin, their efforts were largely unsuccessful. However, once the novelty had worn off, people began to appreciate just how impractical they were in their pockets and purses.

Eventually, the widespread use of lightweight copper tokens convinced the Treasury that the public would accept and even prefer coins with a face value above the cost of the metal made to produce them.   When more copper pennies were required in 1806, Boulton was permitted to make them smaller and lighter. Küchler’s maritime Britannia later appeared on copper farthings, and halfpennies struck at Boulton’s Soho Mint in 1799 and again in 1806.

Matthew Boulton provided Britain with a supply of reliable copper coinage for the first time and ably demonstrated that his new steam-powered technology could produce coins of exceptional quality and accuracy in large numbers at a relatively low cost. After he died in 1809, his colleague paid tribute to his business partner in a eulogy, declaring;

“Had Mr. Boulton done nothing more in the world than he has accomplished in improving the coinage, his name would deserve to be immortalised.”

James Watt

By the time new copper coins were required in 1821, the Royal Mint in London was ready and willing to produce them once again.

Pistrucci’s Forgotten Coin Masterwork – The 1821 Farthing

Today, Benedetto Pistrucci is probably best remembered for his neoclassical masterwork of Saint George fighting the dragon on the British gold sovereign. The design has been popular ever since it first appeared in 1817, and is still struck on sovereigns today. However, his second great coin design, created for Britain’s lowest value coin, the farthing, in 1821, has been largely forgotten today. This might be due to the fact that the design was only struck for five short years before it was unceremoniously dropped after the artist suffered a spectacular fall from grace.

The design is of a striking young woman, wearing a long flowing robe and the battle helmet of an ancient warrior. Armed with a trident and a shield emblazoned with the Union flag, she looks out to sea with a proud and focused gaze, as if scanning the horizon for signs of danger and ready to defend her land from invasion. Her name is Britannia, and she is the female personification of Britain.

Britannia was already an established figure on British coins when Pistrucci decided to give her a radical makeover. She first appeared on Roman coins during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian in the second century. The unknown engraver depicted her in long flowing robes and carrying a spear with a large shield at her side. However, after the Romans left Britain, Britannia did not return to the coinage until 1672, when the Dutch artist John Roettiers emblazoned her shield with the Union Flag to symbolise the unity of the Kingdom. More than a century later, in 1797, the German engraver Conrad Heinrich Küchler incorporated a maritime theme into the design, replacing Britannia’s shield with a trident and placing her on an island surrounded by water to convey Britain’s supremacy of the seas.

Born in Rome, Pistrucci quickly acquired a reputation as the finest engraver of his age. Shortly after arriving in London in 1816, he was commissioned to design new coins of the realm. The Italian artist had a passion for classical art, and it was said that he liked to “study Greek originals day and night”. In 1817 he crafted a depiction of Saint George and the dragon for the new gold sovereign and gave England’s patron saint the plumed helmet of an ancient Greek warrior. Four years later, he was inspired to give Britannia the same battle helmet on the humble farthing, which was Britain’s lowest value coin.

Pistrucci may have been inspired to make this radical change to Britannia’s appearance by a popular eighteenth-century painting of the Celtic warrior Queen Boudica by the artist John Opie, who anachronistically depicted her wearing this plumed headgear. It is also possible that he was inspired by artistic depictions of the Pallas, a Titan god in Greek mythology. Pallas appears as a robed female figure with a plumed helmet and shield on several medals, including the medal struck for the coronation of Queen Anne.

“Boadicea Haranguing the Britons” by John Opie (1761–1807)

Britannia’s striking new appearance on coins arguably transformed her in the public consciousness from a remote, ethereal observer into the strong warrior Queen and protector of the realm. Pistrucci also depicted her on the reverse of his bronze Coronation Medal struck in 1821. This design shows the new King, George IV, crowned by the winged figure of victory, while the female personifications of the British realms, namely Britannia, Scotia and Hibernia, all swear allegiance to him.

George IV Coronation Medal by Pistrucci

Today, one only has to visit the Italian Mint museum in Rome, which holds the world’s largest archive of Pistrucci’s work, to see that the pairing of an ancient Greek battle helmet with the head of a beautiful young woman was a subject that fascinated him.   

From the Pistrucci archive at the Italian Mint Museum in Rome (reproduced with permission)

Another remarkable feature of Pistrucci’s 1821 farthing is the inclusion of a lion at Britannia’s feet. Only the head and front paws are visible, and position is, in heraldic terms, ‘couchant’, that is, lying down with the head raised. He appears to be watching the horizon with Britannia for signs of danger. The striking proximity of the majestic reclining lion to the seated woman is particularly effective and adds to Britannia’s mystique as the fearless protector and guardian of the British Isles.

In keeping with the maritime theme introduced by Küchler in 1797, Pistrucci retained the trident for his Britannia, but she now grasps it like a warrior, pointing it firmly outwards in a combat-ready stance. There was no room on the small farthing to depict her surrounded by water. Small waves appear under her feet to indicate that she is sitting on the shoreline and looking out to sea. Pistrucci also turned her to face the right for the first time, as if to recognise that any future threat to Britain would likely come from the East rather than the West. It would have felt like a pertinent observation, coming just six years after the Battle of Waterloo. Britannia would remain facing right on Britain’s coinage for the next 187 years, until 2008.

Sadly, Pistrucci did not have the opportunity to create a Britannia reverse for the larger copper coins, namely the penny and the halfpenny, which would have allowed him the opportunity to expand his design. No new copper coins were required until 1825, and by that time, Pistrucci was no longer employed as a coin engraver after suffering a spectacular fall from grace.

King George IV was unhappy with the way Pistrucci had depicted him on coins as an overweight Nero with short curly hair and crowned with a laurel wreath in the Roman Imperial tradition. This neo-classical portrait was at odds with the reputation he tried to cultivate as a fashionably modern and debonair ladies’ man. He requested that the Royal Mint change his portrait, and he supplied them with a flattering marble bust of himself by the sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey to use as a model.

King George IV in 1821
Marble bust of King George IV by Sir Francis Chantrey

Pistrucci was outraged, claiming that copying the work of another artist would violate his artistic integrity. When the King helpfully sent an equally flattering painting of himself by Sir Thomas Lawrence to inspire the artist, it is said that the volatile Italian, after being ordered by his superiors at the Mint to hang it in his studio, stubbornly turned it to face the wall.

Pistrucci’s unwillingness to give the King what he wanted would quickly see him out of royal favour and replaced as a coin engraver by an artist who would. William Wyon dutifully supplied a new portrait of the King modelled on the Chantrey bust, which met with royal approval. The designs that Pistrucci had created for Britain’s coinage were replaced, and he would not live to see his work appear on coins again.

Wyon became the first English artist to depict Britannia on circulating coins. His depiction of Britannia is elegant and well proportioned, but when viewed alongside Pistrucci’s farthing, she arguably lacks the regal bearing and poise of that short-lived design, which was dropped from the farthing in 1826.

Wyon’s Farthing (1826-1830)

Noticeably absent from Wyon’s redesign is the lion that Pistrucci had placed at Britannia’s side and the olive branch she carried as a symbol of peace. But he did choose to retain the battle helmet that Pistrucci had given her. By doing so, he ensured that this would form part of Britannia’s distinctive identity to this day.

A right-facing Britannia continued to appear on British coins throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1968, the artist Christopher Ironside chose to reunite Britannia with the lion on the reverse of the new decimal Fifty Pence. Since 2015 she has appeared on the £2 coin, designed by Anthony Dufort. She still wears the battle helmet of an ancient warrior, just as she did for the first time on Pistrucci’s farthing in 1821.

Christopher Ironside reunited Britannia with the Lion in 1968

Because Pistrucci’s iconic depiction of Britannia appeared for just five years on Britain’s lowest value coin, his contribution to creating such an enduring symbol of Britain has been largely overlooked today. Unlike his Saint George and the dragon, which continues to be struck on gold sovereigns to this day, Pistrucci’s second great coin masterwork has, at the time of writing, never appeared on coins again.

Announcing the 16th International Numismatic Congress

The 16th International Numismatic Congress will take place in Warsaw in September 2022. The event attracts scholars, archaeologists, historians, numismatists, curators of coin collections, auction houses and dealers from five continents. It is organized under the auspices of the International Numismatic Council, the main organizer is the University of Warsaw. The Samlerhuset Group is the major sponsor of the Congress.

We are talking about upcoming congress with Professor Aleksander Bursche from the Warsaw University:

Professor Aleksander Bursche, Warsaw University

What is the principal aim of Numismatic Congresses? What are some of the highlights from past events?

For 130 years, Numismatic Congresses have been organised with the principal aim of sharing the newest discoveries and research results with an international community. These have for six years been summarised in the accompanying volume of Survey of Numismatic Research, which will this time be issued in summer, as a digital publication accessible online. One aspect that deserves attention is the involvement of large numbers of young students of numismatics, whom the Congress provides with an important opportunity to establish contacts and make personal acquaintance with the most prominent experts in the field. Such contacts often result in finding employment in the numismatic profession; auction houses in particular like to ‘fish out’ young professionals during the Congress. Previous congresses were full of interesting events. In Madrid, for instance, the Congress’ participants were invited for a private tour of the State Mint and of the Archaeological Museum, on the very day it closed; a similar night tour was organised in Glasgow; while in Taormina on Sicily the Congress participants could enjoy an unforgettable concert of historical music in the spectacularly located ancient Greek theatre overlooking Mount Etna.

Who participates in the congresses?

The Congress’ main participants are professional numismatists, representatives of various historical disciplines, especially academics and custodians of museum collections, but also employees of banks, mints and auction houses, as well as collectors. In recent years we have also been joined by a large group of scientists involved in various numismatic analyses, most notably experts in archaeometallurgy and information technology. Thus, it is an event that combines science with hobbyist passion. One might also add that the percentage of women participating in the Congress has increased substantially in recent years; in Warsaw they will already be the majority. 

This year the Congress will for the first time be organised in Central-Eastern Europe. Is this a landmark event for our region?

Most certainly so. Due to various reasons of political or financial nature, representatives of the countries in the region were thus far very limited in their possibilities to participate in Congresses that took place, for instance, in New York, Washington or Bern, sending only small deputations. This year, owing to stipends provided by private sponsors and a grant from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, we expect to welcome many more representatives not only from Poland, but also from Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic countries. For the first time, it the main focus of the event will shift from Western Europe and the Mediterranean to eastern regions, including the Far East. We may look forward to many fascinating presentations, important in the context of the history of not only the Polish Republic and its minting industry, but also e.g. of the Golden Horde, India and China.

What determined the choice of the Polish candidacy?

It was decided by a resolution passed unanimously by the General Assembly of the International Numismatic Council, during the previous Congress held in Taormina on Sicily in 2015. The fact that we were the only candidate stemmed from the very intense promotion we continued since the Madrid Congress in 2003, which intensified between the Glasgow Congress of 2009 and the Taormina one. I was personally involved in these efforts; at that time, my doctoral seminar on numismatics at the Warsaw University was attended by more than a hundred numismatists from all over the globe, many of them very renowned experts in the field. The promotional video sent to all participants of the Congress also played an important part: 


Please say a few words about the organisers of the Congress. 

Since the first Congress, held in Brussels in 1891, the event has been organised mainly by the mentioned International Numismatic Council, curretly based in Winterthur in Switzerland. It is the world’s largest association of institutions dealing in numismatics. The principal organiser of this year’s congress, held in Poland, is the Warsaw University, in cooperation with the National Museum in Warsaw, the National Museum in Krakow, the Royal Castle in Warsaw, the National Bank of Poland and the Polish Numismatic Society, which is an association of collectors. The organisational centre of operations is at the Warsaw University’s Department of Archaeology; the entire Congress is managed by Mazurkas Travel, an institution with many years of experience in organising international events of similar nature. 

What are the main topics of discussion for this year’s Congress? 

The organisers do not influence the range of topics discussed at the Congress; their only concern is maintaining a high academic level of the presented material. We have just closed the call for papers and posters. We have over 600 submissions, which is the highest number in the history of the Congress, although it is unlikely that all these submissions will be accepted by the International Scientific Committee. Their content indicates that a full range of topics related to professional numismatics will be covered at the Congress; however, the speakers traditionally tend to favour the Antiquity and the Middle Ages more than the early-modern and modern period. The geographical scope covers almost the entire world, with Europe and the Mediterranean dominating, although a large number of papers and posters also pertain to Asian regions (most notably Iran, India and China), the Americas, Australia and Cuba. The number of submissions from the USA was particularly large. Many  presentations will focus on the history of collecting and of particular collections; iconography; numismatic finds, including many coins recently recovered from shipwrecks; the circulation of money; inflation and other economic issues; various subjects related to research methodology; medals; token coins; banknotes; substitute currency, etc. A particularly large number of sessions and panel discussions at the Warsaw Congress shall be dedicated to the extremely fashionable and rapidly developing field of digital numismatics, online databases, digitalisation and digital image identification, as well as various technologies and results of metallographic research.

Will any interesting numismatic items be issued in connection with the Congress?

It has become a tradition for a special-edition medal to be issued to commemorate the Congress. The winner of the contest for this year’s medal is the renowned Polish medallist Mr. Robert Kotowicz; his design may be seen here: Two versions of the medal will be made: in silvered tombac and in gilt silver. They will be distributed among Congress participants following preorders. Occasionally, a commemorative coin was also issued in connection with the Congress – most recently during its Madrid edition in 2003. This year’s edition will also feature such a coin: the National Bank of Poland will issue a 50 zloty silver coin with a bust of Joachim Lelewel on the reverse. Unfortunately, these are all the details I can disclose at the moment.

Where will the Congress be held?

For the entire duration of the event, i.e. between 11th and 16th September, the Congress Centre will be located at the historic campus of the Warsaw University, at 26/28 Krakowskie Przedmieście Street, by the so-called Royal Route near Warsaw’s Old Town. The sessions and panel discussions will be held simultaneously in three historic buildings: the Auditorium Maximum, the Main School and the Old Library Building. A publishers’ fair will be organised at the Column Hall of the Department of History. The Congress and its main events will be broadcast via a digital platform accessible online to all registered participants. 

There is an interesting programme of additional events connected with the Congress, including several exhibitions. What can we expect? 

The opening of the Congress will be celebrated with a Chopin music concert at the Auditorium Maximum, followed by a welcome cocktail at the Kubicki Arcades of the Royal Castle. The castle is also preparing a special exhibition featuring items formerly owned by the prominent Belgian collector André van Bastelaer, and an English-language catalogue thereof. The Old University Campus will host three exhibitions. The one entitled Two hundred years of numismatics at the Warsaw University is prepared by the Warsaw University Museum and will present the prize items in Polish collections. Another one, to be seen at the Tyszkiewicz Palace, will be dedicated to the history of Polish collections. The last one will feature exhibits from the Polish Numismatic Society. The National Museum in Warsaw is also organising an exhibition, related to the centennial anniversary of the establishment of its Department of Coins and Medals. The National Museum in Krakow and in Poznań will hold their own exhibitions. The Congress will be a great celebration of Polish numismatics, also featuring specialised thematic tours of Poland. Moreover, the Emeryk Hutten-Czapski Museum (a branch of the National Museum in Krakow), in cooperation with the Belgian Numismatic Society and the Royal Numismatic Society of Belgium, will organise an academic session dedicated to one of the most prominent Polish numismatists – Joachim Lelewel. The session will take place before the opening of the Congress, at the Krakow headquarters of the Museum 

Who can take part in the Congress and how can one apply? 

In practice, the Congress may be attended by anyone who takes an interest in numismatics. They must, however, fill in the registration form accessible on the Congress website and pay the participation fee. Congress participants will be entitled to attend all accompanying events and granted free entry to all exhibitions held by the co-organisers of the event. 

By way of conclusion, let me add that the next Congress is planned to take place in six years’ time in Athens, although the final decision shall be taken in September this year, at the General Assembly of the International Numismatic Council in Warsaw.

The most expensive coin ever sold at auction

In June 2021 a gold coin with a face value of $20 became the most expensive coin ever sold at auction when it sold for a record $18.9 million in New York. The 1933 gold double eagle is arguably the most notorious coin in the world because, with just this one exception, it is actually illegal to own one. It is therefore, quite literally, a coin that money can’t buy.

The 1933 gold double eagle (Picture courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Added to its appeal is the fact that the design is a beautiful work of art. It was the brainchild of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was determined to put an end to coinage that was, in his words, “artistically of atrocious hideousness”. In January 1905 he invited the acclaimed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to a private dinner at the White House where the two men spoke enthusiastically about their love of the high-relief coins of ancient Greece.

President Theodore Roosevelt

The President asked the artist to design the gold double eagle, and Saint-Gaudens depicted a standing Liberty with a torch representing enlightenment in one hand and an olive branch symbolising peace in the other. Behind her is the Capitol building and rays of sunlight symbolising a new dawn. The name ‘LIBERTY’ appears above her head and the year of issue at her side. The reverse shows a side view of a majestic eagle in flight with the rays of the rising sun behind it. Above the eagle is the inscription ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TWENTY DOLLARS’ and below it the motto ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ which the public demanded to be added after Saint-Gaudens left it off his original high-relief version in 1907. A low-relief version was issued into circulation from 1907 to 1932.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

It is ironic that the first President Roosevelt helped to create the beautiful double eagle, while the second President Roosevelt made it illegal to own one. In April 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt took radical action to stabilize the economy following the Great Depression by taking America off the gold standard. Gold was withdrawn from circulation and people were ordered to hand in any gold coins and bullion that they owned. The Mint had already struck 445,000 double eagles dated 1933. None went into circulation. Two were sent to the Smithsonian Museum and the rest were believed to have been melted down in 1937.

However, it soon transpired that a small number of 1933 dated double eagle coins had been illegally removed from the Mint. In early 1944 a Philadelphia coin dealer named Israel Switt sold ten to individual collectors. Treasury officials were alerted and tracked down the new owners to reclaim their stolen property. They retrieved nine, which were destroyed and no compensation was offered to Switt’s unlucky customers. However, they were too late to stop one from leaving the country bound for King Farouk of Egypt because it had been granted an export licence in error.

King Farouk of Egypt

Unwilling to cause a diplomatic incident by demanding the return of a coin that had been granted an official export licence, the U.S. Government waited until the Egyptian king was overthrown in 1952 before they attempted to retrieve it. However, by then it had gone missing, and it did not resurface until 1995 when a London coin dealer Stephen Fenton brought it to New York to sell to a private collector. The prospective purchaser turned out to be a government agent, and the coin was seized. A long legal battle followed. In court, Fenton argued that the Government had provided written permission for the coin to be sold when they granted the export licence in 1944.

In 2001 the courts ruled that the coin should be sold at auction with the profits split between Fenton and the Government. This particular specimen was declared legal tender, and the winning bidder had to pay a fee of $20 for its face value along with their winning bid of $6.6 million. Together with the auctioneer’s fee, this added up to a total sale price $7.6 million.

Twenty years later, the coin was sold for $18.9 million by Sotheby’s in New York, making it the most expensive coin ever sold at auction. As a result of the official export licence granted in error, it remains the only 1933 double eagle that can be legally owned by a private individual.

The world’s most expensive coin

There is a further twist to the tale. In 2003, Israel Switt’s grandson Roy Langbord found a safe deposit box that had belonged to his grandfather, which hadn’t been opened for fifty years. Inside he found a large number of gold coins, including another ten 1933 double eagles. When Langbord asked the Mint to authenticate them, they were promptly confiscated, and so he sued the government demanding their return.

Following a lengthy legal battle and appeals process, the court ruled that the coins were the property of the U.S. Government. The Langbord family appealed to the Supreme Court but in April 2017 they declined to reopen the case. Today, the ten double eagles reside in a secure government facility, most likely Fort Knox, while their ultimate fate is determined.

The ten 1933 Double Eagles are now the property of the US Government