O’Brien Rare Coin Review: Why is the 1954 British Penny so valuable?


Background:

Because of the large number of pennies already in circulation and the economic depression after WW2, there was no need to produce any more in 1950s Britain. That said, a new monarch in 1952 sparked off a huge demand for coronation coin sets and, in 1953, over 1.3 million Elizabeth II pennies were minted to make up these sets, in addition to allowing some to circulate.

As usual, a new portrait causes problems and the Royal Mint had to experiment with the design. These design experiments continued into 1954 and, although it was not intended to issue any pennies for that year, at least one ‘complete’ penny dated ‘1954’ was produced – apparently for private internal purposes at the Royal Mint.

  • The experimental output included some uniface (struck on one side only) variants
    • 2 of these ‘uniface’ 1954 pennies are held by The British Museum
    • The other 4 are held as part of the Royal Mint Collection
  • A freedom of information request was made to The Royal Mint in 2011 and the response confirms
    • that “several hundred” trial coins were produced
    • that they are “unable to say for certain that only one survived
1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny - Reply to a Freedom of Information request in 2011.jpg

1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny – Reply to a Freedom of Information request in 2011.jpg

The Unique 1954 British Penny

Meanwhile, the rumour got out that some had been made. One of the most famous British numismatic experts, Wilson Peck, had one in his private collection – it was said to have been acquired some time in the mid-1950s. This known example ensured that the initial rumour later became urban myth as people began to look for the elusive 1954 penny in their pocket change.

  • If they did actually circulate, it is likely that more would have been found before now
  • According to their records, The Royal Mint ordered “all pennies dated 1954 to be melted”
  • On the other hand, if one (or more) had been secreted out of the Royal Mint, they would probably have been kept safe … and secret !

Recently, we have seen a 1919 GB penny struck in cupro-nickel come on to the market. It had been kept in the same family for generations … until the last person interested in coin collecting died … and the person who inherited the unique coin decided to cash in and sell it at auction.

  • That 1919 penny was produced at a private mint sub-contracted to the Royal Mint
  • The 1954 penny patterns were also produced in Birmingham
    • So, who knows ?
    • Perhaps there is another one (or two) of the 1954 GB pennies out there !
1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny

The ‘unique’ 1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny

Provenence:

A growing trend among investors in collectibles is for a rare (or unique) piece to have a history of owners. When a previous owner is famous, or even infamous, the price can go up. This is particularly true when royalty or a famous multi-millionaire collector of the past is involved, e.g. King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, or King Farouk I of Egypt, or the coin-collecting Bunker-Hunt brothers who went bankrupt in the 1970s.

  • 1955 C. Wilson Peck (London, UK)
  • 1963 Q. David Bowers (New York, USA)
  • 1967 ? (sold for c. £10,000)
  • 1991 Spinks, London (sold for £23,100)
  • 2006 Mark Rasmussen, Surrey, UK (sold for ?)

Caveat emptor

Sadly, wherever there is money to be made, there will be those among us who try to make it by counterfeiting rare coins. In this instance, one such person took a later coin (1964) and very skillfully grafted a “5” (probably from a 1965 donor coin) to replace the “6” in the date.

1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny (fake, with detail)

1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny (fake, with detail)

A specialist examined the coin and found the head on the obverse side to be too big for the 1954 date, i.e. the coin was a “not so obvious” fake but it was designed “to deceive and defraud.” The faked coin also weighed slightly too much at 9.5g … 0.1g too much !

Coins, unlike humans, tend to lose a little bit of weight as they get older through wear and tear. An overweight coin is usually a fake !

  • That said, it was still considered to be a useful ‘reference piece’ for the specialist collector and it sold for £280 at an auction in London in 2011.
    • It was correctly described by the auctioneer as a fake
    • The bidders all knew it was a fake
    • The new owner knows it is a fake

Of course, no discussion about rare coin fakes is complete without reference to eBay. The coin below as offered on eBay about 10 years ago and not “re-surfaced” since. The vendor was questioned re the authenticity of her coin before the sale ended and promptly withdrew the lot.

  • Nobody knows where this fake came from, or who produced it
  • There seems to have been no follow-up by eBay or law enforcement authorities
  • It may re-appear for sale elsewhere !
1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny (eBay fake)

1954 Elizabeth II bronze penny (eBay fake) – the “4” seems to be placed “very high” and is a rather obvious fake.

Collectors always have to be on their guard to spot both modern and contemporary counterfeit coins. This is part of their numismatic education – a right of passage, so to speak – and the reason why investors with little numismatic experience can be so easily taken in by criminals.

 

Further Reading:

 

 

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