The Hidden Coin Challenge - 1859 Ansell Sovereign

The great rarities of the British Gold Sovereign Series often emerge under unlikely circumstances, and are regularly underpinned by an unusual, interesting heritage. Immensely rare and highly sought after worldwide, the 1859 ‘Ansell’ Gold Sovereign is no exception to the rule.

In 1859, the Royal Mint in London produced more than one and half million gold sovereigns. Some of the gold the Mint received to be transformed into coins of the realm came from the Australia, which was of course in the midst of the Gold Rush. During 1859, the Mint received a particularly suspect Australian batch of gold. When annealed ready for minting, the gold proved too brittle to use in the production of coinage, and it was naturally rejected.

Enter George Ansell.

George Frederick Ansell (1826-1880) had originally desired to become a doctor, but his love of chemistry saw him drawn to a career in the sciences. Employed at the Royal School of Mines, Ansell subsequently lectured in chemistry at the short-lived Royal Panopticon of Science and Art in Leicester Square. After the closure of that institution, Ansell accepted a position at the Royal Mint as a chemist in the ‘Rolling Room’ in 1856.

When Ansell caught wind of the aforementioned ‘bad batch’ of gold in 1859, he asked to be given a chance to experiment and hopefully to render it usable in the production of sovereigns. Traces of antimony, arsenic and lead were detected by Ansell, and not only was he able to create a usable gold alloy – he created sovereigns that were stronger than the standard sovereign! It is said that one of Ansell’s coins could not be broken by a man armed with a pair of pliers!

As a result of his work, the Mint was able to strike 167,539 sovereigns from the previously tainted gold, and Ansell was rewarded with a £100 bonus – the equivalent of more than £10,000 today! Not only did Ansell receive this hefty bonus – he also received an eternal place in the pantheon of numismatic history. Easily distinguished by the extra line in the ribbon of Queen Victoria’s obverse portrait – a detail perhaps added to see how the coins would stand the rigours of circulation – the coins struck from the reworked gold became known as ‘Ansell Sovereigns’.

Not only bearing an identifiably different obverse design, and underpinned by a fascinating tale, the Ansell Sovereigns are also notable for the undeniable rarity. British sovereign expert Michael Marsh estimated that there could be as few as 15 to 25 examples of the Ansell Sovereign remaining in existence, and this key type is naturally very highly sought after by rare sovereign collectors.

Ansell’s career with the Royal Mint lasted only a decade, with the brilliant chemist dismissed after criticising his employers. Interestingly, it was recorded in the years after his dismissal that his criticisms had influenced the construction of the 1870 Coinage Act.

Whilst Ansell contributed significantly to safety in Britain’s ever-dangerous 19th century coal mining industry, with his patented invention to detect ‘firedamp’ used with considerable success across Europe, his name will forever be associated in numismatic circles with the legendary 1859 Ansell Sovereigns.