Commemorative coins: their history and modern revival

Commemorative coins have been minted for thousands of years. Often reflecting the contemporary political or economic situation, many ancient and pre-modern coins celebrated the accession of monarchs, victory in war and other special events. Roman Emperors issued coins marking successful military campaigns, a form of propaganda celebrating the empire’s defeat of foreign enemies and the conquering of new territories.

More recently, the United Kingdom has issued commemorative gold coins in low mintages to celebrate special events, particularly those surrounding the monarch such as coronations, jubilees and weddings, as well as the anniversaries of major world events.

Traditionally, commemorative coins have been produced with special care, often involving special processes. These ‘proofs’, as they are called, exhibit tremendous ‘eye appeal’ and are often struck using specially produced dies. Additional processes employed include heavy polishing of dies to create a mirror-like effect in the fields, and treating main design elements (such as the portrait of the monarch) and devices of the coin with acid to create a cameo effect.

Modern proof issues are struck with enormous pressure multiple times to ensure that metal flows into the most intricate parts of the coin. Before the use of today’s technical equipment and design software, the amount of time spent on perfecting proofs issues would have been considerable.

Yet even with state of the art technology, absolute perfection is still unachievable. That is why we have seen an increase in grading modern coins, including for coins just issued. There is a perception that a coin coming straight from a mint would be a ‘70’ (the highest possible grade on a coin using the US Sheldon scale), however, this is not always the case.

The Royal Mint: collector value and commemorative issues

The UK’s Royal Mint, whose origins date to 886 AD, has increased its production of commemorative issues since around 2014. The official supplier of UK coinage, it typically strikes special designs of 50p and £2 denominations for general circulation every year. This has created a popular trend of ‘checking your change’, encouraging the collection of 50p coinsin particular (for example, children attempting to complete series of Olympics coins).

Additionally, the Royal Mint’s decision to increase its range of commemorative issues has encouraged new collectors and investors to the market, with a broader offering at a range of price-points, starting with circulation 50p (or even 10p) coins, that are issued in proofs of silver, gold and even platinum.

Recent trends: collectible issues

The market is currently seeing a surge in demand and market value for commemorative coins. Even coins that have just been issued can sell for multiples of The Royal Mint’s issue price, as seen with examples from its special series such as MusicLegendsThe Great Engraversand The Queen’s Beasts.

It is important to note that these price increases have been concentrated in the market for collectible issues, and have not been replicated to for bullion issues. This is mainly related to mintage numbers. For example, only 53 of the 2 oz. gold proof £200 coinsof ‘Queen’ (the rock band, from the Music Legendsseries) were issued, originally for around £4,500. Only months later these were selling for more than £20,000. If you are buying primarily for investment purposes, the two things to look out for is the mintage number (supply) and the popularity of the issue (demand; although correctly predicting market trends can’t be guaranteed).

Another of the most sought-after modern series is The Great Engravers. The first coin in the series celebrated the great Royal Mint engraver William Wyon, RA, whose famous design for the 1839 £5 pound coin depicting Una and the Lionis regarded as one of the most beautiful British coins ever struck. In 2019 the 2 oz. gold proof £200 coin was sold as a limited edition of 225 by The Royal Mint, for £4,395. An example sold at The Coin Cabinet’s January 2020 auction for £27,000, only months after its release. Another example sold in The Coin Cabinet’s September 2020 auction for £59,000.

The lesson here is that limited mintage figures generate huge excitement from fans of the subjects depicted, as well as numismatists and investors. Special designs — often created by well-known artists and selected for their beauty — burnish the collector appeal of commemorative coins, but it is the low supply and high demand that have resulted in the stellar performance of the Royal Mint’s collectible issues.