Collect Coins of South Atlantic – Really|
December 19, 2013
One of the joys of coin collecting is now and probably has always been finding out about the lands from which coins have come. The land that qualifies as the farthest away – from other inhabited lands that is – does have its own coinage. Believe it or not, that land has a fairly long history to it, and lies in the South Atlantic Ocean – and no, it’s not Atlantis.
Tristan da Cunha
The one chunk of land that is both inhabited and as far from any other inhabited land in the entire world is Tristan da Cunha. Now a part of the British overseas territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, the island is over 1,700 miles from South Africa, and more than 2,000 miles from South America. First sighted by the Portuguese mariner Tristao da Cunha in 1506, no one was able to keep a colony going on the island until the early 1800s. Since a whopping 264 people live there now, one can imagine that there has not traditionally been need for a lot of circulating coinage. But, someone at some time decided that this small chunk of the world still associated with Great Britain might do well by making a commemorative coin or two for sale to folks the world over. The website www.tristandc.com both gives a person a lot of information about this far away island, and also leads to links as to where to buy their commemoratives.
As far back as 1977, a 25-pence piece was issued for Tristan da Cunha, commemorating the queen’s silver jubilee. Since there are examples of this in both copper-nickel and in silver, there is something of a price difference between the two. The silver version has very close to an ounce of the precious metal in it, and thus gets tied to the market price of the metal. Even though the official mintage is not high, the price remains reasonable, because there just aren’t that many collectors of the coins of this small island.
The commemorative program has continued to grow over time, and in 1983 moved into gold, with a commemorative (about half ounce in weight) honoring the International Year of the Scout. Only 2,000 were made, but again, prices aren’t exorbitant.
While the commemoratives of Tristan da Cunha have continued to grow, in 2008 this spot on the map finally moved into circulating coinage. We are all left to guess why, but apparently there was a need for some kind of circulating coinage that was different from that of Great Britain – and the result is a set of coins from halfpenny up to 25 pence that sports “Tristan da Cunha” on it. All are in base metals, and thus none are particularly expensive today.
For the collector who wants one of absolutely everything, Gough Island, an even smaller island that is a dependency of the Tristan group (although a long way from it), had a coin set issued for it in 2009. From a halfpenny piece up to a 25-pence coin, with a copper-nickel crown thrown in for good measure, this set has got to be a challenge to find. The entire permanent population of the island appears to be six meteorologists from South Africa who do scientific studies of the Austral winds and currents, and help forecast the weather for their country. We can only imagine how much they need to use such coins. If you’d like to connect with them though, there is a Facebook group, at www.facebook.com/groups/57386398567. It might be a way to make a new friend or two (or six).
If Tristan is the farthest inhabited spot from anywhere, we can claim with some certainty that not too much closer to anything at all is Ascension Island. Now part of the British Overseas Territory of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, its coinage has most recently been that of St. Helena. But for a period of time, between 1978 and 1995, there are a few commemorative coins with Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse, and mention of Ascension Island, without note or mention of the others. One of the more interesting is a 50-pence piece dated 1984 commemorating the visit of Prince Andrew. There were 5,000 of them made in silver, and a much larger number produced in copper-nickel, all of which means anyone interested in obtaining one can probably do so if they are patient.
The third of these far-away lands is really the middle point between the other two, and is associated with the person who is considered its most famous resident. Napoleon Bonaparte lived out his life, his exile really, on St. Helena. A person who really wants everything that could be claimed as part of St. Helena’s coinage might try to hunt down one or more of the halfpenny pieces of 1821, which were made for the island, and could conceivably have been used by Napoleon (as he died there that year). Sometimes considered token issues, these pieces have no date, and sport a monogram of Solomon, Dickson and Taylor as their main design. They are not terribly expensive today, but it might be the dickens – or the Dickson – to find any.
The French ex-emperor certainly wasn’t around though when the Bank of St. Helena was founded late in the 20th century. The website www.sainthelenabank.com gives any person a chance to look at what this bank does on a day-to-day basis, and provides quite a bit of information.
Curiously for such a small area, the bank does actually seem to have serious banking as its major business, and not the sale of commemorative coins and stamps to the world numismatic market. Circulating coins for St. Helena are not released each year, as the demand is apparently not great enough, but they have come out a couple of times since 1984. The smallest of the denominations was the penny piece, while a one-pound coin anchors the high end. The common images or themes are Queen Elizabeth II on the obverse, which comes as no big surprise, and plants and animals of the area on the reverses.
A couple of the more recent additions to the coins of St. Helena are the seven-sided 20-pence pieces, which were first issued in 1998, and a two-pound piece made of nickel-brass that was first released in 2002. Even though the face value of this coin is high, and the mintages are generally low, the price tags associated with any of the circulating St. Helena coins are not too steep, again simply because the collector base remains pretty thin. You might have to hunt for these guys, but patience is definitely a virtue for a collector focusing on this area, as a person could assemble a run of the 1984 coins as well as the 2003 and 2006 circulating pieces.
Commemoratives have become an entire series of collectibles for St. Helena. The program has plenty of big, 50-pence pieces, as well as a couple of 2-pounds coins. The commemorative themes run quite a gamut, from the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, to the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Most are available in copper-nickel as well as in silver.
It’s probably no surprise that there is the occasional commemorative piece for Napoleon among all the other St. Helena coins. After all, even today a significant amount of the tourists who visit the island want to see where this famous man had to spend his final years.
What is surprising though is that one of these Napoleon commems is a massive piece, weighing in at 155 grams of silver, which means 4.9839 ounces of silver. It is 65 millimeters across, and honors the 165th anniversary of his death on May 5, 1821. Why the 165th anniversary merited this huge coin is really anyone’s guess. But with an official total of 15,000 of them having been produced, probably anyone can get one if they again have the patience to go hunting for it. If we think about it, the island’s current population doesn’t come near to that mintage mark. So unless the island economy functions through the use of these large, silver slabs passing from hand to hand, the chances are that most are out there somewhere on the collector market.
These three sets of islands, collectively administered today as the political entity, the British Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, may be thought of by most people, when they are thought of at all, as three of the most out of the way places ever. Cynics can even claim that these remain a part of Great Britain simply because when the British Empire evolved into the Commonwealth, they had no reason to want to leave, or incentive to become independent. But they remain interesting tourist attractions, examples of the places many of us would like to go to, even if only for a short while. And one retains at least a bit of fame because of its association with Napoleon Bonaparte, the man who conquered just about everything from France to Moscow. All of the islands though are interesting to collectors because of the wide variety of proof coinage that has been made for them, and the somewhat smaller, but still collectible issues of circulating coins that have been produced over the past few decades.
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