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Gold Coins

Gold coinage changed the world economy. It created a multifold expansion of world trade that transformed the way trade is conducted. The world moved from a barter economy to a trade based one. The barter system, while useful, had some apparent limitations. A barter transaction was based on a mutual need between the parties. I need what you have and I have what you need. The advent of coinage gave buyers and sellers flexibility to buy or sell what they wanted by paying for it in coins. Coins were portable which meant that trade could be carried out over long distances. As coins became standardized it became easy to place a value on a given object or cargo. Gold coins are a symbol of wealth and success. They are great electrical conductors and resist oxidation. Gold represents a storehouse of wealth and has been a hedge against inflation. Gold is an international currency that no nation can control. Gold is a liquid investment that can be traded easily. Finally 24 Karat gold is nearly perfect and is the purest form of wealth.

The Process of Minting Gold Coins

The process of minting a gold coin requires precision, creativity, design, computer skills and technicians who value quality and precision above all else.
First, the gold is melted to a temperature of 1,084 degrees Centigrade. Then it is rolled into coils up to 40 meters long. These weigh up to one ton. Then the coils are rolled into slabs with a pressure of 200 tons. The slabs are then washed and checked for any imperfections..
While this is going on you have one or more design artists who are responsible for the images on the coin. They start with a drawing then proceed to create a plaster model of the coin. Then it is digitally scanned for imperfections. From the plaster model a die is cut to .001 mm.
Striking begins when the die is completed. Blanks are placed in the coin press by hand and checked several times for quality.
Circulation or bullion coins are separated from collector pieces.
One of the most fascinating and interesting aspects of gold coinage is that it follows the rise and fall of the major empires of Egypt, Greece, Persia and Rome. Then it moves into the New World with the Spanish conquest of the Inca civilization in South America. Then we follow the British coinage. The next leg of the journey carries us to the colonies of the United States and Australia.


Egypt did not have an official coinage until the conquest of Alexander the Great in 334 BC. However, it is noteworthy to look at the Egyptian culture and its reverence for gold. The Egyptians referred to gold as “tears of the sun.” In 1550-1295 BC., they had developed a unit of measure called the “deben” that weighted 90 grams. It was used mainly to determine the value of goods rather than a trade unit (Armstrong Economics). The Egyptians discovered vast amounts of gold in northeastern Africa. They were called the gold mines of Nubia. That gold was mined for nearly 1,000 years.


The Lydian King Croesus first introduced gold coins in 643-630 BC. They were a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver called “electrum.” These lumps were stamped and contained 63% gold and 27% silver. The lumps of electrum were irregular with designs hammered out by hand. Eventually they started using dies. The first die was cast, then the coin was hammered into the second die and it was cast. This coin was called a “slater” and remained in use for the next 100 years. A slater weighed 14 grams.
By 560 BC, they had learned how to separate the gold and silver. King Croesus created a new coin weighing only 8 grams with an official seal imprinted on it. It was 98% pure gold. He also set the ratio of gold to silver a 13 1/3 to 1. The silver slater weighed 11 grams compared to the gold one for 8 grams. (Armstrong Economics.)
The gold measured became money. It was prized for its beauty, scarcity and density. It could be melted and formed into specific measures and used as a natural trading medium. The defeated Persians learned the Greek coinage system and came to admire it.

Persian Empire

A historic battle won by Persian King Cyrus against the Greeks changed history and the history of gold coinage (548 BC.) Now we find the image of the Persian King on the new coins and an archer on the reverse side. The names are changed. A former gold slater is now called a “darnic” and a silver slater called a “siglos.” The Persian coinage was to last for the next 200 years.
Back to Greece and Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC in Pella Macedonia. He was determined to conquer the Persians and rule the world. In 331 BC at Gaugamela he defeats Persian King Darius. He is now Master of the Persian Empire. This defeat of the Persians marks the beginning of the Hellenistic Period.
Athens is now the cultural center of Greece. Perikles issues a Coinage Decree that bans Eastern States from issuing their own coins. The new coins were called OWLs and were cast in silver. Gold was not plentiful in Greece so silver became the key metal for coinage.
The Greeks are involved in warfare to the north with the Macedonians. Philip ii of Macedonia defeats the rival Greeks in 338 BC. The silver tetradrachm is revalued up to 17.17 from 14.49. It will endure for the next 100 years.
Sadly the economy falters and Athens is forced to near bankruptcy. Athens is defeated at the hands of Sparta. The OWL is left in the dust and is finally cast in copper.

Roman Empire

The Roman Empire lasted for 500 years. It is cast in two overlapping time periods. The Western Empire lasted from 27 BC to 476 A.D. The Eastern Empire lasted from 330 to 1453 A.D. The Romans minted extensively. They improved mining by diverting streams to mine hydraulically and built sluices and waterwheels. They mined underground using prisoners of war or slaves. They also learned how to separate gold from ore using a process called “roasting.”
The coins were often cast with the heads of past Emperors. We see a great variety of designs and topics. We see Mark Anthony issuing coins for each of his legions. The Emperor Constantine issued a coin bearing his new city, Constantinople. The reverse side was often used to commemorate special events.
We have an interesting story about the penny. Originally is was the Roman “denarius.” It then became the British penny and was cast in silver. By the 1850s it was reduced to copper. In the United States it was reduced to zinc in 1980. Governments are notorious for retaining power at all costs so they do the “practical” thing. They devalue, devalue and devalue. We will see more of this when we study the United States.


Now we follow the gold to Spain and the conquests of Francisco Pizarro. It is the greatest story of greed and plunder for gold the world has ever known. Pizarro leaves Spain for the New World in search of gold. He lands in South America and encounters the Inca Indians. Outnumbered he battles the Incas and captures the Inca Emperor Atahualipa. Atahualipa offers gold for his release. He fills a large room half full of gold and twice that amount in silver. It was estimated the 13,000 pounds of 22 karat gold and twice that amount of silver was shipped back to Spain. The Spanish government took 1/5 of the hoard. It was this gold that catapulted Spain onto the world stage. Pizarro is not satisfied and returns to South America, captures Cuzzo in 1533 and proceeds to plunder gold and silver from the mines in Potosi. Here again, he took an estimated 41,000 tons of gold back to Spain. The Spanish coin is called the “doubloom” (A 32 real coin.) The silver coin is called “pieces of eight” and is worth 8 reales. As we will see the Spanish dollar was used as a basic unit coin in both the United States and Australia.

British Coinage

British coinage followed the monarchies. Some monarchs issued their own series of coins while others left the preceding monarchs coins intact. The only change was the image of the new monarch. Here are some of the monarchs who issued their own set of coins or added a few new ones:

Cromwell 1656-1658
Coins issued included the Farthing, Sixpence, Shilling, Half Crown, Crown, Half Guinea, Two Guinea and Five Guinea.

Charles ll 1660-1685 changed the coinage to include the Farthing, Half Penny, Penny, Silver 1-4 pence, Shilling, Half Crown, Crown, Half Guinea, Two Guinea and Five Guinea.

George lll 1760-1820 issued the following coins: Farthing, Half Penny, Penny, Two Pence, Silver 1-4 Pence Six Pence, Shilling, Half Crown, Crown, Bank Tokens, Quarter Guinea, Half Guinea, Third Guinea, Guinea, Half Sovereign and Sovereign.

George lV 1820-1830 issued the following: Third Farthing, Half Farthing, Farthing, Half Penny, Penny, Silver Penny, Silver Two Pence, Silver Third Pence, Silver Four Pence, Six Pence, Shilling, Half Crown, Half Sovereign, Sovereign, Two Pounds and Five Pounds.

Queen Victoria 1837-1901 added the Florin to this list.

This list is especially helpful to collectors looking for rare coins.

United States

We see the Spanish coinage carried over into the United States. In the 1700s the Spanish minted a silver coin the same size and weight as the thaler and represented 8 gold “reals.” It was called “pieces of eight” and known as the Spanish dollar. When change was needed the coin was cut into 8 pieces or “bits.” 2 bits equaled a quarter, 4 bits for 50 cents and 6 bits for 75 cents. (W. Cleon Skouson)

Before the Constitution was adopted the US Congress adopted the Spanish dollar as the official unit of value for the US. Then they specified that the silver content at 375 and 64/100ths grams of fine silver. When the Constitution was adopted the phrase that is used is that “Congress has the power to coin money.”

In 1792 the Coinage Act was passed. It specified the exact content for each coin.
1. Silver dollars were to have 371.25 grains of silver equal to 46 grams of standardized silver.
2. Half dollars, quarters, dimes and half dimes could also be minted.
3. Pennies were to be made of copper.
4. Gold Eagles were to equal 10 silver dollars.
5. Half Eagles were worth $5.00 and quarters equal $2.50
6. Free minting was granted to all citizens. They could take their gold or silver to the mint.

By 1935 900,000,000 silver dollars were minted. The ratio of gold to silver was set at 15 to 1. As the price of gold rose, the value of the coin also rose. Europeans bought loads of these coins for profit. Then the US did an about face and changed the ratio to 16 to 1, this time favoring silver. The Europeans quickly sold back their gold coins and bought silver. This created a stockpile of gold in the US and effectively put the US on the gold standard.

Now comes the Civil War and the Union issues the paper Greenback to finance the war. No one wants the Greenback and its value falls to 35 cents. To get out of this mess, the US Congress promises to redeem the Greenback in gold. As crazy as it may sound people didn’t want the gold and kept the Greenback. This exchange of paper for gold lasted until 1933. Now we must follow the next machinations very carefully. In 1933 President Roosevelt confiscates all the gold. Americans are given a Federal Reserve Note redeemable in silver. Then the price of gold is inflated by changing the price from $20.67 to $35.00 per ounce. Now that silver certificate just lost 40% of its value. It was promised that this price would last into perpetuity.

Now come wars and more devaluation. President Johnson in 1965 changes the content of dimes and quarters to sandwich money. For silver coins the silver content is reduced to 40%. In 1970, President Nixon makes sandwiches out of the dollar and half dollar. The Europeans are nervous and threaten a run on the dollar. Not to worry. The Treasury shuts the American gold window down. Then comes more devaluation. The price of gold is raised from $35.00 to $42.23 per ounce. Now comes the final blow. The US sets the dollar afloat with NO gold backing. This move ends the US gold standard. The US dollar is now worth 8% of its 1933 value. But this is what governments do to retain power. They devalue, devalue and devalue.


The Australian Colony poses another interesting scenario. It is different from the American colonies because it is tied to England. The first colony, New South Wales was suffering from a wheat shortage in 1788. To foster trade it recognized the Spanish dollar “pieces of eight.” In 1800, Philip Gidley set as legal tender the following: The Guinea was equal to 1 pound plus 1 shilling. The gold Mohur equaled 1 pound, 17 shillings plus a sixpence. Spanish dollars equaled 5 shillings. Coins from other countries were also rated. The “Ducat 9/6” equaled 9 shillings plus 6 pence. The “Pagoda equaled 8 shillings. A “Rupee 2/6 equaled 2 shillings and 6 pence. The “Dutch Guilder” was worth 2 shillings and the English shilling was worth 1 shilling plus 1 pence.

King George lll issued one penny “Cartwheels” with his picture on one side and Britannia on the other.

In 1812, the ship, “Samarang” arrived carrying 40,000 Spanish dollars. To insure that they would stay in the country, Governor Lachian Macquarie had holes drilled in them and they were called Holey dollars. The Holey dollars were worth 5 shillings. The hole was called a “dump” and was worth 15 pence.

That adventure ended when the British sent 100,000 official pounds to Australia. The Holey dollars were no longer in circulation after 1829.

In 1850s gold was discovered and a gold rush followed. By 1852 only 25,000 1 pound pieces were left. This prompted the founding of the first mint in Sydney. It issued a gold “Sovereign” that equaled 1 pound. It featured an image of Queen Victoria on one side.

The Federation of 1901 removed the power from the states to mint coins. The gold Sovereign was minted up until 1931. In 1937 the British “Crown” was minted and equaled 5 shillings.

Starting in 1966 and succeeding years, the Australians adopted the decimal system and issued coins in $1.00 and $2.00 denominations.

Now the Australian mint offers two beautiful bullion coins: The Australian Gold Nugget, later changed to the Kangaroo coin. The purity of Australian gold coins is the highest possible at 99.99% fine. The other gold coin is called the Australian Lunar Gold Coin. It follows the Chinese lunar calendar and features the Chinese animals for each corresponding year.