Art Gallery of South Australia Numismatic Collection Visit

January 31, 2014

The Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

This week we were extremely privileged to be invited to have a private viewing of the numismatic collection at the Art Gallery of South Australia (see the image above for the front facade of the gallery). This collection is the major numismatic collection in South Australia and one of the major public collections in the country. It holds more than 30,000 items with the first item collected in the 1860's. Since that time the collection has expanded greatly almost entirely due to bequests from a generous South Australian Public. It is very rare that more than a few pieces from the collection are ever on public display so the opportunity to view some of it in the back room operations of the Art Gallery was too good to refuse.

The viewing was hosted by Peter Lane, a well known numismatist and honorary numismatist of the Art Gallery. He's spent several years cataloging and documenting the collection with a book about some of the more interesting provenances of items in the collection currently in the pipeline. With the kind cooperation of Art Gallery Staff he was able to have few people view the collection under strict supervision. We would have loved to publish some pictures of the stupendous coins we saw but sadly this was not allowed. Oh, we took the pictures, and they are drool-worthy, but we are not allowed to publish them. So, as a small measure of compensation here's a small display of coins we found while we were wandering about waiting for our appointment time to arrive. These included Greek Tetradrachm, a Roman Denarius and coins of the Royal Mint.

The only coins on display in the Art Gallery

After wandering the gallery for a while we met with our host and were taken into the back offices to sign into security and be issued with visitor badges. We were then taken to the sub-basement via lift and were told that at that stage we were about 20 meters below North Terrace (which is one of the main streets in the Adelaide CBD). We were led to a little table with some chairs in the gallery library and the viewing began.

Peter had selected several trays of coins containing various items that he believed would interest us. This included British material, various world coins, Australian proclamation and colonial coins, and an array of large Australian medals and medallions. Highlights of these trays were the dish sized Swedish plate money, the array of extremely high grade and extremely scarce Australian prize medals, and the entire tray of beautifully toned and struck 1000 year old German bracteate coins. The Australian prize medals were truly spectacular, often comprising nearly 200 grams of struck metal and surely the pinnacle of the engravers art. And the grades of these medals were surely that which any exonumia collector could only dream of. We also got to see several dozen British coins dating from the 11th century through to the 20th. It's nice to see a complete pristine 1902 matte proof set but to learn that the Gallery had bought it from the Royal Mint at face value plus postage was mind boggling. The 1930 proof penny belonging to the gallery, we learned, was also purchased from the Melbourne Mint for one penny plus postage. If only we could turn back time!

Before we move onto the next (and perhaps more mouth watering) part of the viewing we thought it was worth looking at some numismatic related material we found while looking around the general viewing area of the Gallery. Edgar Bertram Mackennal was the designer of the portrait of King George V on Australian pre-decimal coins from 1911 to 1936 and the obverse designer of the 1927 Canberra Parliament florin. He was also a sculptor and some of his pieces in bronze were on display. "Madonna" c. 1905 Paris (below), "Truth" 1894 London -a naked figured symbolising the unclothed truth and Circe, a figure from Greek Mythology. The majestic statue of King Edward VII standing proud near the Art Gallery entrance on North Terrace is also by Mackennal.

William Leslie Bowles, who is well known to coin collectors as the reverse designer of the 1951 Federation and 1954 Royal Visit commemorative florins was also a sculptor. Incidently he was Mackennal's assistant while they both spent time in London and if you're visiting the Australian War Memorial in Canberra Bowles worked on dioramas of the first World War on display there. He had a piece in the general area of the Gallery, this one depicting the iconic Australian infantryman, "The Digger".

Willaim Leslie Bowles "The digger"

Let's go back to our invited perusal of numismatic rarities in the bowels of the Art Gallery. We were able to view (but not touch) many historic coins and exonumia that hold a high place in Australia's history. Gold was aplenty with an original 1852 Adelaide ingot alongside an electrotype of the same coin. We saw numerous 1852 Adelaide pounds (including uniface strikes and lead trial pieces), two pounds and five pounds, It was interesting to note the difference in finish between the circulation strikes in the 1850's compared with the re-strikes made in the 1920's. Clearly the dies were polished before the restrikes were made. In fact, we got to see the actual Adelaide Assay Office dies themselves. These included the pound, two pound, and 5 pound dies. There were two pound dies, the cracked die and the uncracked die. Those who know their history will know that the first Adelaide Pound die cracked early before being replaced and coins showing the die crack are scarce indeed. Being able to see the actual cracked die itself was a great thrill.

We also saw one of the six known proof 1930 pennies. Three are currently in public institutions and 3 in private hands. At one stage the Gallery owned two proof 1930 pennies but one was sold to well known collector Syd Hagley and that same coin was sold in the last few years by a high end Melbourne coin dealer. Another item of significant Australian numismatic interest we saw were several re-strikes of the Taylor gold patterns. Designed by the "Kangaroo Office" and originally struck in the 1850's and 1860's the Gallery's collection appeared to hold multiple re-strikes of each denomination in gold.

British guineas, sovereigns, half sovereigns were also in abundance. In fact, as you'd imagine (with South Australian being a British colony) the United Kingdom was well represented. We saw hammered pennies from the 11th and 12th centuries, groats and shillings from the middle of the millennium, and a lovely selection of English Commonwealth material from the time of Oliver Cromwell. Each monarch from that time forward was well represented with lustrous Queen Victoria coins aplenty, maundy coins, farthings, half pennies and pennies. One member of our viewing group was delighted to see an 1825 British halfpenny in the collection, a coin he has been looking to acquire for many years and has eluded him. While he obviously cannot own the coin we saw, it was some small satisfaction to him to know that the elusive creature does indeed exist!

After about two hours we had to (somewhat regretfully) draw the viewing to a close. We only got to view what was a very small selection of the collection. But what we saw was an amazing selection of numismatic history. To us, the value of what we saw was secondary to the history that each piece in the collection represented. Hammered coinage of Britain and Germany represented the dark ages, an uncirculated Cromwell crown recalled a time of extreme political upheaval, and coinage and dies from the colonial times of Australia gave us a real connection to events that helped to shape Australia. The opportunity to view the collection was certainly a highlight of our venture into the hobby of numismatics and if anyone is ever given the opportunity to do the same then they should take every measure to ensure they do. It would be amazing to see some of these coins on general display in the Art Gallery but we suspect they are of limited appeal to the general public and won't be visible any time soon. Our thanks must go to Peter Lane, the Art Gallery of South Australia for their time and efforts and the Numismatic Society of South Australia.

Posted by mnemtsas at January 31, 2014 4:06 PM
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