Pattern or Variety
Perhaps what makes the half sovereign series so interesting to collect, is the lack of information available about them. Much of our understanding of the series is based on sketchy reports and educated guesses.
In this article I will discuss the half sovereigns struck at the Sydney mint from 1880 to 1883 that feature a crenulated reverse, typical to Melbourne mint examples. Very little is known about this 'variety' beyond educated guesses and what has turned up. This variety has been sighted in the dates of 1880, 1881 and 1883 and is reported in the McDonald catalogues as type 5/3.
The 1880 is the first year in the series; it is unlisted in Marsh however it is estimated that approximately 20 to 25 examples are available of which six originated from the Reserve Bank of Australia holdings.
(Photo i: 1880S with the crenulated reverse)
The reverse design features a crenulated reverse with 147 rim denticles, as opposed to the standard issue, which features an even beaded reverse and 146 rim denticles.
(Photo ii: 1880S reverse with the standard beaded design)
The 1880S type is often confused with the London mint variety with the 'S' mintmark being interpreted as the die number '5' although marsh reports no examples of the 1880 London mint with die number 5. The 1880 (L) with the crenulated reverse, has a very low relief obverse design and is of Type 4 (see photo iii) while the beaded reverse 1880 (L) isn't struck with a die number.
(Photo iii: Obverse design 4 with low relief)
The easiest way to correctly identify if an 1880 has an 'S' mintmark or a '5' die number is to look at the obverse, the 1880 with die number '5' will have the obverse in photo iii, while the 1880S will have the obverse seen in Photo i.
Interestingly, the finest example that I've sighted, that went through Noble Numismatics auction 62, lot 1552 in November 1999, graded good Extremely Fine and sold for $1350 plus commission, was described as having proof like fields. This would seem to support the theory that the type is a pattern. Considering that all examples of this type were struck from the same dies, it would seem to indicate that all examples were struck to such a state and any traces of such were simply worn away, although it was common practice to strike circulation issues from proof dies.
The next date in the series is the 1881S; it is the toughest type in the Young Head series to acquire and I myself have been trying to obtain one for the last year. It is estimated that under 10 pieces are in existence with only 4 lower grade examples appearing in the Reserve Bank holdings and is unlisted in Marsh. The reverse design of the type appears to have been re-engraved rather than having been struck from re-used 1880 dies and features a sharper rim and stronger design elements within the shield in particular the lion in the upper right quadrant of the shield.
The finest example of the type that I've sighted went through Noble Numismatics auction 60, lot 1483 in April 1999 where it was described as nearly Extremely Fine/Extremely Fine sold for $460 plus commission. The coin also featured proof like fields, further supporting my theory that the type is a pattern; although why most examples ended up heavily circulated would seem to contradict this.
The next date in the series is the 1882S; I haven't sighted any examples of this date, it is listed in Marsh as type 466A and McDonald lists this type as being unverified.
The final date in the series is the 1883S. There is a confirmed pattern example of this type and the issue was struck from two distinguishable dies. One fresh die for the year, and one worn die, possibly re-used from either 1880 or 1881. Interestingly, the strongest struck examples of the 1883 worn die seem to be in a far worse state than the worst 1880 or 1881 examples which would seem to indicate that further coins were struck between 1881 and 1883, possibly dated 1882 though none have turned up. It is possible, that if they were struck, they were not issued into circulation and were later melted.
Of the two dies used in 1883, approximately 25 examples are known to have been struck from the worn die, and about 5 from the fresh die, including the proof example. I call it a proof in this case, as the 1883 pieces that were struck from the worn dies are clearly circulation examples and therefore the proof 1883S example is a proof, and not a pattern. In the RBA sale of 2005, two examples struck ex proof dies appeared and six examples from worn dies appeared. Photo iv is of an example ex proof dies, while photo v is an example ex 1880 or 1881 dies. Note the weakness in the upper quadrants of the shield.
(Photo iv: 1883S reverse ex proof dies)
(Photo v: 1883S reverse ex 1880 or 1881 dies)
Considering the dies used, it is unlikely that the 1883S with the crenulated design is a pattern striking, but more likely a test striking intended for circulation.
Whether you consider these to be patterns, test strikings, or nothing more than simple varieties, one thing is for certain, the coins are incredibly rare and of considerable importance to half sovereign collectors.