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The Story of the Legendary 1933 British Penny

Proud Parent and Geek, living in the South West of England with interests in Sci-Fi, Music, Numismatics and History.

By 1932, much of the world was lapsing into an economic depression and as such, it was concluded that there would be no requirement for a release of a new Penny in 1933, as there were more than enough in circulation. However, a longstanding tradition of burying a set of that years coins under notable public or municipal buildings and this seems to be the most plausible reason as to why three of the coins were minted, however the additional four were minted to the slightly lesser quality "circulation" standard, why this is so, remains something of a mystery?

The coin gained the hallowed legend (similar to today's 50p Kew Gardens!) that it could perhaps one day turn up in change and perhaps there may have at some point, been some element of truth in this, as astonishingly, the Royal Mint have admitted that they have no definitive record of exactly how many were produced. Estimates vary, but most experts today conclude that in all likelihood, there were a total of Seven "circulated" and proof coins produced, along with four "pattern" (or prototype) version of the coin.

Four Circulation Standard 1933 Pennies

Of the four known "circulation" Pennies, one was retained by The Royal Mint and one was passed over to the British Museum, where they remain today.

Two further coins were sold on to private collectors. One was sold by Glendining's Auctioneers, London in 1969 and remains in private hands.

The other has changed hands a number of times, as well as being owned and sold on by a number of collectors, including L.A.Lawrence and P.G.Smith, it was famously part of the Emory May Norweb collection (Emory and her husband, R.Henry Norweb were both world renowned US coin collectors and philanthropists), but was sold at auction, by last sold by Heritage Auctions, in Anaheim, California, in August 2016, for $193,875/£149,283.;

1933 Penny Obverse & Reverse

1933 Penny Obverse & Reverse

Three "Proof Standard" 1933 Pennies

Three "proof" standard coins were documented as being buried under foundation or cornerstone stones of new buildings in 1933.

One is still believed to be under the Senate House of the University of London , in Bloomsbury , central London, placed there by George V himself, during the early stages of construction.

One was also laid, as part of a set, under the Church of St. Cross in Middleton, Leeds. However, during renovation on the church in August 1970, audacious thieves posing as construction workers managed to remove the coins from under the church and the whereabouts of the coin today remain unknown.

Following the theft, the third set, which had been laid under another church ; St.Mary's, Kirkstall, also in Leeds, was ordered to be removed by the then Bishop of Ripon. It was sold at Sotheby's in November 1972, for UK£7000, a considerable sum at the time, (with inflation, would be equal to around UK £94,000/US$126,00 in today's money!)

Andre Lavrillier 1933 "Pattern" Penny

Andre Lavrillier 1933 "Pattern" Penny

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Four Andre Lavrillier "Pattern" 1933 Pennies

The reason for the creation of the pattern prototypes is an interesting one.

By 1929, the Royal Mint were becoming concerned by the quality of copper coin production and in particular, the issue of "ghosting" on Pennies, whereby a feint outline of monarch's head could be seen on the Britannia reverse. The deputy Mint Master, Sir Robert Johnson had been most impressed with French engraver Andre Lavrillier's work on the Romanian coins that the Royal Mint had been recently contracted to and recommended to the "Standing Committee on Coins, Medals and Decorations" that due to his great technical expertise, particularly on the die production, that Msr Lavrillier produce a new specimen portrait effigy of King George V and reverse Penny for the Committee's consideration. Minutes from the meetings at the time, indicated that there was some initial disquiet from the committee that a "foreigner" should be allowed to produce the design for a coin of the realm, however, these objections were put aside. Unfortunately for Msr Lavrillier however, the designs were put before the committee in January 1933 indicated that the new design still failed to fully eliminate the persistent issue of "ghosting" and the plans for a new Penny design was dropped. Andre Lavrillier's design brilliance did however continue, as his design's were used on French coinage, right up until the 1960's. Of the four prototype "Pattern" Pennies produced, three of which were created in their entirety, but it's understood that the additional one had duplicate obverse (King's head).

The four "pattern" coins were thereby consigned to the Royal Mint's archives, where one remains today at the Royal Mint Museum and the other three were over time, sold on to private collectors.

One example was acquired from the Royal Mint by World renowned coin expert and cataloguer, Fred Baldwin and subsequently sold to Emily Norweb in 1958. Was then sold by Spink auctions in 1986 (for £4,510*) during the auction of the dispersal of the famous Norweb collection, sold to the Colin Adams Collection in July 2003 for £9775*. The same coin was sold in January 2009, by Heritage Auctions, for $26,000 ($29,900 with buyers premium). .

Another, originally from the "Alderley Collection" , was sold in an online auction 2007, by British Coin Dealer Colin Cooke, selling for £18,000.

The fourth example, originally from the Gregory Collection, was sold in May 2006 for £18,875 (including premium) . In May 2016, British Auction House, Baldwin's, sold this coin for £86,400 (£72,000 without premium) , which at the time, set a new world record for a sale of a copper or bronze coin. It was sold again by Heritage Auctions, Dallas in August 2017 for $64,624 (including buyers premium).

1933 Penny Legacy

Some have argued that the 1933 Penny doesn't deserve it's legendary status, as there were a number of years where far fewer coins have been been produced, which is not unusual, as there were no pennies minted from 1923 through to 1925 (and has been a regular occurrence in the UK, in recent years) and there is at least one known surviving 1954 Penny from design trials, there reset seemingly having been destroyed.

The legend may seems likely to have been brought to public attention by the popular press in the late 1930s/early 1940's and the possibility that particularly after "The Blitz" in which many public buildings in most British Cities were destroyed and levelled and that there was a real possibility (although in reality, virtually impossible) of someone picking up a 1933 Penny in the street and spending it. The story passed into folklore and the story perpetuated for many years, I can even recall my own Father in the 1970's, telling me to always look out for a 1933 Penny.

Curiously, there are pictorial records from various Media outlets, showing photos taken in April 1965 of a 17 year old Victor Kilminster, a messenger in the City of London, who purportedly received one in change, however there appears to be no further information to back up whether this turned out to be a genuine coin, but no doubt further stoked the hope that there were some of these coins out in circulation?

Unsurprisingly, there have been a huge number of forgeries and copies, you can easilly pick up a reasonably good copy on eBay. Occasionally one turns up on eBay, which piques the interest of experts. One appeared, as part of a collection of pennies, on eBay in 2010, with a provenance that it had been recovered from the sellers Grandfather had in the 1960's serviced the iconic Big Ben and had recovered a quantity of pennies that had been used as pendulum weights (which is true and were only stopped being used for this purpose in 2009) however, the listing reached over £1,100 before the listing was suddenly cancelled with a day to go. One famously appeared on the long running BBC TV show "Antiques Roadshow", but after verification, resulted in being a very good fake, I think due to a forger, very cleverly converting the "8" on a 1938 Penny to a fairly convincing "3".

Intriguingly, a few years ago I met an elderly Antique Dealer who insisted he had, many years ago, acquired a 1933 Penny as part of an antique deal and that it had been verified by The Royal Mint. It had been long kept in a secure Bank deposit box as he was well aware of it's value, but had no need or desire to sell, but will pass it on to family. I've often pondered on this and wondered if it is one of those detailed above , if true, it seems it can only possibly be the circulation coin sold by Glendinings in 1972, the St.Mary's proof , or failing that , even the mysterious missing proof from St.Cross coin?

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Kieran Clarke

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