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The Pattern 1966 50c

Australia's $28 Million Coin!

By Andrew Crellin
Sterling & Currency

A rare pattern of Australia's round 50c coin from 1966 was discovered in Sydney late in 2008, knowledge of it's existence has re-ignited a great deal of interest in the background to the introduction of decimal currency to Australia.
The pattern 50c is one of either two or possibly seven such coins in private hands. In the early 1970's, it was rated equal to Australia's most desirable and historically important rare coins, and has a direct relationship to what is arguably the most controversial chapter in the history of the Royal Australian Mint (RAM).
The fact that the pattern has slight differences to those coins struck for circulation and inclusion in proof sets shows that the famed British engraver and sculptor Arnold Machin used more than one plaster model during the production process of Australia's first decimal coins. Until now, the vast majority of Australian numismatists will not have been aware that more than one obverse type was in use on our national coinage between 1966 and 1984.
Numismatic study of the pattern yields information on the difficulty that Royal Australian Mint (RAM) staff had in striking Australia's decimal coinage, as well as on the changes to the obverse and reverse designs that were introduced so the coin could be manufactured effectively.

Decimal Currency - A Logistical Challenge Without Parallel

The introduction of decimal currency to Australia in 1966 is regarded as being one of the biggest challenges that Harold Holt faced during his tenure as Prime Minister of Australia. Not only was the Commonwealth Treasury and the Royal Australian Mint faced with the unforeseen logistical challenge of ensuring that sufficient decimal coinage was in circulation right throughout the nation following the changeover from the Imperial system on "C-Day", they also had to ensure that the new decimal coins had the confidence of the Australian public. The total cost of the entire transition came to $45 million.
Although there were some grumblings within sections of the community about aspects of the change, as predicted by Prime Minister Holt the transition went remarkably smoothly given the magnitude of the task.
That the event was seen as being yet another step in the growing maturity and independence of the Australian nation certainly helped with the acceptance of the new denominations and designs. The air of change and opportunity prevailing in Australia in the 1960's was in many ways captured in the final designs that were selected - well-known Australian icons, designed to a standard equal to any coinage available in the world.
During a presentation to the Numismatic Association of Victoria in 1964, the designer of Australia's decimal currency, Mr Stuart Devlin, stated that "It was decided to get away from Australian motifs that had been used before. The five coins could be used to give an overall picture of what Australia was like 1."

1966 Pattern Strike Obverse 1966 Pattern Strike Reverse

Pictures courtesy of Andrew Crellin of Sterling & Currency

The 1966 50c - Australia's Last Precious Metal Circulating Coin

The 50c piece was the largest and most valuable of the six coins proposed under Australia's new decimal currency system. Harold Holt was Australia's Treasurer between December 1958 and January 1966, and he regarded the 50c coin as being the "prestige coin to mark the inception of decimal currency.2 "
Interestingly, Holt and the Liberal Commonwealth Government Cabinet readily approved the production of the new decimal 50c coin in silver, despite the short-lived success of the last large silver coins to be struck for circulation in Australia - the crowns of 1937 and 1938 honouring King George VI. At the time of their issue, these five shilling coins were apparently intended to be the first in an annual production series, however such ideas were cut short once it became clear that the public flatly refused to use them and instead hoarded them as keepsakes.
Nor were the Treasurer or the Cabinet deterred by the fact that at 80% silver content, the purity of Australia's most valuable decimal coin would be 30% higher than that which had been used in the production of Australia's silver coins since the end of World War II some 20 years earlier. Australia's most valuable circulating decimal coin therefore had a higher silver content more than double that of the equivalent US coin, the Kennedy Half Dollar.
Economic experts within Holt's own Treasury department had warned that the price of silver on world markets was rising, and foretold that it was unlikely the Commonwealth would find this composition viable for an extended period of time.
The silver price did indeed double between the introduction of Australia's decimal currency on February 14th 1966 and 1968, and on March 20th 1968, the then Commonwealth Treasurer, Mr Billy McMahon, advised Federal Parliament that as the precious metal value of the 1966 50c had risen to 76c, the process of withdrawing the coins from circulation had begun.

The 1966 50c - Fundamental to the Introduction of Decimal Currency

Numismatic discussion of the production and withdrawal of the Australian 1966 50c coin often implies criticism of the Commonwealth Government's apparent economic mismanagement - the case is often made that the Commonwealth lost significantly through the production of the 1966 50c. Unfortunately, little discussion has taken place regarding the important role that this coin played in ensuring that the Australian public had full confidence in their new decimal currency.
Although the introduction of base metal coinage had been taking place in developed nations around the world in the years leading up to 1966, the new decimal system would mark the first time that Australia's coinage was not primarily comprised of precious metals. I have not yet been able to find any published record of objections to Australia moving to a coinage entirely devoid of precious metals, however given that such sentiment exists today, I would presume that there would have been a similar attitude on some level in the late 1960's, even if only within very small sections of the population.
Although the two smallest pre-decimal denominations (the penny and the halfpenny) had always been produced in base metal, the three silver denominations being replaced (the sixpence, shilling and florin) would now be struck in a base metal alloy of copper nickel. Perhaps Holt's comment regarding the 1966 50c, that it was the "prestige coin [intended] to mark the inception of decimal currency.3 ", gives us an indication that it may have only ever been intended as a one-off issue only, and was introduced full in the knowledge that production would be cut short as soon as circumstances dictated that it was necessary.
The idea that a nation's coinage should be struck in silver or gold would seem to many today to be an antiquated or even unnecessary ideal, however that would have been the case for everyone in Australia in the late 1960's.
It may indeed be the case that rather than being a gross economic miscalculation, the introduction and withdrawal of the 1966 50c piece was a tactical move carefully planned by the Commonwealth Government to ensure confidence in the new decimal currency. The cost of the whole episode can certainly appear to be quite expensive, depending on the basis by which the cost and opportunity cost (of the sums concerned) is measured. As an example, the equivalent metal value today of the 11 million 50c coins that had been introduced by March 1968 is approximately $72 million! It certainly doesn't necessarily follow however that this is the amount that the Commonwealth "lost".
As it happens, the prevailing silver at the time decimal currency was introduced meant that all silver Australian coins struck before 1946 had an intrinsic value 80% higher than their face value, and those struck between 1946 and 1964 had an intrinsic value equal to their face value. By the time of McMahon's announcement in March 1968, pre-1945 silver coins were worth 3.7 times their face in metal, and post 1946 silver coins were approximately double. 69 million ounces of silver was withdrawn from circulation during the transition to decimal currency.
Given that several billion dollars worth of pre-decimal silver coins were on issue at February 1966, on this basis alone the introduction of the 1966 50c coin certainly was an effective strategic move.
The potential social and economic cost of a failure of decimal currency would surely have been unthinkable.

Solution to the Problems With Striking The Obverse

The 1966-67 Annual Report of the Royal Australian Mint disclosed that this coin was also rather difficult to manufacture:
"Imbalance between the obverse and reverse designs had led to faulty reproduction of the [obverse] inscription. To overcome these imperfections it had been necessary to step up pressure in the coining presses to 147 tonnes, well above the normal operating maximum, resulting in a marked reduction in the working life of the reverse dies.4 "

It is accepted that to remedy this problem, the dies were modified at the Royal Mint in London. Mr JB Joslin, the Chief Engineer of the RAM during this period stated that "The modifications were, so far as I recall, a general lowering of the relief, sufficient to assist in the coining operation, but not enough to be apparent. The modified master tools were not received from London until the latter part of 1967, by which time production of the silver 50c had ceased 5"
The obverses of each of the other denominations struck in 1966 (1c; 2c; 5c; 10c and 20c) share one minor but telling characteristic that suggests this is the case - at least one eyelash is evident on each obverse. This characteristic is certainly not present on the proof or circulation strike of the 1966 50c. The 10c and 20c show two eyelashes, which may indicate that at least three plaster models by Arnold Machin were employed throughout the production process for Australia's decimal coinage.

Solution to the Problems With Striking The Reverse

Several pattern 1966 50c coins feature prominent "double bars" behind the head of the emu on the reverse, while many of the 1966 50c coins struck (both proof and circulation strike) show clear underlying evidence of this design element. Both of these facts indicate that new reverse tools were not deemed necessary - if this strategy had been followed, the "double bars" would surely have been completely removed. The available numismatic evidence therefore suggests that production was normalized once the relevant weakness in the manufacturing reverse dies had been removed as much as possible.

The Solution For 1969 Onwards

So there were three problems with Australia's 1966 silver 50c that would need to be solved if our nation's largest circulating decimal coin were to be an effective circulating medium. The fact that the cost of the metal had exceeded the face value of the coin and was being hoarded by the general public was to be addressed by switching composition to the copper-nickel alloy; the apparent confusion between the 50c and the 20c suffered would be addressed by changing the shape of the coin to a dodecadron, while the life of the production dies and the quality of the obverse strike would be addressed by new master tools being introduced.
The Controller of the RAM, Mr J.M. Henderson, was instructed to oversee the production of several designs for a new 50c and present them for consideration by the Commonwealth Treasury and Cabinet 6. The Chief Engraver at the RAM, (Mr) Vembola Veinberg set to work immediately 7.
"It was decided to use the reverse design of the 1966 50c as the basis for the reverse design of the intended replacement coin. Veinberg was given an open commission by Henderson to decide on and produce a new design for the 50 cent coin. Veinberg took the master die for the 1966 fifty cent pieces and used them to produce strikings in soft metals. From these soft metal stampings he removed various amounts of the background designs and in this way created eight different patterns 8."
Some of the experimental coins Veinberg produced were the traditional circular shape, while others were in the now familiar dodecagonal shape. Veinberg also designed a coin which he struck in aluminium as an alternative to the cupro-nickel "silver" coins then being produced. Veinberg, a master craftsman, hand-finished each pattern piece himself 9.
As an aside to this discussion, during the investigation into the theft of several rare sovereigns from the National Coin Collection, the former controller of the RAM, Mr JM Henderson stated that "The twelve-sided design for the nation's fifty cent piece was substantially Gee's 10." The "Gee" that Henderson referred to here is none other than Australia's most prolific forger of rare coins. David Gee's involvement with Henderson played a large role in what is arguably the most controversial chapter in the RAM's history.
"The eight different designs of the fifty cent piece were in due course examined by the Liberal Party cabinet of the Prime Minister of the time, John Grey Gorton, and the design still in use was selected 11."
Thus the groundwork was laid for the end of circulating precious metal coinage in Australia - the replacement for the 1966 50c coin had been selected.

The Rarity of Veinberg's 1966 Patterns

The patterns produced by Veinberg were fundamental in communicating in a tangible way the changes that were intended for Australia's largest circulating decimal coin. Although the patterns were examined by the Commonwealth Cabinet and were retained in the RAM archives, as well as at the Melbourne and Royal Mints, they have not been sighted anywhere else, much less entered the consciousness of the numismatic world. This is incredible when their historical importance and rarity are considered.
"Veinberg's pattern pieces are especially valuable. They were not only a new design, they had never even existed as far as the public was concerned12."
The RAM's Chief Engineer, Mr Jack Joslin, had custody of these patterns while they were within the RAM system. Henderson apparently asked Joslin to hand over some of the fifty cent patterns to him, and Joslin presumed that the coins would be displayed in the RAM museum. It is now known that Joslin gave his boss 17 coins - 15 dated 1966 and 2 dated 1967. The remainder of Vembola's patterns are known to have been taken to the Mint's furnace section for melting down.
After Henderson's retirement from the RAM, Ron Osbourne graduated to become Controller himself. Upon taking control of his new office, he apparently found two of the pattern 50c coins struck in aluminium by Vembola Veinberg in the Controller's safe.
During a social visit to the Canberra Mint in 1968, the recently retired Henderson stated that he had left "...something in my safe when I retired...I had wanted to keep a memento of the 50 cent design..." After Osbourne reluctantly opened the safe, "Henderson leaned across Osbourne, picked up the envelope containing the aluminium pattern pieces, and pocketed it 12."
The above information shows that up to 19 of Veinberg's pattern 50c coins could have been in private hands from 1968 onwards. These patterns were dated either 1966 or 1967, were either round or dodecadron in shape, and were struck either in silver or aluminium.

The Controversy Surrounding Veinberg's 1966 Patterns

In 1972, the enthusiastic coin collector and notorious forger David Gee approached Mr Dion Skinner, who was at that time the editor of "Rennik's Australian Coin and Banknote Guide" with an offer to show him a range of rare coins that could be photographed for publication. Skinner met Gee at a motel in King's Cross (Sydney) a short time later. During this meeting, Gee showed Skinner a fantastic array of Australian numismatic rarities.
".... when his Chinese acquaintance opened his bag, Skinner was stunned. Adelaide Assay Office £5 pieces in copper and gilt; 1902 Sydney Mint £5 and £2 pieces made from scored dies; even an Elizabeth II kookaburra penny."
Despite being confronted with this dazzling array of numismatic rarities that most collectors have only ever read about, it was the decimal coins that had the strongest grasp on Skinner's attention.
"There were fifty cent decimal pattern pieces of 1966 and 1967, some round, some twelve-sided - coins which, Skinner realized instantly, had never been issued! "What are these fifty cent pieces worth?" asked Gee. "I can get at least $10,000 apiece for them" replied Skinner.
In the rest of their meeting, Gee apparently stated that despite their value, he was unfortunately not able to sell the decimal patterns. He had apparently acceded to a request from his good friend, Jim Henderson, Controller of the RAM in Canberra, that he would not do so until Henderson had passed away 14.
It is a clear indication of Skinner's belief that the imagination of the Australian public would be captured by the availability of one or more of Veinberg's rarities that he would rate them as being of equal value to some of our nation's rarest coins. The table below lists values taken from the 1972 edition of "Rennik's Australian Coin and Banknote Guide" for a number of other key Australian numismatic rarities:

Item Rennik's Value (1972)
1853 Port Phillip Kangaroo Office Gold £5 Pattern $10,000
1920 Pattern Shilling and Florin $10,000
Jubilee Head 1887 Sydney Mint ?5 Pattern $5,000
1937 Penny (Double Sided) Pattern $4,000
Proof 1930 Penny $2,000

A further comparison of relative values can be found in a conversation between Skinner and Lawrence Adler regarding the value of the 1909 florin that had been announced as being discovered on November 26th 1972. In this conversation, Skinner apparently stated that "A coin of this rarity, this calibre should be worth $10,000 15."

Retrieval of Vembola's Patterns

When David Gee was questioned by Federal Police regarding the seizure of his coin collection in 1974, "ten pattern fifty cent pieces, formerly of the Australian Mint Collection16" were identified within it .
Interestingly, the committal hearings against Henderson held in Queanbeyan on January 6th, 1975 were principally regarding the theft from the RAM of "eight pattern fifty cent pieces...the property of the Commonwealth of Australia 17." This slightly lesser figure could be an indication that two of the coins held by Gee were in fact somehow taken legitimately from RAM premises. All of these facts would seem to indicate that a maximum of nine of Vembola's pattern 50c coins could still be in private hands today.
Many collectors may well wonder what Henderson's motive was in taking the patterns struck by Vembola not only beyond the confines of the Royal Australian Mint, but then giving them to his friend David Gee, a man whose integrity was questioned by many within the Australian numismatic community.
During Gee's trial in November 1977, Henderson stated that "he had always believed that as Controller of the Mint, he had the authority to give samples of coins to other mints or museums, or to private individuals who had given some assistance to the Mint 18." Any examples of Vembola's patterns that remain in private hands therefore must come from a source in one of the above categories.
There was no doubt at all in Henderson's mind that Gee was one of those individuals - he stated that"the twelve-sided design for the nation's fifty cent piece was substantially Gee's 19." Henderson was pressed further on the matter by prosecutors: "Did you ever give Mr Gee a fifty cent pattern piece?" Henderson apparently replied, "I think, Your Honour, that I am entitled not to answer that question 20." The judge agreed, and so the vexatious question of Gee's ownership remains unanswered to this day.
That such historically important numismatic rarities could only apparently come onto the collector market via a questionable relationship between the man with ultimate accountability for the production of Australia's national coinage, and custody over our national Coin Cabinet, is perhaps the primary reason why these incredible rarities have not received due consideration in years past.
Despite their low profile, these patterns remain a tangible marker of the end of precious metal currency in Australia, exceedingly rare and surely with a provenance intimately linked to the introduction of decimal currency.

1 Australian Coin Review 2 Myatt; p33 3 Myatt; p33 4 Myatt; p33
5 ?? 6 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p50 7 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p50 8 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p50
9 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p51 10 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p156 11 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p51 12 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p54
13 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p59 14 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p73 15 ??????? 16 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p122
17 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p125 18 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p157 19 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p156 20 Watson, Thomas & Bennett p156
Watson, Thomas & Bennett; “Heads I Win”; Angus & Robertson; North Ryde; 1986

Andrew Crellin of Sterling & Currency very kindly supplied this article, please support those that support us.