On Saturday, October 5 Roxburys’ Auction House in sunny Queensland will feature an example of Australia’s rarest circulation coin: a 1916 mule halfpenny (KM-30). Importantly this is not one of the previously known examples. It is a discovery coin found recently in a tin in a shed on a deceased estate.
The coin has been verified as genuine by PCGS who have certified it as VF35 Gold Shield. This ranks it among the finer known examples.
Less than ten examples of the 1916 mule were known before the new discovery. This makes the mule far rarer than the sought-after Australian 1923 halfpennies, 1930 pennies or 1921/22 overdate threepences. To quote Australia’s Andrew Crellin: “no other [Australian] circulating coin comes even close to it in terms of population rarity.” It is a product of World War I.
Australia’s bronze coinage was introduced in 1911. Over the ensuing years, it was struck at both London’s Royal Mint and the Heaton Mint in Birmingham. When the outbreak of WWI saw Britain’s supply lines to Australia become vulnerable, a decision was taken to relocate the production of Australia’s pennies and halfpennies to the Calcutta Mint. Here these coins were struck from 1916 to 1918. All bear the ‘I’ mintmark.
At the time of production of the 1916 coins, the Calcutta Mint was also striking Indian quarter annas. The diameter, weight, thickness, and composition of the halfpenny and quarter anna were not all that different: halfpenny 25.5 mm dia., thickness 1.50 mm, 5.67 g; quarter anna 25.4 mm dia., thickness 1.35 mm, 4.72 g. Both had a plain edge. Both were struck in medal alignment.
At some point, an obverse die of the quarter anna (KM-512) became paired with an Australian halfpenny reverse die (KM-22). The resulting mule weighed 5.67 g showing it to be struck on a halfpenny flan.
Quite how many pieces were produced is a moot point. No one knows. Myatt and Hanley’s 1982 book, Australian Coins, Notes & Medals states, “about 250 of these coins were supposed to have been struck at the Calcutta Mint” … They are reporting a guesstimate. The source of that number is unknown although it is regularly cited as authoritative without qualifications and used in erudite yet ultimately speculative mintage calculations.
Whether the striking of these coins was deliberate or accidental is also unknown. If it was deliberate it might be expected one or more specimens would have turned-up in India or Britain. None have. All examples located to date have been pulled from circulation Down Under.
In due course, all the bronze 1916 coins including the accompanying mules were delivered to Australia and entered circulation.
Over the ensuing five decades, no example of the mule was recognized as such. This failure was attributed by the late John Gartner to the relatively small number of folk collecting Aussie coins at the time. An oft-reported anecdote maintains that in the early 1930s a collector did discover a 1916 mule halfpenny in their collection but made little of it.
It needed the nationwide surge of interest in coins in the months leading up to decimalization of Australia’s currency in 1966 to bring the first mule to light. This occurred in June 1965 when collector Cecil Poole of Norma Street, Mile End, Adelaide, identified one while searching for another coin. He recognized the English obverse legend and elephant on George V’s robe as being un-Australian.
Poole reported his discovery on July 8 to a meeting of the Numismatic Society of South Australia. That announcement was picked up by the Adelaide Advertiser who ran a sensational headline on July 14: “Biggest Find in Coin History”.
The day before Poole’s announcement Darcy Koschade of Fullarton Victoria had shown one to coin dealer Ian Muddle. Koschade had inherited it from his brother. This was the coin referred to above that family recollections recall as having been discovered c. 1930-33. When it was subsequently offered at auction the late Dion Skinner purchased it for £80.
Once the word was out on the streets other mules began to turn up as people checked their small change. A second Victorian example surfaced on July 25, 1965, spotted by C. H. Grause of Fitzroy. In October the Adelaide Advertiser reported Marie Calderwood had found a fourth. A fifth was purchased by a sharp-eyed collector from a Sydney dealer for threepence later that year.
Today the precise number extant is unknown. A figure somewhere between 5 and 10 is oft-cited in catalogs and on-line. This would mean the new find brings the tally to somewhere between 6 and 11.
The finds occurring five decades after the original issue were met with skepticism by dealers and collectors across Australia. However, Dion Skinner, author of Renniks Australian Coin and Banknote Guide, had no reservations about the legitimacy of all those he had seen but was sharply criticized when he first published details in his guide.
This saw steps taken to test several of the mules. Both the British Royal Mint and the Royal Australian Mint examined examples including x-raying each. All showed the same perfect registration of obverse and reverse. The two mints pronounced them genuine. This failed to fully satisfy some of the more trenchant skeptics and John Gartner arranged for three specimens to be sent to an independent panel in the U.K. This comprised specialists from The British Museum and Spink & Sons plus Howard Linecar. They had no problems in declaring the mules to be the real McCoy.
Of course, as several commentators have pointed out in recent years, late discovery is by no means unusual in Australian numismatics. Further, the fact that worn examples of the mules had emerged randomly from across Australia is far more consistent with their being a genuine mint error rather than some contrived hoax.
Details of the discovery and the subsequent investigations were reported in issues of Gartner’s Australian Coin Review from November 1965 through January 1967. From this point on regular trading of the few extant examples became the norm especially as prices began to move rapidly skyward.
That said, the mules’ ever-rising value has prompted ever-increasing numbers of fakes to appear on the market. Some are very well made and collectors need to be on the alert. They should not accept any 1916 halfpenny mule, particularly those being offered on the internet, without independent authentication that the coin is genuine. It is for this reason Roxbury’s promptly dispatched the new find to PCGS for certification.
In this same connection, it is worth noting that Alibaba has been cheerfully offering replica 1916 mules for some time.
Most of the extant mules are worn consistent with their being circulated over at least four decades. There is one exception: the Koschade coin allegedly set aside in the 1930s. That coin grades NGC AU DETAIL DAMAGED with the obverse showing a significant die clash. Most of the remainder grade from aF to aVF but one example PCGS certified as XF40 can be viewed on-line at the Canberra Coin Collection website: http://canberracoincollection.com/1916mule/.
Readers lacking a 1916 halfpenny mule in their collection will need to gird their loins for the October 5 sale. It may also be prudent for then to have a friendly chat with their bank manager.
In June 2011 Queensland’s International Auction Galleries sold an example in aVF for $55,265 [A$81,550]. The last to be sold in Oz was by Noble Numismatics in March 2015. It came graded gVF and realized for $43,731 [A$64,530]. Both prices suggest that the A$30,000-40,000 estimate placed in the newly certified VF coin by Roxbury’s could be tad conservative.
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