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“Throughout lockdown in 2020 the market saw a renaissance, with collectors having more time to spend on their collections. With so much less in the way of leisurely pursuits to spend money on, many collectors also had more disposable income available.”

It was these dynamics, observed by Pierce Noonan, CEO of Dix Noonan Webb, that made 2020 an extraordinary period for the London numismatic market.

On one hand, almost no fairs and precious little face-to-face trading took place. On the other, it was a record year for London’s auction houses with combined total sales just shy of £53m – a rise of more than 10%. When ATG first published our annual tabulations in 1994 the total was a mere £9.3m.

The latest tables show that coins, medals and banknotes are well suited to the e-commerce that has thrived in the Covid era. Not only are they portable but they were also made in multiples and can be graded according to an accepted language.

In short, coin auction houses were well-placed to take their sales completely online when the first lockdown was imposed. However, some firms were better prepared than others.

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COINS & MEDALS: Top London auction houses in 2020. Numbers based on totals reported by auction houses. Figures in brackets show changes for equivalent figures for 2019. Those for cash and lot totals are measured against the previous total. Those for market change show the change against the entire market. Note: TimeLine now holds most of its auctions in Harwich, Essex, but maintains premises in Berkeley Square, London.

E-commerce transition

Both DNW and Spink chose to increase the frequency of sales, which helped to capture some of the business that was being lost with the closure of fairs and shops.

DNW’s medal auctions, previously held quarterly, have been staged monthly since March. The firm made it to second place in the overall tabulation, with a near 4% increase in total sales (despite a 5% drop in number of lots offered).

“Our industry has been fast tracked in a way that was probably inevitable but would never have been achieved in such quick time,” said Noonan. “The online revolution resulting from the lockdowns is a legacy that will be with us for many years to come.”

Noonan estimates coins and medals increased in value by “around 15 to 20% on average across the board” in 2020.

As part of its e-commerce transition the Spink coin department rekindled – after a decade-long hiatus – its fabled ‘Numismatic Circular’ providing regular themed online sales for lockdown-weary collectors. By the end of December, 10 such auctions had offered more than 3500 lots and garnered over £1m.

The department also chalked up a remarkable record: an unbroken chain of five back-to-back ‘white-glove’ English coin auctions held from late summer into the autumn.

It helps that the rarest English coins and those in good condition are reaching new financial territory.

The Stratos collection of English gold coins coupled with the Ennismore collection of Anglo- Saxon and Viking coinage provided Spink with ‘a once in a blue moon auction’ on September 21.

Together the 321 lots took over six hours to clear, generating more than £3m with only one lot failing to sell. “We are at a crossroads where the veteran collector meets the technologically savvy investor, leading to explosive auction results,” said Spink.

The firm nonetheless registered a small drop in the year’s hammer total in the coins and medals sales held from the London headquarters.

Operating in a number of international markets, Spink points to the success of sales in New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Switzerland. Globally the firm’s numismatic auctions in 2020 reached £17.6m.

Some of the strongest individual prices for English coins were recorded overseas. The record for a British coin sold at auction was broken twice at a sale held by MDC in Monte Carlo on October 29.

Exceptional examples of the 1831 George IV five sovereign piece and the 1839 Una and the Lion £5 pattern – both designs by William Wyon (1795-1851) – were hammered down at €820,000 (£745,500) each.

It is the sign of a vibrant market that a handful of numismatic records have fallen in recent months (see the Brasher doubloon sold for $7.8m in Dallas reported in last week’s News pages, ATG No 2479).

London also enjoyed its moments in the sun. Most notably, classical coins specialist Roma Numismatics set a record for any classical coin when a Brutus Eid Mar-type gold aureus, struck shortly after the murder of Julius Caesar, took £2.7m in October.

According to the figures provided to ATG, the firm also increased the number of coins lots it offered in London by almost 15% (24,685 versus 21,525 last year), achieving a remarkable total of £17.8m (up 82% compared with 2019). Roma leapt from third to first in the table.

It is worth noting a bigger picture. Much of Roma’s merchandise came for sale from overseas vendors – many of them encouraged to sell in London in 2020 by both the draconian ‘cultural heritage’ laws now operating in parts of the EU and the imminent onset of Brexit.

It remains to be seen if vendors will choose the same route in 2021 given the import duties now imposed on items consigned from outside UK borders. A tax of 5% represents a considerable discouragement to consigners of the best and rarest material.

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HAMMER MARKET SHARE: Across London’s numismatic auctions

Record selling rates

Medals and decorations, typically a more localised market, continued to be a strong suit. Spink enjoyed a record selling rate of 98% in this field and registered a record number of new clients.

As ever, quality, unusual and fresh-to-market items offered on behalf of recipients or their descendants flew away. This included both historic awards from conflicts in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century (Morton & Eden’s top two results of the year came for Victoria Cross groups of the Indian Mutiny). However, more recent awards that are rare both in terms of the small numbers awarded and the handful available to commerce were also avidly sought.

The table also underlines that the results have not been even. Overall supply was a little down – something to be expected in the circumstances.

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LONDON: Coins & Medals Auction Market (banknotes added in 2014)

Four London auction houses suffered a decline in their reported totals for this past calendar year. So, while Baldwin’s of St James’s rendered a marked increase in take (up almost 28%), less business was done by Morton & Eden, Bonhams and TimeLine. Sometimes this requires only a simple explanation: in 2019 Morton & Eden sold a rare Islamic dinar for £3.1m and such windfall lots cannot always be repeated.

A newcomer to the market in 2020 was the old established philatelic dealership Harmers – now part of the Bolaffi Auction Group – holding a sale in September with another scheduled for this coming spring. Sovereign Rarities, which did not hold an auction in 2020, also plans a return to the rostrum in 2021.

View a PDF of ATG's annual coins & medals tables