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The "King" and "Prince" of Canadian Currency

Originally published in The Wayback Times Spring Issue 154 Apr/May/June 2023 Volume 28

There are many coin collections across the globe where collectors leave space for a coin they will likely never acquire. Canadian collections are no different in this regard and it is highly likely those collections leave empty spaces for the following Canadian rarities: The “King” of Canadian Coins; the 1921, 50 cent piece, the “Prince” of Canadian coins; the 1921, 5 cent piece and the rarest of Canadian dollar coins; the 1948 silver dollar.

What makes a coin rare?

As many of you know, the rarity and value of a coin are derived from two main factors: the number of coins produced that have survived to date, and the condition of the individual coin. The number of coins that are produced in Canada are relatively well documented back to the Victorian age. Both the Ottawa and Heaton mint in London kept relatively good records to indicate the number of coins produced and in which denominations and years. However, the number of coins that have survived is a different story. Often, coins are returned to the mint through banks to be re-minted or utilized in other ways. As a result, it can be difficult to determine the number of coins that survive to date, and assessment of rarity or value can fall to professional numismatists. These are dealers and collectors who, through experience, know how common or uncommon certain coins have become.

Condition is the second factor and can, in some ways, be the most widely discussed element in collector circles, as it can be perceived as somewhat subjective. In many countries there is a scale that is used to assess coin condition. This scale starts with theoretical perfection and a grade of 70. The bottom of the scale is of course 0 which is an unidentifiable coin with little to no details remaining. A grade of 60 and up is considered to be in “mint state”, 50 to 59 is “about uncirculated”, 40 to 49 is considered “extra fine”, 20 to 39 is “very fine”, 12 to 19 is considered “fine”, 8-11 termed “very good” and 7 and below is considered “good” although that term can be misleading. This grading scale will be discussed in greater detail in our next column.

Following this grading scale, most rare coins are attributed a value based on their condition. As we are discussing the most uncommon coins in Canadian collector circles, even a lower grade 1921, 50 cent piece would be valued in excess of $50,000.

The “King” of Canadian Currency

As stated above, the 1921, 50 cent piece is a coin of exceptional rarity and is often called the “King of Canadian coins” as it is believed to be the second most rare Canadian coin (behind only the “Emperor” 1911 Silver dollar discussed in the previous article). The King of Canadian coins was produced in 1921 at the Ottawa Mint. During the decade of the 1920s, 50 cent coins in Canada were only produced in 1920, 1921 and 1929. As a result, there were no coins produced in the 50 cent denomination between 1921-1929. It was later in the 1920s that the master of the Ottawa mint realized that there had been very few 50 cent coins released to the public, and with increasing demand, decided to release larger amounts in 1929. Rather than release a glut of stockpiled 1921 coins, the mint at that time decided to melt a large stock of 1920 and 1921 coins to be repurposed into 1929 coins so that the public would not suspect them to be counterfeits.

Figure A – Canada 1921 50 cent piece

Used with permission from Canadian Numismatic Co.

As a result of this decision, very few 1921, 50 cent coins were ever released to the public. It is believed that there are 75 or so that have survived to date while approximately 480,000 were melted. It is theorized that of the 75 or so surviving examples, most were specimen examples struck to be put into collector sets as opposed to the circulation strikes most commonly collected.

The example above (Figure A) sold in a 2022 auction for approximately $119,000 and was graded as a Specimen 62 by a well known third party grading system based in the United States.

The “Prince” of Canadian Currency

Like the 1921, 50 cent piece, the 1921, 5 cent piece in Canada is a coin of exceptional rarity. At that time, the government of Canada was still producing its 5 cent coins in silver and the result was a coin that is approximately half the weight of a Canadian 10 cent coin. Often called “fish scales” due to their small size and silvery appearance, they are an appealing collector item for many in numismatic circles.

In 1921, the Canadian government made the decision to change the 5 cent coin from silver to nickel and increase its size to what we are all familiar with today. This transition was to happen starting with the 1922 nickel. This decision was likely made in part to match the U.S. coin sizes and composition.

As a part of this transition the mint decided to melt over 3 million silver 5 cent coins, most of this number were the 1921, 5 cent coins. As a result of this changeover, very few 1921, 5 cent coins were released to the public and preserved to date.

Figure B – Canada 1921 5 cent piece

Used with permission from Canadian Numismatic Co.

It is believed that approximately 400 remain in collections to date. The example pictured above (Figure B) has been appraised to be in Fine 12 condition and sold for approximately $6200.00 during a 2022 auction. Testament to its rarity is that a coin in this condition can still achieve such a notable value.

The 1948 Silver Dollar

Unlike the two coins above which were deemed rare because of actions by the Royal Canadian Mint, the 1948 silver dollar rarity was actually a product of external forces happening outside of Canada.

Since 1936 the Canadian Silver dollar inscription on the obverse of the coin has been that the reigning monarch is by the Grace of God, the King and the Emperor of India. (D:G: REX ET IND:IMP)(See Figure C)

Figure C – 1936 Canada Dollar

Used with permission from Canadian Numismatic Co.

However, in mid August of 1947 with the signing of “The Indian Independence Bill” India saw the end of British rule and the beginning of independence. Suddenly, halfway around the world the Royal Canadian Mint needed to change its change (pun intended).

Due to the fact that updating of the inscription would take considerable time, the Royal Canadian Mint determined that it would continue to use the 1947 dies until the updated 1948 dies with the revised inscription were ready for production. The mint determined that it would denote 1947 dollars struck in 1948 with a small maple leaf after the date. (See Figure D)

Figure D – 1947 Maple Leaf Canada Dollar

Finally, when the new dies were ready, production of the true 1948 silver dollar began with the new inscription as shown in Figure E. It should be noted that the new dies for the true 1948 dollar arrived quite late in 1948 and as a result very few coins with that date were actually struck.

Figure E – 1948 Canada Dollar

Used with permission from Canadian Numismatic Co.

It is estimated that approximately 4 - 8% of the typical run was completed by the end of 1948. As a result, the 1948 silver dollar holds tremendous collector value and it is amongst the most sought after collector coins in Canada. Perhaps what is most interesting about this coin is that it is a somewhat attainable rarity with most valued between $1500.00 to $3000.00. When compared with its loftier counterparts mentioned above, it is, at the very least, a possibility for some collections.

The joy of collecting coins is that many collections remain incomplete for decades. It is the illusive hunt for each and every coin that makes collecting such an appealing and interesting hobby. Most collectors, in my experience, are forever revising and updating their collections on the hunt for better and more desirable examples of each date. With any luck you just might fill in one of those really rare and elusive treasures in your collection.

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