Numismatic Guaranty Corporation announced in April 2020 that its London affiliate, NGC UK, has certified a 1952 British penny. If an American collector focuses only on U.S. coins and doesn’t study money from across the Pond, this might seem like a strange thing to publicize. The United States Mint produced more than a billion Wheat cents in 1952. Surely Britain’s pennies were minted by the millions, too?
In fact, they weren’t. And the 1952 penny deserves every headline it’s earned.
NGC describes the coin as “a numismatic unicorn.” It’s unique—and not in the rhetorical sense that promoters sometimes throw around to describe coins that are merely interesting, super-rare, and valuable.
This one-of-a-kind coin is truly one of a kind. No other 1952 penny is known to exist.
The bronze coin features a profile of King George VI, who died in 1952. His Majesty’s likeness on British coinage would be replaced in 1953 by a fresh-faced portrait of his young daughter, Princess Elizabeth. With his passing she became Queen Elizabeth II.
The reason Britain didn’t mint pennies in 1952 was not because of the transition between monarchs, but because there were already enough such coins in the channels of commerce.
Numismatists Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, writing in their new book, 100 Greatest Modern World Coins (Whitman Publishing, 2020), discuss the situation: “The production of several British coins had temporarily been suspended throughout the twentieth century, most often due to an abundance of a given denomination in circulation. This was the case, for example, with Great Britain’s penny from 1923 through 1925, 1933, and throughout much of the 1950s.”
Another British coin from 1952, the King George VI half crown, ranks as no. 35 among Morgan and Walker’s 100 Greatest. Only two examples are known to exist: One is the VIP Proof specimen currently residing in the Royal Mint Collection. That particular coin was thought to be unique until 1967, when a second example turned up—in pocket change! Examination by Royal Mint employees and other experts led the Mint to proclaim it genuine, although its precise origins remain unknown. According to Morgan and Walker, “Officials suspected it was a die trial that had mistakenly escaped the Mint.”
Unlike the case of the bronze 1952 penny, which was suspended because enough coins of that denomination were already in circulation, the Royal Mint held off making the copper-nickel 1952 half crown in order to save metal for military production. The Korean War was on, and nickel was mission-critical for ordnance and other equipage.
The story of these coins is just one of many among the 100 Greatest. In their beautifully illustrated book, award-winning writers Morgan and Walker offer a guided tour of coins that have influenced the world and captured the imaginations of collectors since the early 1900s. In defining “greatness,” their exploration focuses on such factors as rarity, value, popularity, beauty, innovation, and historical significance.
There are a half dozen other entries from Great Britain among the 100 Greatest Modern World Coins. They include a silver trade dollar, two pennies, a gold sovereign, and two Proof sets. Only China ranks higher that Great Britain with more coins among the 100 Greatest, although there are also many British imperial and Commonwealth entries, including coins from Australia, Canada, East Africa, India, New Zealand, the British Mandate of Palestine, and South Africa.100 Greatest Modern World Coins can be ordered online (including at Whitman.com) and from booksellers and hobby shops nationwide.