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Sea salvaged bullion struck into coins

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By Richard Giedroyc

Coin collectors may be familiar with relic medals, but coins made from materials originating from similar sources are an unusual event.

Relic medals are typically made from scrap salvaged from a statue, building, airplanes, trains, or other manmade objects. The medals are often sold to help raise funds to restore the relic or a museum dedicated to that relic.

Call them relic coins if you like, but the British Royal Mint planned to issue 20,000 silver quarter ounce Britannia coins on April 21, the silver from these coins originating from metal recovered from a merchant ship sunk by the Germans during World War II.

In December 1940 the BRM was running low on its stocks of silver due to the war. An emergency supply was requested from British India.

During 1941 the British merchant ship SS Gairsoppa was traveling in a protective naval convoy from Kolkata (Calcutta, India) to London with a cargo including 2,800 silver bullion bars destined for the BRM in addition to pig iron and tea. The Gairsoppa endured a storm before exhausting its coal supplies off the coast of Southern Ireland. The ship then left the convoy, heading for the safety of Galway Harbour. The Gairsoppa was torpedoed by a German submarine. It sank about 460 kilometers (about 300 miles) off the Irish coast at a depth of about three miles. This is about a half mile deeper than is the site where the Titanic was found.

The wreck of the Gairsoppa was located by the Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration in September 2011. Odyssey then performed the deepest nautical recovery operation in history, successfully recovering 2,792 silver ingots with an estimated value of £150 million or nearly $240 million US.

The BRM director of Bullion and Commemorative Coin was recently quoted by The Telegraph newspaper as saying, “We are so pleased to be able to bring these coins to the market at long last, albeit more than 70 years later than expected.”

At the time the bullion was requested the intention was to strike it into .500 fine silver coins for circulation, likely into threepence, sixpence, shillings, florins, and halfcrowns.

While relic medals are only issued sporadically, “relic coins” if you choose this term, are issued even less frequently.

Bullion was captured from Spanish galleons in October 1702 by the British during the Battle of Vigo Bay, this being a battle during the War of the Spanish Succession. This captured bullion was struck into circulating coins dated 1703 on which the word Vigo appears prominently under Queen Anne’s bust on the obverse.

According to a Royal Warrant dated Feb. 10, 1703, the word Vigo was to appear “under our effigies, which inscription we intend as a mark of distinction from the rest of our gold and silver moneys to continue to posterity the remembrance of that glorious action.”

The edge of the 2014 silver quarter ounce Britannia carries the name SS Gairsoppa. The obverse depicts the standard Philip Nathan design of Britannia standing wearing windswept apparel.

Perhaps the Nazi German’s were defeated by Great Britain and its allies 69 years earlier, but this boldly proclaims Britain’s victory “to posterity” in spite of the lapse in time as well as the loss of the ship.