William Barrett’s highly regarded South East Asian coin collection has begun to be sold through a tight knit relationship with Spink China and Dr. Kelvin Cheung. The collection was built over some 40 years of Barrett’s travels through the region, which began in 1966 when he first arrived in Singapore and then Malaysia. Hong Kong, Singapore, Osaka and Kuala Lumpur were all stops for Barrett in those early years of acquiring coins, tokens and banknotes.
I met Bill twice in my career and really enjoyed his stories and visionary plans. He formed relationships with every numismatist he encountered, I think, and encouraged some of them to do some great research. Back in my early days working on the Standard Catalog of World Coins, Bill came for a visit to Lola, Wisconsin. He had helped with the SCWC over the years and came to renew friendships.
Several years later I ran into Bill at the New York International Numismatic Convention. He had been working through the Malaysian Numismatic Society backing the production of a book on the very early coinage of Brunei. Saran Singh, author of the go-to reference The Coins of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei 1400-1967 was with Bill, so I asked for an introduction, having much admired Singh’s work.
Saran and I had a great conversation and he eventually became a contributor to the SCWC for a time to help us improve the Malaysian sections of the catalog. Bill has always been a great networker, which is the best attribute to have when you are doing research and producing numismatic references for our hobby.
This first sale of the Barrett Collection contained excellent collections of British North Borneo tokens from the late 19th and early 20th century, Netherlands East India tokens mostly of the 19th century, 20th century NEI proof coinage and British East India Company tokens from Penang in the Malay Peninsula.
There is also a great reference collection containing many of the challenging Singapore Merchant token copper kepings and a superlative collection of Straits Settlements coinage from the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. You’ll see several pattern strikes of the British East India Company 2 keping’s of Sumatra illustrated in this article, though proof strikes of the regular issue coinage was abundant as well.
A good deal of excitement was stirred by the run of Victorian circulation strikes of the Straits Settlements which Barrett put together. Almost all of them were in mint state, with a few in AU and most realized prices well over their pre-sale estimates. However, I might argue that the centerpiece of this portion of Barrett’s Collection was a stunning array of Sarawak specimens which are currently under appreciated in a big way, leaving plenty of room for growth.
The coinage of Sarawak has always been popular, undoubtedly due, at least in part, to its history of having been ruled by the so-called “White” or British Rajahs and their wives, known as Ranees. As a type set, collecting Sarawak is also a limited adventure, due to the narrow time of Brooke family rule. The result has been that the regular coinage right from the beginning in 1863 until the last Rajah’s coins were struck in 1941 is relatively available today, although not necessarily in uncirculated condition.
Apart from British officers returning home with coins in their pockets, a second source for Sarawak coins resulted from the favor in which they were held by ethnic groups such Iban, who mounted the silver coinage of 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents, and much less often 50 cents, into jewelry. Fifty years ago this jewelry was a source of coins for collectors. Now this classic jewelry itself is worth more than the solder-marked, dismounted coins. But for many pieces this change of taste came too late.
An important additional source for supreme condition Sarawak coins was the Heaton Mint and later the Birmingham Mint Ltd. It would appear that samples of Sarawak coinage were sometimes retained as souvenirs by Heaton Mint employees at the time of issue, this leading to a decent supply of pieces in higher grades up to UNC prior to 1975.
In 1975 Paramount International of the United States contracted with Heaton's successor the Birmingham Mint Ltd. to acquire its archival holding, including Sarawak coins minted by them. While the hoard included such treasures as China silver dollars not previously seen, it also proved to be a remarkable source for Uncirculated, Proof and Specimen strikes of Sarawak coinage.
Paramount was a major U.S. coin dealer, coin and medal mint, and marketer, and accordingly these archival coins were distributed fairly widely at fixed prices. Most of the better pieces in the Barrett collection up to the 50 cents in "Specimen" or what might otherwise be called Proof likely originated with Paramount in 1975, followed subsequently by the selling of the Birmingham Mint's own reference collection -- often mounted in so-called salesman's sample boards -- as business waned in later years.
In that post 1975 period a specialist at Stack’s made a long term study of Heaton Mint coins, determining certain characteristics for what he called a Heaton Mint proof. These days however, the grandest archive examples often surpass those earlier coins we considered Heaton Mint proofs by quite a long distance.
Spink China is looking forward to many more years of co-operation with Mr. Barrett, with this catalog being the first in what could be a series of South East Asian coin auctions. I would highly recommend that those collecting this area keep an eye on these sales. If you have an interest in coinage from this region, these auctions will be the prime source of information for years to come. If you are planning to collect any country in this region, the auctioning of Barrett’s Collection may be your best opportunity to achieve the highest grades of the rarest types for a long time to come. These coins were off the market for over 40 years and new owners may hold them equally as long a period.
You can see this first auction catalog of the Barrett Collection on the Spink China website at https://live.spink.com/auctions/4-1L4NVE/css61-south-east-asian-banknotes-and-coins?page=5&limit=36 even though bidding has closed.
You can anticipate more offerings in the future as Barrett’s collection and other materials are put up for auction. This is truly a once in a generation opportunity to acquire some of the very best coins extant from this region. Contact the firm on firstname.lastname@example.org or +852 3952 3000 for any enquiries.