But just as the mystery of the origin of the universe draws his gaze upward, a fascinating period in Newfoundland’s coinage history ignites his interest on the ground.
Richer is a professor of astronomy and physics at the University of British Columbia and a collector of old coins on the side. His interest in old coinage began in childhood with the purchase of some rare Newfoundland gold coins. As the years passed he became determined to find out why Newfoundland gold coins were minted only during some of the years between 1865 and 1888.
Now Richer has written a book, “The Gold Coins of Newfoundland, 1865-1888: How Newfoundland came to possess a spectacular mintage of gold coins.”
The book is published by Boulder Publications with its Newfoundland launch set for Thursday, July 27 from 5-7 p.m. at the Anna Templeton Centre on Duckworth Street in St. John’s.
In the prologue of his book, Richer states the numismatic history of Newfoundland is different from that of the other provinces, mainly because it did not join Confederation until 1949.
“Like the other provinces-to-be, it began producing (at the Royal Mint in the United Kingdom) its own coinage in the early 1860s, but since it would not join Confederation for another 85 years, it came to have a much richer and more extensive coinage history than any of the other British colonies, producing coins up to 1947,” he writes.
“Not only did Newfoundland, like other provinces, request from London bronze and silver coins but in eight non-consecutive years between 1865 and 1888, it asked London for a supply of gold coins. It is apparent from the documents discussed in this book that these requests were always granted. This is remarkable because Newfoundland was the poorest of the British colonies in North America in the 1860s, and significantly less wealthy than virtually any other locale on the continent at that time.”
Richer has published more than 140 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals and is one of the largest Canadian users of the Hubble Space Telescope. He was the 2014 recipient of the Carlyle S. Beals Award of the Canadian Astronomical Society given for lifetime achievement. He was recently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the foremost academic society in Canada.
And while astronomy became Richer’s life’s work and interest, his love of dealing in old coins started innocently enough.
“When I was a kid growing up in Montreal my brother and I used to look for treasure like all kids do. In those days — and I hate to say it was in the late 40’s and 50’s — there were lots of vacant lots in Montreal so we would go and poke around,” Richer said during a phone interview from British Columbia.
“One day we lifted up a rock and we found a big one cent piece and it had a picture of Queen Victoria. Of course, we didn’t know it was Queen Victoria at the time, and it was dated 1890. We took it to a local coin shop and the owner taught us about this coin and other coins. It turned out this coin was a large cent of Canada they minted until 1920, it started in 1858.”
Some time later, noted Richer, the coin shop owner called him and said he had some Newfoundland gold coins he was selling and wanted to know if he was interested.
“I put all the money I had in the world together and I bought two. I think they were $20 each,” he said. “Ever since that time I’ve had a love of Newfoundland coins.”
Richer now has a collection of the old Newfoundland gold coins.
Richer said for the last 50 or 60 years he’s kept the idea of preparing a book about the Newfoundland gold coins in the back of his mind. In 2013, he said, he finally visited the province along with his son and that trip set the book in motion.
“If I hadn’t visited Newfoundland I probably wouldn’t have written the book,” he said. “It’s such an incredible place. It has such a rich history and I think it is absolutely gorgeous. After that trip I started writing the book which took me four years. The book was a labour of love engendered by the first trip to Newfoundland which just blew me away.”
In the book, there are two key questions explored: Why did Newfoundland, then a colony of Great Britain, request gold coinage and why did Britain agree to it? And why were no gold coins minted after 1888?
Research for the book included digging through archives, collecting documents and reviewing microfilm of old newspapers in Newfoundland and London.
Richer said striking gold coins for general circulation at the time was remarkable given that, not only was Newfoundland one of the poorest of the British colonies, but its economy was largely based on the barter system.
The book, he said, explores the history of Newfoundland through its coinage. It also discusses the existing distribution of the scarce coins.
“There’s got to be some fantastic hoards of these gold coins stuck away somewhere. And nobody’s found a big hoard of them,” Richer said. “Maybe it doesn’t exist, but you know that’s the romantic in me that you would hope such things exist.”
In the book’s epilogue Richer writes: “My goal was to write a book that would interest historians, the general public looking for a good historical narrative and, particularly, numismatists desiring new insight into the gold coins of Newfoundland. I hope interested readers will formulate their own research projects, see them through to completion, and provide greater insight into this fascinating coinage of Britain’s oldest colony.”