RThis is a beautifully appointed book; its square shape and slick pages simply feel nice in the hands, and there’s lots of colour to draw in the eye. And here’s another indication of what an interesting publication this is: author Harvey Richer is not a numismatist who professionally studies coins, but an astronomer professor at UBC with a passion for the subject. He’s turned his fascination with coins into a readable, engaging tome.
Don’t worry if you don’t know your drachmas from your doubloons. You’ll learn, and the information is conveyed in an absorbing package: a mystery.
“Not only did Newfoundland, like the other provinces, request from London bronze and silver coins but in eight nonconsecutive 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. For example, in much of Canada and the United States during this period, the average farm wage was about 50 (cents) per day, but room and board were generally included. Nonfarm salaries averaged about $1 a day, whereas a constable in a small village away from St. John’s made about a dollar a week! So why did the colony request – and Britain agree to – gold coinage for Newfoundland? And why were none minted after 1888?”
Seeking answers to these questions, Richer researched at The Rooms, the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at MUN’s QEII, conducted some personal interviews, and, especially, delved into the UK National Archives “which proved to be a rich source of the correspondence between the Royal Mint and the Newfoundland legislature.”
He is also interested in the social applications and implications of such legal tender. “How did average Newfoundlanders react to the handsome coinage produced for them, particularly the artistically beautiful gold coins? Did this increase pride in their colony? Did it help with commerce by providing a stable currency with a known exchange rate?”
Richer harnesses a range of material to explain and explore his subject. He begins with “A Brief History of Newfoundland. About 4.7 billion years ago ... “ So, yeah, he’s thorough. In a few page we’re up to “A Snapshot of Newfoundland in 1865,” and “Circulation Strike Newfoundland $2 Gold Coins,” with all the specifics of weight, edges, and diameters. There are lots and lots of photos, not just of the coins, but of documents and personages, as well as other images such as maps, engravings, and posters. The text segues through bank fraud and legislative Acts and “The Mysterious 1890 Newfoundland $2 Gold Coin.”
The coins’ components include “Specimens and Patterns,” and they are distributed through “Great Auctions and Collections of Newfoundland Gold Coins,” the latter ranging from the British Museum to New Netherlands Sale, September 22-23, 1964, to Recent Auctions .
Then there’s “Hoards of Newfoundland $2 Gold Coins. When paper money is not highly valued, gold and silver tend to be hoarded. If the precious metal content of a coin exceeds its face value, the coin will be either hoarded or melted. Bank failures often lead to the hoarding of coins composed of precious metals as the populace loses confidence in the banking system . History is replete with stories of hoarding by individuals who trusted only hard money, tried to hide money in order to avoid taxes, or buried or hid stolen coins.” He gives exciting, dramatic examples. “The Hackney Hoard of US $20 gold coins was discovered in that London borough in 2007. It was originally buried by a Jewish family from Germany during the Second World War when fears of a possible German invasion were high.” Who hasn’t daydreamed of discovering such treasure?
For Richer, though, the value is the very study of the coins themselves. And, to him, these gold coins remain enigmatic. For example, though he and “some sharp [UBC] undergraduate history majors” sieved through “miles of microfilm” of Newfoundland newspapers from the relevant period “no mention whatsoever could be found relating to the gold pieces. It is as though they had never existed.” Were they suppressed or somehow exploited by the financial systems or institutions of the day? Whatever happened, Richer offers, could be another book in itself.
“Gold Coins” comes complete with appendices, chapter notes, a bibliography and an index.
Joan Sullivan is editor of Newfoundland Quarterly magazine. She reviews both fiction and non-fiction for The Telegram.