Rare currency expert Alfredo Cimino has never seen the 1911 silver dollar, but he’s heard of it. Everyone in the business has. Nicknamed the Emperor or Holy Grail of Canadian coins, it’s held many heavyweight titles in the world of numismatics, or professional coin collection and study, including the world’s most valuable coin, in 1965, and Canada’s rarest coin, which it retains to this day.
This weekend, the fabled coin will be on display, for the first time in more than 30 years, at a coin show in Mississauga.
Sandy Campbell, owner of Nova Scotia’s Proof Positive Coins, and Ian Laing, owner of Manitoba’s Gatewest Coin, purchased it together at an auction in August for $734,000, a price Mr. Campbell calls “quite shocking” for how cheap it was.
“It was a steal,” he said. “The talk before the auction was that it was going to sell for anywhere from $1.5-million to $2.5-million. I think a lot of people went [into the auction] resigned to the fact that they weren’t going to be a player at that number.”
He added that his acquisition has since caused “quite a stir in the marketplace.”
What makes a coin the most rare? Scarcity and a pedigree. There are just three 1911s in existence, of which two were cast in silver. They were never meant for circulation. Minted as “pattern coins,” or proofs of concept, by Britain’s Royal Mint for use in Canada, they were rejected and never distributed.
The Royal Mint kept one silver coin (now on indefinite loan to the Bank of Canada’s national currency collection). Legend says the other copy was squirrelled away by then deputy-master of the mint, Sir William Ellison-Macartney. Sir William’s family kept it for 49 years, eventually selling it to a British coin company. Five years later, it sold for a record US$55,000.
For decades afterward, the Emperor 1911 moved around North America, traded for millions of its non-silver cousins. If Mr. Campbell has his way, the coin’s border hopping career is over.
“We don’t want the coin to leave Canada again,” he said. “It’s too important, and it’s cultural property.”
Besides the certainty of being able to resell the 1911 at a profit, owning it has other perks, too.
“There’s a prestige that comes with being the person that is dealing with the 1911 silver dollar,” says Mr. Cimino.
He compares it to another numismatics company he knew that once owned an ultrarare banknote. “The company had bought it and sold it at a financial loss, a six-figure loss, but the money they generated when people were coming in to the store to see it, the respect, the prestige they gleaned just from being at that level of having that kind of item in stock, it generated way more than that in sales.”
This will be the second time Mr. Campbell has both owned and displayed the 1911. He was the most recent person to show it off publicly when he purchased it another time in 1988, before selling it off in the 1990s.
He says he’s unsure about providing future viewing opportunities and that the coin will likely not be shown for some time after this weekend.
“In a different time, when things were a little safer, we’d love to show it off more,” Mr. Campbell said. “But you can’t cart this around. It just creates too much visibility. You don’t want it to be a casualty of war.”
Mr. Cimino says being able to see the 1911 the first time is not only important for him as a numismatist, but also as a Canadian.
“It’s a testament to our history, to the longevity of our currency, our government and our country,” he says. “It’s a testament to where we’ve been and potentially where we can go.”
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