1 - The Sovereigns of the RMS Douro


The Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. (RMS) Douro was considered one of the most luxurious Trans Atlantic liners afloat throughout her 61 successful voyages between 1865-1882, by all accounts the ship to be seen on. The Douro operated the South Atlantic for much of her time between South America and the UK via Portugal, in fact the name ‘Douro’ comes from the River Douro which runs from Spain to the sea at Porto in Portugal. Along with her passengers she carried Mail, Newspapers and even precious cargo of Gold and Diamonds between the 2 continents.

The Night of the Sinking

However her 62nd voyage was to be her last as she foundered on the night of April 1st 1882 after a day’s sailing from the Port of Lisbon on the final leg of the journey back to the UK. Although the ships forth officer had spotted another vessel just 2 miles off at 8pm that evening he believed the two would harmlessly pass each other without incident, however this would turn out be a terrible error of judgement. At approximately 10.45pm disaster struck as RMS Douro was hit on her starboard side by the Spanish steamer Yrurac Bat the impact was so great that it left both ships crippled and doomed to a watery grave. It took around 30mins for both ships to sink, however despite much confusion and panic all but 6 of the RMS Douro’s passengers were saved. The captain and first officer true to the tradition stayed on the bridge and went down with their ship, along with its precious cargo of Gold and Gems.

The Douro lay undisturbed for over a century despite many failed attempts to locate the ship. A search by the Swedish deep sea wreck explorer Sverker Hallstrom and his company Hallstrom Holdings with the use of modern technology similar to that used to locate the Titanic finally found the wreck in 1993. It was not until 1996 its precious cargo of @28,000 gold coins, Gold bars and Gold dust was discovered and retrieved that the enormity of the find was truly appreciated. Of the 28,000 gold coins savaged from the depths the majority were Gold Sovereigns, although some very Rare Brazilian and Portuguese coins were also discovered.

RMS Douro’s Sovereigns

As with all salvaged material from wrecks Sverker Hallstrom and his team were required to wait one year and one day before legally making claim to their bounty. After this period all coins were sent to Spink and Son of London for classification and some 10,000 were considered to be of collectible quality and interest. Four months later a huge auction took place in London with the largest collection of Sovereigns ever sold including some of the rarest. Michael Marsh listed, two 1863 ‘827’ sovereigns one of each variety, ‘827’ on truncation with die number and the rarer ‘827’ as die number. Just One 1843 narrow shield variety which tends to suggest just how rare these are. Thirteen 1859 Ansell sovereigns were found with just two grading EF and above which in itself suggests that these did not wear at all well in circulation even for a short period of time. The collector can find the Ansell sovereign today in grades @VF for @£2000 but will need to part with a sum closer to £5000 for something nearer to EF.

In addition three extremely rare 1841 sovereigns with none above VF were discovered along with seven 1874 London Struck Shield reverse coins of which six bore the die number 32 the number most often associated with these with one new find a die number 33. Every date between 1838-1881 and all branch mints were present in Grades ranging from Fine to BUNC, it remains the largest and most important discovery of sovereigns to date.

Where did the rest go?

Although thousands of the Douro’s sovereigns were sold in the late 1990’s it was by no means all of them, the remainder were returned to the salvagers Hallstrom Holdings where they were deposited in a Swiss bank. Another large scale auction took place in Switzerland in @2001, this consisted mostly of the lesser grade and more common date coins and was responsible for almost flooding the market for the next 2 or 3 years. As dealers we could find almost any Victorian Shield sovereign date we wanted and at one stage we considered giving certificates with coins which were known not to have originated from the wreck. As this influx made its way through the market it did give a very good indication of which were the scarcest years. As you can imagine the 1840s were the first to feel the pinch with 1842, 1848 and 1849 first to go with probably 1846,1847 being considered the most abundant sovereigns of the decade. The 1850’s tell a similar story with 1851,1854,1856,1858 and 1859 being scarcer than all the rest, 1858 and 1859 are now very difficult to find in grades of EF and above. The 1860’s and 70’s sees 1863 in either die number or non die number form one of the most common but by far the easiest of all dates to find is 1871 (London) struck shield sovereign, these tend to turn up in lovely grades and provides the collector with the best chance of finding a truly uncirculated example of a Shield at reasonable cost.

By 2006/07 anything up to 20,000 sovereigns from the RMS Douro wreck probably passed through the market and mixed with those already out there making it practically impossible for us to now tell a wreck coin from any other. A small number were certificated as from the wreck but given the sheer number of coins found I think it unlikely that any of these will become truly collectable and collectors should focus on the coin itself.

The final RMS Douro Sovereigns.

You may have noticed that the maths does not quite add up and you would be right, in 2007 we were offered the remaining coins which I seem to remember numbered around 1000-2000 by the salvagers. They were all Victoria Young Head St George & Dragon Reverse sovereigns many of which suffered from rust spots due to 114 years of exposure to seawater. Sovereigns which tend to show reddish spots point to coins which have spent a large amount of their lives in close proximately to water? We declined the offer as too expensive at the time, with the vast increase in gold prices since they may well have made their way on to the bullion market or could still surface at some point as true RMS Douro wreck coins.

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