Valuable hole in your pocket

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Australia's first coin, the holey dollar.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Australia's first coin, the holey dollar.

In 1813, Governor Lachlan Macquarie purchased 40,000 Spanish silver dollars, then being minted in exotic locations such as Peru and Mexico. He converted these to Australian currency by punching holes in the middle and stamping New South Wales, Five Shillings and 1813 around the inner ring. Today we might call this an infringement of copyright, back then it was considered a stroke of genius.

Last month, a Western Australian collector paid a world-record price of $495,000 for one of these rarities, sold through Coinworks in Melbourne. Holey dollars have been selling close to this price for the past few years.

Coinworks managing director Belinda Downie has sold 10 in the past 18 months for a total of $3.46 million. She also sold the holey dollar that set the previous record of $485,000 in 2011. While last month's record-breaker was bought by a coin enthusiast, others have been bought by investors.

Coins can be included as part of a self-managed super fund, provided they are kept in a safe and insured under the name of the fund. Downie arranges this service for those who choose this option. In theory, buyers need never see their investment.

Downie describes last month's buyer as an average bloke, not some high-flying entrepreneur. She suggests he might have raised the capital through, for example, selling a house, then deciding a rare silver coin was a better investment than anything the financial sector could offer.

There's also an emotional value. She notes that even over the phone, the buyer's sense of pride was evident.

A holey dollar is the holy grail for many collectors, although 1930 proof pennies are more valuable.

Now is a good time to sell. The vendors of five of those 10 holey dollars were in their 80s and, in one case, his 90s. They were selling as part of their retirement and one had bought his coin in 1969.

About 300 holey dollars have survived, with about 200 in private hands. Condition is the biggest factor to value. There are perhaps five rated over the $400,000 mark but even second-tier coins are worth about $300,000.

One of the most notable is known as the Hannibal Head, a reference to the unflattering portrait of Joseph Bonaparte on the original coin. This one sold at Coinworks' Eminent Colonials Auction in August 2012. It is one of three to have broken the magic $400,000 barrier in the past 18 months. The investment potential is demonstrated by the previous public appearance of the Hannibal Head at a 1988 Spink auction. Then it had a $45,000 pre-sale estimate but was passed in. Downie has since heard it sold privately after the auction for $40,500.

In the next 34 years an extra zero was added to its value.

The inner discs of the holey dollars were also used as currency. The dumps, as they were called, were stamped with a crown, dated 1813, and given a value of 15 pence. These don't have the status of the holey dollar but can sell for up to $250,000. They are a less-certain investment, although that may change over time.

It is well-known that the Macquarie Bank uses a stylised version of the holey dollar as its corporate logo, and this year the bank will celebrate the anniversary with an exhibition of holey dollars in Sydney. They have a few in their archives but will have to ask Downie to source ones of the highest value. She says all the finest examples are held by private investors. Only she knows where they are.

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