The Holey Dollar: A History Of Australia’s Very First Coin

This is one for the most passionate of coins and antique collectors out there. The Holey Dollar, which is the commonly known name for the New South Wales 1813 Five Shillings, is Australia’s very first coin and a truly classic rarity. It’s available at Coinworks.

In the context of the Australian rare coin market, this is perhaps the most influential kind. By taking into account how it was created from a coin of the Spanish Empire, it’s really not surprising that its influence extends to international markets.

Presently, there are about 200 Holey Dollars which are held by private collectors, with perhaps 100 of those kept for display in museums. So based on that alone, you can imagine just how valuable this item is. In fact, these officially recognised copies of the Holey Dollar have varied prices and qualities, and this means that if a collector passes on an example, it might take at least another two years before another coin pops up. The downside? It’s very likely prices will have gone up during the intervening time.

Creating The Holey Dollar: How It All Began

The timeless appeal of the Holey Dollar is its donut shape, rooted in an innovative practice at a time when Australia was still a colony, increasingly becoming a place for trade. It was all thanks to Governor Lachlan Macquarie of New South Wales (1810-1821). 

As the British Government at the time didn’t have the capacity to provide metal blanks for producing Australia’s first coinage, Macquarie instead ordered 40,000 Spanish Silver Dollars – all foreign coinage – to use as a substitute for these. Still, judging that such an amount of shipment wouldn’t be sufficient, Macquarie improvised by deciding to have a hole cut in the centre of each Dollar, resulting in two types of coins made out of one. A ring dollar plus a disc. This was an extension of the practice of ‘cutting’ coins into multiple segments, which was used widely throughout several African nations, including Sierra Leone, as well as British colonies of the Caribbean.

In order to carry this project out, Macquarie sought the help of a coiner and engraver William Henshall. Back when he undertook an apprenticeship in Birmingham, his work consisted of mastering the art of die stamping and die sinking for the shoe buckle and also engraved button trades. Henshall was enlisted as the colony’s first Mint Master, and he commenced the coining process by skillfully cutting out a disc from every Dollar. The resulting donut-shaped pieces of silver were overstamped with the year 1813 and New South Wales around the edge of their respective holes. Then the Holey Dollar, with a designated monetary value of Five Shillings, was born.

About The Terms ‘Holey Dollar’ & ‘Dump’ 

Officially, these coins were known as ‘pierced’, ‘ring’ or ‘colonial’ dollars. But interestingly enough, the actual term ‘holey dollar’ wasn’t used in print until the 1820s. Meanwhile, the small disc that was cut out of the centre of each Silver Dollar was overstamped with the year 1813, New South Wales and a crown. With a monetary value of Fifteen Pence, this disc had the term ‘dump’ officially used from the outset. And its name has stuck to this very day.

With the creation of both Holey Dollars and Dumps, the initial shipment of 40,000 Spanish Silver Dollars was converted into about 80,000 brand new coins for currency in Australia. Essentially, two coin types were made out of one. Governor Macquarie effectively doubled the money supply for Australia and increased the total worth of that shipment by 25%.

Both the Holey Dollar and the Dump only lasted as currency until 1829. By that year, the colony had reverted to a sterling standard and thus, Governor Darling would then issue a general order to withdraw and demonetise these coins. The coins that were successfully recalled ended up shipped off to the Royal Mint London, where they’d be melted down and sold off to the Bank of England. However, it turns out that a few survived to be the high value, historical rarities that they are today in Australia.

Want To Buy A Holley Dollar? Here’s What You Need To Do

1. Determine Your Budget 

How high are you willing to go in order to officially own Australia’s first-ever coin? The Holey Dollar is actually available in prices across a broad dollar range. It starts at approximately $50,000 for a heavily circulated example up to the best, cream-of-the-crop examples, including one with a record-high price of $550,000, sold by Coinworks in 2015.

While it’s quality that primarily determines Holey Dollar, it’s also not the only force in setting a value. It’s worth noting that Macquarie didn’t purchase these coins directly from a particular mint. The shipment had been ordered from the East India Company and had come from Madras, comprising coins struck in the Spanish colonies of Peru, Mexico and Bolivia as well as some sourced from Spain. These coins all came at various quality levels, with the majority being well worn.

2. Identify Key Indicators of Quality

If you’re considering buying a particular Holey Dollar coin, one indicator you should pay attention to is the rarity of the monarch, as some monarchs do appear more frequently. Specifically, Holey Dollars that feature Charles IV are the most readily available type, followed by Charles III, then Ferdinand VII. The ones with Ferdinand VI make for the most unique Holey Dollars.

Another factor is the rarity of the mint, given that some mints were notably prolific producers of silver dollars. Therefore, Holey Dollars that came from Mexico Mint-sourced silver dollars are the most readily available, followed by Lima Mint-sourced ones (Peru), then Potosi Mint-sourced ones (Bolivia), with the Madrid Mint-sourced ones most unique and valuable.

3. Refer To How Others Value It

Finally, it helps to contact those who are fortunate enough to own a Holey Dollar – either private collectors or institutions such as National Museum of Australia, Macquarie Bank and the Mitchell Library. They’ll certainly say the Holey Dollar is viewed in their collections as the ‘jewel’. That’s especially true for the coins which are less worn, as those tend to be rated quality-wise from ‘Extremely Fine’ to ‘Uncirculated’. Those are the ones you can expect to buy for 400,000 Australian dollars or higher. But considering their historical significance, such prices are certainly justified.

Adam Hansen

Adam is a part time journalist, entrepreneur, investor and father.