In October 2019, at the end of a long, dispiriting day, Andy Carter made a startling discovery. A retired scientist, the 65-year-old had joined 30 other amateur treasure hunters combing over a muddy farmer’s field in Norfolk, England. Most had begun to pack up after failing to find anything of significance.
Around 3:30 p.m., Carter’s metal detector pinged. He dug down about ten inches into the mud, uncovering a small gold coin.
“When I brushed off the soil, I saw the hind leg of a big cat,” Carter tells the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood. “I thought, ‘It can’t be a leopard.’”
As it turned out, the feline engraved on the 23-karat gold coin was indeed a leopard. Known as a leopard florin, it was minted under Edward III and sold at auction yesterday for £140,000 (around $185,000). Counting the 24 percent buyer’s premium, the coin’s total sale price was £173,600 (around $228,885).
The florin is one of a handful minted as part of a failed currency experiment by Edward, who ruled England from 1327 to 1377 C.E. After France and Italy began producing gold coins in the 13th century, the English monarch decided to introduce gold currency to his kingdom, too, writes Mindy Weisberger for Live Science. (The standard at the time was silver.)
“[A] man with pretensions, ... seeking to unite the thrones of England and France, [he was] acutely aware of the irony of not having his own economically and politically prestigious international currency in gold,” writes DNW in the auction listing.
Between January and July 1344, Edward minted £32,000 worth of gold coins. The coins featured three different designs: leopards (worth 3 shillings), double leopards (6 shillings) and helms (18 pence). The newly sold coin is one of five leopards known to survive today.
Per the lot listing, the prohibitive cost of minting the coins, their “awkward” denominations and their overvaluation in relation to silver led officials to declare them a failure. Aristocrats and wealthy merchants almost exclusively used the leopards, with the rest of the English public continuing to rely on silver coins, notes Daniel Hickey for North Norfolk News. That August, Edward demonetized the currency and withdrew it from circulation.
“For some reason they didn’t catch on, but when one or two pennies were the equivalent of a day’s wages at today’s minimum wage rate, perhaps very few people used them,” says Helen Geake, a finds liaison officer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which documents archaeological finds made by the public, to BBC News.
Minted at the Tower of London, one side of the coin features a crowned leopard with its tail wrapped between its hind legs and a royal banner tied around its neck. On the opposite side is a large, ornate cross studded with quatrefoils—a four-leaf decoration.
In 1344, the coin had the purchasing power of about £2,000 (roughly $2,670) in today’s money, Nigel Mills, a DNW antiquities consultant, tells Live Science.
“It would have bought you a single sheep together with a gallon of wine, with a few pennies change,” he says.