Figure 1: Silver Rupees showing initials of William Wyon and Venancio Alves
Older coins sometimes have tiny letters engraved on them – often quite prominently. A very good example, familiar to Indian collectors, is the 1840 silver rupee of the East India Company, where the letters WW (sometimes WWS) can be seen at the base of Queen Victoria’s neck (See Figure 1). The Indo-Portuguese silver Rupia of 1903-04 (King Carlos) has larger letters V ALVES – clearly visible to the naked eye. A quick test to check wear on such coins is to read these letters – given their small size, these letters are quite delicate and get worn out before many of the other features.
But what do these letters mean? These are the initials of the engravers who designed the figure on the coin – and their initials have been placed on the coin, similar to how artists sign their work. Given the intricate designs of silver and golds coins of the past, these can be considered works of art, albeit a little more common.
WW are the initials of William Wyon – the chief engraver at the Royal Mint (Britian) from 1828 up to his death in 1851. He was responsible for designing a number of coins used in India, including the 1840 silver rupee, and also the later portrait of Victoria used after 1862. However, his initials are there only on the 1840 coin.
V ALVES is short for Venancio Pedro de Macedo Alves – again, an engraver responsible for the portrait of Carlos I, the king of Portugal, whose image features on a number of Portuguese and Indo-Portuguese coins. He also designed the 1912 coins featuring Lady Liberty – after Portugal became a republic.
Figure 2: Silver Half Crowns of Queen Victoria with initials of the Engravers
This custom of having the engravers initials on the coins continued in British coins for a long time. Queen Victoria’s image on British coins changed thrice – the later two designs were made by different engravers (See Figure 2). TB stands for Thomas Brock, while JEB are the initials of Joseph Edgar Boehm. The portraits of George V and George VI, on British coins (not Indian coins though) also carry the initials of Edgar Bertram MacKennal (BM) and Thomas Humphrey Paget (HP) (See Figure 3)
Figure 3: Silver Half Crowns of George V and George VI, showing the engraver's initials
This custom of leaving the artist’s mark on the coins continues in UK to the present day. The 2021 5 pound coin carries the initials JC – Jody Clark, an engraver employed with the Royal Mint.