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Australian Coin forger’s Charlotte Medal fetches a pretty penny

By Miki Perkins for THE AGE

The medal showing the Charlotte in Botany Bay. Photo: John WoudstraTHE crowd of medal collectors breathed a collective sigh and craned in their seats as Australia’s first piece of colonial art sold for $750,000 at auction to a beaming mystery buyer seated in the third row.

Minutes later, it was revealed that the National Maritime Museum had bought the Charlotte Medal — a silver disc engraved by the convict and expert forger Thomas Barrett when the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay. Even the most hardened medal collectors paused in their bidding to clap.

Very little material survives from the ships of the First Fleet, so the Sydney museum sent its assistant director of collection and exhibitions, Michael Crayford, to Melbourne to secure a seminal piece of Australian history.

“It is also one of the best artworks for that period (so) we’re absolutely thrilled to have it and it will be on display to the public within weeks,” Mr Crayford said.

The silver disc was sold by John Chapman, a retired dentist, who bought it at auction in 1981 for $15,000.

The rest of his extensive collection of Australian medals, coins and banknotes, valued at $1.6 million before auction, also went under the hammer at the Noble Numismatics auction yesterday.

“I’m very pleased because what I wanted was for the medal to be displayed to the public,” Dr Chapman said. “You realise that in the end you can’t own these things, you’re just the custodian.”

Thomas Barrett crafted the souvenir medal at the request of the ship’s doctor, John White, when the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay on January 20, 1788.

Cut from a surgeon’s kidney dish, on one side its engraving shows the Charlotte secured to a buoy at Botany Bay, with the sun, crescent moon and stars adorning the sky, and dark marks that may represent ocean fish.

On the other side is a description of her voyage from England to Australia, including latitude, longitude and the length of the arduous journey.

By the time Barrett arrived at Botany Bay, he had already twice avoided execution.

Ever the entrepreneur, Barrett and a group of other forgers made quarter-dollars from melted belt buckles and pewter spoons while on their voyage, and used them to buy goods from merchants in Rio de Janeiro through the Charlotte’s portholes — almost sparking an international incident.

Six weeks after the colony was established, however, Barrett was hung for stealing butter, “pease” and pork.

The National Maritime Museum only has one other First Fleet item in its collection — a wooden sea chest that is believed to have been the property of convict Henry Kable and brought to Australia.

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