Half cent coin

A man who died in a climbing accident unknowingly bequeathed a valuable inheritance to his family - a rare coin struck after the turbulent birth of the United States.

The humble half-cent coin, minted in 1796, lay undiscovered for 50 years inside a matchbox before it was found by the family of Mark Hillary during a clean-out.

The coin fetched £225,700 ($353,000) at auction - 72 million times its original face value.

Only 1,400 of the coins were made at the Philadelphia Mint in the US.

Daniel Fearon, a coin consultant at Salisbury auctioneer's Woolley and Wallis, which sold the half cent, said it was in good condition.

"The condition of the coin is unchanged with a good, even brown colour and some traces of redness around the obverse letters and around the wreath on the reverse," he said.

"The coin is one of just a handful that have survived in this condition. Half cents have always been a rarity in the collectors' market."

Coin collecting thrived in Regency Britain during the years when the United States was forging itself as a nation.

"[Britain] is the natural place for coins of the former colony to end up," said Fearon.

"It was very exciting when it was brought to us. It is an instantly recognisable and beautiful coin. I'm so pleased to have found it."

The precious half cent was found during a house clean by the family of Hillary, who was killed in a climbing fall in 1963 at the age of 20.

Lagging behind auction stakes

Oxford University classics student Hillary had the coin as part of a collection of 70 he kept inside a set of miniature drawers made from matchboxes.

Despite making nearly a quarter of a million at auction, the half cent lags far behind in the auction stakes.

A dollar coin minted just one year before Hillary's half cent was sold for $7.85m in 2005. The dollar was the first of that currency unit issued by the United States federal government, in 1795.

Another US coin fetched $7.59m at auction. It was made from 98 percent gold and was struck during the California gold rush.

A medieval coin depicting King Edward III of England was bought for $6.8m. It was in circulation for just eight months from December 1343.