Insights

New variety identified for 1855 Wass, Molitor gold $20 pioneer coin

Unique gold coin bears different obverse and reverse pairing
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By William T. Gibbs - Coin World Staff
Published : 03/26/14
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Experts in pioneer gold coinage have identified a previously unknown pairing of obverse and reverse dies for an 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co., Large Head $20 coin.

The coin bears the obverse used for one known variety and the reverse found on another known variety. The combination of these two dies make for a new die marriage or die variety that had not been previously identified.

The newly identified coin is believed to be unique, according to Heritage Auctions, which will offer the coin at auction during the April 23 to 26 Central States Numismatic Society convention in Illinois.

Pioneer gold coins (also called territorial gold) are privately issued pieces produced in gold mining regions that were distinct from federal Mint facilities, in the period from the 1830s to the 1860s. Wass, Molitor & Co. was a San Francisco firm operating from 1852 to 1855.

“The 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. $20 gold with the Large Head obverse is one of the most elusive issues in the Territorial gold series,” said Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auctions (Wass, Molitor $20 coins are also known with a Small Head portrait of Liberty). “This coin, from the celebrated Riverboat Collection, has recently been examined by several expert numismatists and some exciting new findings have come to light.”

According to Heritage: “Until now it was believed that all four surviving examples of this Large Head variety shared the same obverse and reverse. Careful study of the images of the Riverboat coin on the Heritage website by numismatic researcher Wayne Burt indicated otherwise. Further investigation by Burt, Saul Teichman, Stuart Levine, and Heritage cataloger David Stone revealed that the Riverboat specimen features the same Large Head obverse as the K-8 coins, but the reverse exhibits the design used on the Wass, Molitor Small Head $20, K-7. Information from bibliophile Dan Hamelberg proved essential in this research.”

The K-7 and K-8 references refer to Kagin numbers. Pioneer gold coins are cataloged in Donald Kagin’s standard reference, Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, a book published in 1981. Kagin assigned individual catalog numbers to each die marriage that had been identified as of 1981.

According to Heritage, the two reverse designs are easy to differentiate, as the eagle’s left (facing) wingtip points to the R in FRANCISCO on the K-7 reverse, while the wingtip points to the F on the K-8 reverse.

Rohan said that “the recent study indicates the coin is almost certainly unique.” 

The 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. $20 pieces were originally produced to provide much-needed circulating coinage during a period when the San Francisco Mint found it impossible to produce gold coins because of a shortage of parting acids, used to separate silver from the gold ore.

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