Professional Coin Grading Service recently announced that it would
be pricing California fractional (small-denomination) gold coins in
its online pricing guide.
Perhaps an accurate price guide for this series will help
collectors feel more confident when purchasing an example.
In a 2000 Coin World article, Robert H. Lande and Jack Totheroh
wrote, “Understandably, many coin collectors who are intrigued at the
prospect of adding a few of these beautiful and fascinating parts of
the California Gold Rush era to their coin collection are stopped by
the possibility that they may be overcharged.”
These tiny pieces were privately struck from 1852 to 1882 and came
in 25-cent, 50-cent and $1 denominations. More than 450 varieties are
known and new varieties are found occasionally.
They were struck to meet demand for small-denomination coins in
northern California, but they didn’t enjoy wide circulation. Produced
with rather primitive minting technologies some are beautiful and some
are charmingly crude.
They can also bring big money, with top examples approaching the
$30,000 level. A rare Breen-Gillio 503 octagonal 1853 Liberty dollar
coin graded Mint State 61 by Professional Coin Grading Service
realized $29,900 at a 2011 Heritage auction.
“Breen-Gillio” references Walter Breen and Ronald Gillio’s
California Pioneer Fractional Gold. They wrote in 1983: “California
fractional gold has remained for over a century the most enigmatic and
the most undervalued series in American numismatics. It has suffered
from a lack of information, from misinformation and from poor
Thankfully for collectors, this series can also be wonderfully
accessible, with handsome certified, problem-free About Uncirculated
examples available to purchase at the $200 to $300 level. From a
historic perspective, these are perhaps more interesting as their
slight wear attests to usage.
Collectors curious about the series can find examples at the $150
level, but these examples have problems, such as bending or mounting
from use as jewelry. Fakes abound, so third-party authentication is recommended.
Those looking for “investment grade” coins can occasionally find
common examples at auction certified as Mint State 65 for $550 to
$600, and even examples in MS-67 are sometimes seen. ■