Numismatists recognize four kinds of tiny metal disks being billed
as “California fractional gold” or “California small denomination
gold,” one of the most alluring but also pricey series for the typical
The first kind, the true California small denomination gold coins,
were struck from 1852 to 1882. They usually come in denominations of
quarter dollar, half dollar and dollar. All have the inscription
DOLLAR or abbreviation “D.” or “DOL.” Genuine examples can cost
hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars.
A second kind, California gold tokens, were privately minted on
gold planchets until around 1871 and usually depict a miner or other
Western scene on the reverse.
A third kind, California jeweler’s charms, are made of gold and
were sold as souvenirs of the West typically in the 1930s.
Replica brass or plated disks are a fourth kind. These are fakes
and usually feature a bear on the reverse (genuine pieces do not show
a bear). They have been flooding the coin market, especially on eBay,
which banned replicas in 2012. Moreover, the brass disks do not carry
the word “copy” and are in violation of the Hobby Protection Act.
Recently on an online auction portal, a seller offered an “1852
California Gold Coin.” Everything in the seller’s four-word
description was wrong: The replica was not minted in 1852 but most
probably within the past decade. It was not mined in California, it is
made of brass and it is not a coin.
I reported this to the auction portal, whose terms of service
expressly forbid counterfeits or falsely described lots (i.e. brass
labeled as gold).
Ron Guth, president of PCGS CoinFacts, agrees, stating:
“These replicas have plagued the hobby for decades. The best rule
of thumb is this: If the coin does not have the denomination in some
form or fashion (cents, D., Dol., or Dollar), stay away from it. The
words ‘California Gold’ are not enough by themselves.”
Ian Russell, owner of auction house GreatCollections, says: “We
get offered a lot of these on consignment, which we just send back.
Once a collector finds out they got ripped off like this, they will
rarely return to the hobby.”
For those buying and selling small denomination gold coins, PCGS
CoinFacts is indispensable. It contains a regularly updated,
comprehensive list of authentic types with photos to identify variety
Finally, I recommend that online auction portals require sellers
to list the “BG identification number” for small denomination gold
coins. The “BG” refers to Walter Breen and Ron Gillio, authors of
California Pioneer Fraction Gold.
Michael Bugeja, a coin collector since childhood, is a professor
at Iowa State University and also a member of the Citizens Coinage
Advisory Committee. He is a nationally known author, journalist and educator.