US Coins

Big gold from the Gold Rush period

Some big gold from the Gold Rush era is set to headline Heritage’s Oct. 11 to 14 U.S. Coins Signature Auction at its Chicago office. 

The octagonal $50 pioneer gold pieces produced by Augustus Humbert under his appointment as United States assayer are sometimes called “slugs.”  

Moffat & Co. and its successor firms acted under official government contract from Sept. 30, 1850, until December 1853 and primarily focused on performing government assays and issuing ingots. Humbert’s octagonal piece — officially an ingot issued by Moffat & Co. — was accepted under a few names, including “quintuple eagle” and “5-eagle” piece (“eagle” being the $10 denomination) and circulated locally. 

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The Humbert slugs initially featured a lettered edge, but Heritage explains, “the edge lettering also had to be applied in eight separate steps, punching in the appropriate words and numerals on each side of the octagonal coin. All these separate punchings made for a labor-intensive production process, and the Lettered Edge format was soon replaced by the more efficient Reeded Edge type.” Heritage concluded, “Most of the old lettered edge coins were melted for recoinage at an early date, making them much more elusive than their reeded edge counterparts.” As a result the Lettered Edge 1851 Humbert $50 octagonal coins are coveted by collectors and are cornerstones in collections of pioneer gold issues. 

The subject coin is the finest-certified example of the Kagin 4 variety, graded Mint State 63 ? by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. Although the lettered edge is hidden by the NGC encapsulation, a description of this piece from prior to its encapsulation states the edge lettering is complete. For reference, a different Kagin 4 example graded MS-62 by Professional Coin Grading Service brought $316,250 at Bowers and Merena’s November 2010 Baltimore auction. 

Another entrepreneur

The story of the Gold Rush is full of entrepreneurs, including John G. Kellogg, who traveled to San Francisco in October 1849 from Auburn, New York. The U.S. Assay Office ended operations in December 1853, creating opportunities, and Kellogg, along with his partner G.F. Richter, helped fill in the gap between the closure of the Assay Office and the first production of coins at the San Francisco Mint later in 1854. 

While Kellogg & Co. focused on producing $20 double eagles for local circulation, the firm also produced some impressive $50 coins that were likely more about status and advertising — establishing that it too could produce impressive coins like several of its peers — than actual commercial need. Heritage notes, “No mintage records were kept for this issue. Experts believe perhaps 20–25 coins were produced, all as presentation pieces, with 12–15 examples extant today.” 

The offered piece — graded NGC Proof 63 — is near the top of Heritage’s condition census of 14 confirmed examples. It was last offered at auction during Heritage’s January 2009 Florida United Numismatists auction, where it did not meet its reserve. Before that it was sold at Stack’s October 2007 Anniversary auction — then graded Proof 62 by Professional Coin Grading Service — for $460,000 and it was previously offered at Stack’s October 2003 sale where it realized $304,750, according to PCGS CoinFacts. The finest-known example, graded Proof 64 Cameo by PCGS, most recently realized $763,750 at Heritage’s April 2014 Central States Numismatic Society auction, and the second-finest, graded Proof 64 by PCGS without a Cameo designation, brought $747,500 at Heritage’s 2007 FUN auction.  

A Swiss man’s ambition

Among the several large-sized gold stamped ingots in the Chicago sale, the largest is an 83.54-ounce ingot produced by Henry Hentsch that was recovered from the SS Central America, which sank on Sept. 12, 1857. Collectors today are familiar with Hentsch’s name through the 33 ingots recovered in the shipwreck, since he did not produce coins for circulation. 

Hentsch was a relative latecomer to California when he arrived in mid-1854 after a 58-day journey on the SS Sonora, departing from New York City. He first established himself as a banker and did not open his assay office — conveniently located next door to his bank — until Feb. 2, 1856. Heritage wrote, “Hentsch was a Swiss citizen and prior to his arrival in San Francisco he apparently made a solid reputation in Europe, a reputation that transferred to his banking / assaying interests in California, where he advertised the issuance of Bills of Exchange in New York, Liverpool, London, Frankfort, Hamburg, Berlin, Paris, and Geneva.” He came from a banking family and was likely seeking adventure in traveling to California, where he would stay for nearly two decades before returning to Switzerland in 1873 to manage his family’s bank. 

The ingot measures 56 by 104 by 25 millimeters. The surfaces are a pleasant yellow-gold and show essentially no remnants of iron from the rusted ship’s hull. 

Heritage observes, “A long, curved scratch extends from the upper-left of the top side down to the middle right-side; undoubtedly from the salvage operation 30 years ago.”

Heritage has offered five Hentsch gold ingots at auction, with the closest comparable being a smaller one weighing “just” 67.07 ounces that sold for $235,000 at Heritage’s August 2014 American Numismatic Association auction.  

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