US Coins

Small-denomination California gold coins headed for June auction

The tiny, small-denomination, privately issued gold coins issued during and after California’s Gold Rush initially reflected the challenge of finding small change in the West during the period.

They were first issued in 1852, but the tiny size made them impractical for daily commerce; eventually they became popular souvenirs. Most early issues produced between 1852 and 1857 have Liberty Head portraits inspired by contemporary coins with the Coronet design, but later designs are more diverse.

Heritage will offer a special monthly auction of more than 100 California fractional gold coins (an alternative term for the pieces) on June 15 that showcases the diversity of this specialized collecting area.

Robert Lande and John Paulsen explored the subject in a Feb. 19, 2018, feature in Coin World, explaining the charms of the small-sized, privately issued gold coins. They wrote, “Suppose you were looking for a new type of U.S. coins to collect. And suppose we told you that there is a type of U.S. coins that has these appealing assets: it is gold; is roughly 150 years old; was issued as private ‘emergency’ money; was part of the romantic California Gold Rush; is scarce (very few issues have more than 400 known pieces, and many have less than 20 known); has been relatively overlooked by most coin collectors; and comes in many varieties, potentially giving collectors years of pleasure as they try to complete their collection.” Their question was: did these issues ever circulate? They add, “Very little ‘hard’ evidence, and only a modest amount of ‘soft’ evidence indicates, for many California small denomination gold coins, that they actually were used as money.”

Among the first wave of issues from 1852 to 1857, there’s little contemporary evidence that merchants welcomed these, but newspaper articles at the time mention them, and it’s plausible to assume that they enjoyed limited circulation in the American West.

The authors conclude, “The best evidence indicates that the later small denomination pieces — issued from 1858 to 1882 — probably were used just as souvenirs or for jewelry.”

A study of Professional Coin Grading Service population reports confirms that a higher percentage of the earlier issues are circulated.

Among the First Period issues are some that replicate privately issued coins today collected as U.S. pioneer gold coins. Heritage offers an undated octagonal Liberty Head dollar graded About Uncirculated 58+ by PCGS. The piece is listed as Breen-Gillio 501 in Walter Breen and Ronald J. Gillio’s book California Pioneer Fractional Gold, which remains the standard reference in the field.

Heritage’s cataloger notes, “A Period One issue struck by Frontier, Deviercy & Co., BG-501 is distinctive as the only undated octagonal dollar variety among California fractionals,” adding, “This near-Mint example is boldly detailed and attractive with rich golden-orange and amber patina.”

The octagonal shape, mimicking the eagle, shield, banner and branch seen on the obverse of Augustus Humbert’s $50 “slugs” of the period, makes it among the most popular of all small-sized California Fractional gold issues.

Later issues

The Coinage Act of April 22, 1864, rendered private coinage illegal, but it did not see wide enforcement for nearly two decades. The “Red Book” explains that manufacturers avoided placing denominations on later issues, and some were backdated to the 1850s or 1860s to avoid problems. Modern replicas are frequently seen, although third-party certification and population reports now provide collectors with confidence in this area.

Two later examples of small-denomination gold pieces show the diversity of designs seen and the high quality of many issues. A round 1871 Liberty Head 50-cent issue is cataloged as BG-1029 and is graded MS-66+ Deep Mirror Prooflike by PCGS. It has a typical design of the period, emulating the contemporary Coronet gold coin designs, with a more explanatory reverse.

A round 1872 Washington 25-cent issue, BG-818, features a portrait of George Washington, who would not appear on a circulating U.S. coin until 1932 with the Washington quarter dollar. Heritage writes about the piece, graded MS-66 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., “The rich orange-gold surfaces are more lustrous than prooflike, and are uniformly unabraded,” adding, “The devices are well-struck, adding to the incredible eye appeal.”

The highly preserved states of both coins indicate that they did not endure the burdens of daily commerce.

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