California Small Denomination Gold
Post Lot Text
Obverse with head of Liberty to left, 12 stars around. Reverse with open wreath, 1 4 at top, DOLLAR at center, 1856 at bottom. Small Denomination Gold Beginning about 1852 many tiny gold 25", 50", and $1 gold pieces were made by private parties, often jewelers and suppliers to the souvenir and novelty trades. Whether these were widely used in circulation is a matter of speculation, although it is certain that they were used to some extent. Known today as California small denomination gold coins, these pieces were of irregular weights and uncertain alloys. In time, some were made by lightly gold plating planchets made of copper or other non-precious metals. The two coins recovered from the S.S. Central America, both of which are offered in the present sale, are in pristine preservation-perhaps indicating that they had been purchased as souvenirs and carefully cared for. Only a few mentions of these have been found in San Francisco newspapers of the 1850s, perhaps indicating that their use in circulation was nominal at best. Among these accounts is an item printed in the New Orleans Picayune and picked up by the Alta California, August 25, 1852: "We were shown this morning a gold half dollar, California money, which is so much like the United States gold dollar piece that the best judges would be completely deceived at a first glance. The half dollar piece is lighter in color, and somewhat smaller in diameter, than the dollar. They are of a private issue, and have stamped on them, HALF-DOLLAR CALIFORNIA GOLD 1852." During the 1850s there were many cambists (listings of coins of various countries and their intrinsic values) distributed for the edification of the public and for use by banks and specie dealers. Dye's Gold and Silver Coin Chart Manual, published in New York in 1855, furnishes an example of a cambist that illustrated such pieces, in this instance a "California gold half dollar" assigned an exchange value of 48" and a "California dollar," 98". However, it seems unlikely that such coins would have been received for 48" and 98" respectively in New York City; otherwise, these pieces, of low intrinsic value, would have been shipped there in quantity. On the other hand, the issues of the mid-1850s-unlike those of later decade-had a more generous gold content. In 1860 the 2nd edition of Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson's American Numismatic Manual illustrated several small denomination California gold coins on Plate XIX and gave brief notices of them on pages 226-227. This was an expansion of the 1st edition, slightly differently titled as American Numismatical Manual, which had no pictures of the pieces. This may have been the first mention of them in a book expressly intended for coin collectors. Their use as souvenirs was reflected in the Annual Report of the Director of the Mint, by James Pollock, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1863. There can be no doubt that the Philadelphia Mint, with veteran numismatists Jacob R. Eckfeldt and William E. Dubois on the staff, was more aware of coin varieties being minted in California than any other government agency or institution at the time: "It will not be amiss to give some public information in regard to certain small octagonal gold coins, stamped "1 2 dollar, 1859," and "1 4 dollar," without any name, but believed to be coined in California, and sold as pocket pieces, or to gratify the eagerness of coin collectors. Their fineness varies from 425 to 445 thousandths, and the intrinsic value of the "1 2 dollar" is eleven cents, while that of the "1 4 dollar" is six and a half cents. They present a good appearance." In 1983 Ronald J. Gillio was co-author with Walter H. Breen of California Pioneer Fractional Gold. Historic Gold Rush Small Change 1852-1856 and Suppressed Jewelers Issues 1859-1882. Originally created as a catalogue to the Kenneth Lee estate collection, but this property was sold intact, and the work was subsequently published as a stand-alone reference. At the present time, discussion is being given to revising the Breen-Gillio text, reflecting research of the nearly two decades that have elapsed it was issued.