U. S. Fractional Gold Coins
Shrouded in mystery, alternately
praised or ignored by the numismatic community, the privately-issued
fractional gold coinage of California is one of the most enigmatic areas of
American numismatics. Denominated in dollars, half dollars and quarter
dollars, relatively little is known of their role in commerce, if any. The
experts disagree on whether these coins actually served as money or were
merely sold as curiosities and charms. Whatever their real story, California
fractional gold pieces are a delight to collect and have attracted generations
of adventurous numismatists.
A very extensive series, these
coins have been broken down into three general categories on the basis of
their assumed date of manufacture. The earliest pieces, known as Period One
issues, are believed to have been struck 1852-56, both with and without dates.
These issues conform closely to the federal coinage in relative weight and
value, and many bear the same obverse bust of Liberty as seen on the United
States gold dollars of 1849-54.
The coins labeled as Period Two
issues bear dates from 1859 to 1882. Unlike the earlier coins, these pieces
are typically underweight and contain less than their stated face value in
gold. In contrast to the majority of Period One pieces, those of Period Two
feature a wide variety of design elements and do not closely resemble the
regular coinage of the United States.
Period Three coins are the most
mysterious of all, as they were all backdated by their makers in an effort to
avoid prosecution. Though operating on shaky legal ground, the United States
Secret Service had launched a crackdown on the manufacture and sale of
fractional gold coins, claiming that these pieces violated the federal
government’s exclusive right to coin money. The small gold pieces from this
era were thus given earlier dates to obscure their actual year of manufacture.
Only a small number of issues were produced during this period, which lasted
from 1883 until sometime early in the 20th Century, when such items passed
from the public’s fancy.
The only fractional gold pieces
for which evidence exists of actual contemporary use are those of Period One,
and these issues are the ones most highly sought by collectors of pioneer gold
coins. It must be remembered that the San Francisco branch of the United
States Mint didn’t get up to full production until 1856, and before that
time commerce was handicapped by a lack of adequate coinage. In the early
years of the California Gold Rush, small payments were made in “pinches”
of gold dust, a flawed system at best. The government was of little help, as
it mandated that the federal assay office established in 1851 could coin
nothing smaller than a fifty dollar “ingot.” While this restriction was
lifted the following year, the smallest denomination then being coined was the
eagle, or ten-dollar piece.
Private banking and assaying
firms stepped in to supply additional coins from 1849 to 1851, but their
lowest issues were valued at five dollars, and the demand for small coins
remained. Beginning in 1852, this need was met by a handful of jewelers in San
Francisco, who began striking small gold pieces valued at one dollar, one half
dollar and one quarter dollar. Though the intrinsic values of these coins
fluctuated somewhat, they were usually close enough that the inflated boom
economy of California neutralized whatever slight loss may have been suffered
by those accepting them in trade. Their advantages simply outweighed their
disadvantages, and the coins appear to have gained acceptance, as quite a
number survive in worn condition.
There is scant documentary
evidence of actual circulation, yet these small coins have been found in
shipwrecks of the time period, and one was even featured in an 1852 newspaper
account from New Orleans: “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.” The lighter color of these coins is the result of
their native California bullion, which is rich in silver.
Period One gold pieces are found
both dated and undated, and some bear the initials or abbreviated names of
their manufacturers, most of whom were Frenchmen. Known makers of these pieces
include M. Deriberpe and Antoine Louis Nouizillet, both San Francisco
jewelers. Partnerships which produced fractional gold coins include those of
Deriberpe and Nouizillet (marked D.N.), Pierre Frontier and Eugene Deviercy (F.D.)
and Nouizillet and F. Routhier (N.R.).
The manufacture of gold dollars,
halves and quarters ceased in 1856, probably as federal silver coins from the
new San Francisco Mint took their place. For reasons now uncertain, their
production resumed in 1859, these being the first of the Period Two (1859-82)
coins. It’s believed that such later issues were produced mostly for sale as
charms and souvenirs of the Gold Rush and of San Francisco. By now somewhat
civilized, the city of gold had become popular with tourists from the East and
from Europe. Period Two coins were often debased, and some were merely
gold-plated over silver.
Cruder in their engraving and
manufacture, and far more exotic in their designs, Period Two gold pieces were
collectable from their inception. They are thus more likely than the earlier
coins to be found in unworn condition. A fad which developed in the 1860s and
‘70s, however, saw many of these tokens pierced and/or mounted for use as
jewelry. Since that was evidently their original purpose, the harm in this
practice was not perceived until generations later. The reuse of old dies and
the muling of ones not originally used together was common during this period,
as the need for protecting against counterfeits no longer existed.
Some of the names familiar from
the Period One coinage recur with these later issues. Frontier & Deviercy
were associated with [Alexandre] Dubois & Co before becoming Frontier
& Co. in 1864. Thereafter, the partnership went through various
configurations, but the use of common die punches on Period Two coins suggests
that they may have struck souvenir pieces as late as 1873. Antoine Nouizillet
sold his business to Robert B. Gray & Co. around 1859-60, and the latter
produced fractional coins with Nouizillet’s existing dies, as well as his
own (marked G). Gray sold his interests to the California Jewelry Co. in 1871.
Some of its coins bear letter L, a reference to its Levison Bros. watch
division. New entries in the field of gold coin manufacturing included the
partnerships of Reuben N. Hershfield and Noah Mitchell of Leavenworth, Kansas
(dies marked H), Ernest Henrici and Herman J. Brand, and the Joseph Bros.
(Lionel and Josephus). Undocumented and untraceable gold pieces known as
mavericks also date from this period. Unlike the earlier gold pieces, those of
Period Two were made both inside and outside California.
Though there’s no evidence of
Period Two gold pieces being mistaken for a legal tender, these coins caught
the eye of James J. Brooks, the somewhat overzealous chief of the U. S. Secret
Service. He requested that San Francisco Agent Henry Finnegass look into the
matter. When Finnegass was able to purchase one each of the quarter and half
dollar pieces at face value from a jeweler, he used this as evidence of
noncompliance with the Law of June 8, 1864 prohibiting private coinage.
Despite pleas from the jewelry manufacturers that these tokens were used only
as charms, he launched a crusade of seizure and destruction whenever he could
find such pieces for sale. This had the effect of temporarily ending their
manufacture and distribution, as well as making some varieties quite rare.
Still popular and in demand,
fractional gold coins eventually resurfaced, though the practice of coining
them was clandestine. The newly-made pieces bore earlier dates (including some
not previously used!) and were usually without markings that could tie them to
a particular jeweler. Only one maker of Period Three issues has been
positively identified: Herman Kroll of New York City. Relatively few varieties
exist which can be attributed to this period, and it’s believed that the
last such coins were made early in the 20th Century. Known as Period Three
coins, they too are quite collectable.
When the fad for fractional gold
pieces as jewelry items faded after the 1880s, Henry Kroll sold his remaining
stock to collector A. C. Nygren, whose estate was auctioned by Philadelphia
dealer Henry Chapman in 1924. Some of Kroll’s dies resurfaced decades later,
and a new generation of minters put them to work once again. This only
confused the attribution of vintage pieces all the more, though the later
restrikes made for collectors are known to be of finer gold than the original
edition, which was intended purely for the jewelry trade. Also muddying the
waters somewhat are outright fabrications produced as souvenirs of the Old
West and the pioneer days. Still sold today, these are easily detectable by
anyone who can distinguish between gold and brass.
From the NGC Photo Proof Series. Copyright © 2001 The Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. All rights reserved.