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THE BULLS, THE BEARS, AND CALIFORNIA GOLD COINS

By Richard Giedroyc – HCC Rare Coins

Once upon a time gold was worth a paltry amount compared to the lofty figures it commands per ounce today. Since gold didn’t have such an incredible value, nor did it fluctuate much in price, it was practical to be used as a coinage metal.

California Fractional Gold CoinsThe United States is only one of many countries that over many centuries issued gold composition coins. As the United States expanded so did its need for circulating coinage. In 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California. People dropped whatever they were doing, sometimes almost literally, and headed for the west coast of what today is the United States to seek their fortunes. Believe it or not even the gold mines in the Carolinas and Georgia in the Appalachian Mountains were abandoned as people perceived that it would be much easier to mine the golden metal in California than in the east.

Some found what they sought. Others would be disappointed. One thing, however, was certain. If the population explosion in California was to be sustained economically either barter would have to be greatly expanded or a lot more coins than had been available were going to be needed in commerce.

The United States recognized the need for a regionally located mint to fill this need. Prior to the establishment of the San Francisco Mint facility in 1854 private parties, primarily jewelers and assayers, produced their own coinage to fill the void. Since gold was readily available while silver was not the private coinage issuers in California used gold to produce what today are generally referred to as Pioneer or Private and Territorial Gold issues.

Although most collectors will remember the more famous issues struck in denominations of $5, $10, $20, and $50, these same private minters struck fractional denominations as well. These “quarters,” “half dollars,” and “dollars” were also struck in gold, since silver was not generally as available. These coins are tiny, many of them being less than 20 millimeters in diameter.

These fractional denominations were useful in making small change, but they were also a nuisance due to their diminutive diameter. These small denomination gold coins were easily lost. There was little consistency to their designs or shapes. Some depicted the head of Liberty, while others depicted an Indian. Some were round, while others were octagonal. It was likely quite a relief once the San Francisco Mint was able to begin supplying sufficient quantities of small change coins to displace these fractional issues.

These small denominations first appeared in 1852. Some of them had as much as 85 percent of their face value as precious metal content, while others were gold plated. The Coinage Act of April 22, 1864 made all privately produced coinage illegal, however due to a lack of enforcement and poor wording of the legislation many of these small denominations continued to be issued simply without a denomination on them. For practical purposes the issues ceased after 1883, however after this date imitation tokens that were backdated to the 1850s continued to be issued right into the early part of the 20th century.

There is confusion regarding which of these many issues are true California small denomination gold coins meant to be used as money and which are those struck much later for use in the jewelry industry.

There isn’t room here to address all of the many issues, but the important point to be made here is that should you encounter a California fractional gold coin on which the California bear appears at about six o’clock on the reverse be aware these issues are always among those that were made at a later date for the jewelry industry.

These jewelry pieces are fun to collect, but keep in mind they are gold plated and as such are not the expensive issues produced prior to the founding of the San Francisco Mint.

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