The 1851 Humbert $50 ingots (commonly called slugs) are among the most recognizable artifacts of the romantic Gold Rush era. The large Humbert $50 octagonal coins are familiar to collectors of all disciplines, and even non-numismatists often make the historical connection when they encounter an example. They are rare and valuable reminders of one of the most colorful periods in our nation’s history.
Heritage Auctions is privileged to present the finest certified example of the iconic K-4 variety of the Humbert $50 as a part of our Premier Session offerings in our October 11-14 Chicago Signature auction.
From September 30, 1850 until December of 1853, the private coinage firm of Moffat & Co. (and its successor firms) acted under government contract as the United States Assay Office of Gold. The Assay Office was initially tasked with performing government assays and issuing ingots that could serve as a universally accepted medium of exchange, but its role as a producer of private coinage was later expanded.
Augustus Humbert, a New York watchmaker, was appointed United States Assayer. Before leaving for California, Humbert prepared both obverse and reverse dies for the proposed Humbert $50 ingots and transported them to California, along with other needed equipment.
Prominent coin dealer Henry Chapman provided an interesting description of the design for the 1851 K-4 fifty in lot 353 of the Captain Andrew C. Zabriskie Collection (6/1909):
“1851 $50. Defiant eagle to left, head to right, supports a U.S. shield and three arrows in right talon, a scroll inscribed LIBERTY passes through beak; around UNITED STATES OF AMERICA below 50 D C the 50 punched in and a blank space left before the C, evidently with the intention of punching in the number of carats, above 887 THOUS. R. Engine turned, with 50 in center. Edge, AUGUSTUS HUMBERT UNITED STATES ASSAYER OF GOLD CALIFORNIA 1851 Borders, plain. Octagon. Fine. Two slight nicks on edge. Very rare.”
Present day numismatists believe Chapman was in error about the C indicating carats. It seems more likely that the initials D and C stood for dollars and cents, and the fineness was also punched in individually in the blank space before THOUS., making it possible to easily issue ingots of various sizes and fineness by simply punching in the appropriate values.
Of course, 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. All the Humbert fifties were widely accepted in both domestic and foreign trade, as the coins were of full weight and value. 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.
The coin in the Zabriskie sale realized $300, a strong price at the time. Of course, recent auction prices for the K-4 are much higher, in the $200,000 to $300,000 range for a really nice specimen, but there are no real comparables for this piece, as no coin graded finer than MS62 has ever been publicly offered.
The present coin is a spectacular Select specimen that NGC has certified with the Star designation. It is by far the finest-known example, as no other coin has been certified higher than MS62 at either of the leading grading services.
The design elements are unusually sharp, with fine detail in the feathers on the eagle’s neck and all lettering legible. The edge is hidden by the NGC holder, but the description of this coin in its last auction appearance, before certification, notes the edge lettering is complete.
The yellow and orange-gold surfaces are remarkably well-preserved, with only a few minor contact marks on both sides. Unlike most examples seen, the rims show no blunted corners or major dents. The reverse radiates vibrant mint luster and the obverse displays much prooflike reflectivity in the fields. Overall eye appeal is terrific.
For the advanced collector, there is no adequate replacement for this finest-known example. It has been 24 years since its last public offering and it may be decades before this coin surfaces again. The discerning collector will bid accordingly.