California Fractional gold coins offer an easier way to connect with the Gold Rush
By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
When the Odyssey Marine Corporation was excavating the shipwreck site of the SS Central America a few years ago, I was hired to perform a series of appraisals for material as it was brought up from the sea floor.
The coins had been placed into plastic Tupperware containers along with the sea water for preservation purposes. Each container was like a miniature time capsule from the year 1857. It was one of the most interesting and exciting assignments of my numismatic career.
I had the opportunity to closely examine thousands of wonderful United States gold coins. As much as I found the US gold coins to be interesting, one of the most fascinating observations was discovering the presence of quantities of California Fractional gold coins.
These tiny gold coins clearly circulated during the California Gold Rush. It’s hard to believe that something as small as the California gold Quarter Dollars actually were used as money. The proof was in these Tupperware containers.
Due to the scarcity of smaller denomination coins during the Gold Rush, privately minted quarter, half, and dollar coins were minted starting in 1852. These coins circulated alongside smaller size silver coins from around the world, many of which were also found on the SS Central America. The fractional gold coins were light weight, but were still accepted in commerce.
Dozens of private companies minted California Fractional gold coins and there are about 575 different varieties known of all types. The standard reference for the series is California Pioneer Fractional Gold by Walter Breen and Ron Gillio. Coins are assigned BG numbers when attributed.
The Coinage Act of April 22, 1864, made private coinage illegal in the United States, but the law was not fully enforced until 1883. The coins issued after 1883 are considered tokens, and do not state the denomination in most cases. There are also plentiful modern replicas that are gold plated and nearly worthless.
Collecting California Fractional gold coins can be fun and exciting. Many of the coins are tangible links to one of the most exciting eras of American History. I particularly like the Type One issues from 1852 to 1857 that actually circulated or were struck during the Gold Rush.
Other private California gold coins of higher denominations are beyond the reach of most collectors. Many are priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. You may not be able to afford a Fifty Dollar “slug”, but a very similar design can be found on varieties of dollar coins from the same period.
Type One California Fractional gold coins were produced in six major configurations. These include quarter, half and dollar coins that are either round or octagonal. This six-coin type set would be a great way to start a collection of this fascinating series.
For the specialist, there are hundreds of varieties and types. There are also a few unique designs, such as the “defiant eagle” quarter dollar that is extremely rare. The “peacock reverse” is another favorite.
Later issues that were struck from 1858 to 1882 were mostly produced as tokens for the collector or souvenir market. These issues are usually found with Liberty heads and Indian head types. Some examples were produced with the head of George Washington. They were also struck in round and octagonal configurations.
Many were produced in limited number and come very prooflike in appearance. Collectors often assemble type sets of this series, as well, with examples of the Indian and Liberty types in the various denominations and shapes.
Years ago, collecting California Fractional gold coins was tedious, to say the least. The coins are tiny and are literally small slivers of gold. Third party grading has been a boon to this particular series. When the coins are certified, they become easy to manage and highly collectible.
NGC also performs the important task of assigning each coin the proper variety attribution. Collectors of the past also had to guess the coins’ rarity based on experience or appearance at auction. The NGC population report provide an extremely valuable tool for assessing rarity.
In March, I became Senior Editor for the Guide Book of United States Coins (the Redbook). I have been examining the book for possible improvements that would be implemented over the next few years. One area that could be greatly improved is the section on California Fractional gold coins. I would like to place more emphasis on the 1852-1857 issues that were struck and used during the actual Gold Rush.
California Fractional gold coins are affordable and one of the most interesting series of coins stuck in the United States. You can purchase one or two coins as relics of this era, or go “all in” by trying to assemble as many different varieties as possible. It would be nearly impossible to complete a variety set, but the challenge would be extremely exciting.
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