Learn about the history of California Fractional Gold.
There is a great deal of mis-information circulating about small California gold coins and tokens. This guide provides facts which have been assembled from over 10 years of mostly original research into the topic. Large denomination private issue gold coins ($2.50 and greater) are not the subject of this guide.
Joseph Brothers of San Francisco began making California Gold half dollars in 1852. It was legal for a private manufacturer to make such pieces at the time, and production of gold quarter dollars and dollars soon followed. Several other companies started similar production in 1853. These tiny substitutes for a pinch of gold during a small coin shortage never became popular for use as money. However, by late 1853 they had become popular for use as souvenirs that gold miners could economically mail to their families. The coins were quickly altered to reduce the gold content from about 80% of full value down to about 60% of full value, and even lower in later years. Production of these souvenirs has never stopped and continues today.
The early issues have a denomination that includes the word DOLLAR or CENTS or an abbreviation thereof. Congress passed laws in 1864 that made it illegal to privately manufacture tokens that could be confused with US mint issues. The secret service (the president's police force) is responsible for the enforcement of coinage laws because the president is in charge of the mint. From 1871-1883, the secret service ruled that most of the souvenir California gold coins could be confused with a federal gold dollar and progressively suppressed the production of the pieces during this period. Manufacturers first responded by removing DOLLAR from the legends, but that was apparently not sufficient for the secret service. Manufacturers then restored DOLLAR to the legend and tried hiding their production facilities and started the practice of backdating the coins in an attempt to evade the enforcement. The Secret Service seized most of the dies and coins in 1883 and put a short term stop to production of the coins.
However, production resumed promptly in 1884 by at least 3 manufacturers (Noble, Mohrig, and Brand, possibly others). Some of these manufacturers used the current date, some backdated the pieces. After 1903, almost all pieces were backdated. Most used new designs, perhaps hoping to attract less attention from the secret service. The well known design with a bear on the back was invented sometime after 1900 (perhaps 1915). This design became quite popular and is still made today. About the same time, some manufacturers began making pieces for other states. About the time of F. D. Roosevelt's 1933 ban on private gold ownership, the production changed from mostly solid gold to mostly gold plated copper. Later still (early 1960s), manufacturers were encouraged by federal authorities to stop wasting the tiny amount gold used in gold plating and switch to solid brass.
Although most post-1883 production removed the word DOLLAR (or CENTS) from the design, a couple of manufacturers put DOLLAR on their tokens after 1883. Some of these are common (the Kroll hoard and Kroll restrike pieces), while some are rare. Such pieces have been made as recently as 2003. It is a good idea to learn about these pieces and decide what is interesting to you before you buy.
There is a substantial range of pieces that are similar in size and sometimes design to California Fractional Gold that was made as commemoratives or as souvenirs of other locations. A discussion of those pieces is beyond the scope of this guide.
The values of California Fractional Gold varies wildly with condition, rarity, and demand. The most common and least desirable pieces are worth $1, while the rarest and most desirable have been sold at public auction for as much as $80,000. There is a very short list of pieces valued at over $10,000.
California Pioneer Fractional Gold by Walter Breen and Ronald Gillio, 2nd edition copyright 2003 is the standard reference for the pieces struck prior to 1883. Die pairings that are listed in that reference are identified by "BG" (Breen-Gillio) numbers. This book has a substantial description of the history and circumstance of the manufacture of the early pieces.
Some specific misconceptions are listed below:
1) There is no requirement to put the actual date of manufacture on California souvenir gold.
2) There is no requirement to put any gold into a piece that proclaims CALIFORNIA GOLD in the legend.
3) There is no requirement for a piece that proclaims CALIFORNIA GOLD to be made in California. In fact, these pieces have been made in Kansas, Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, Great Britain, Italy and probably Japan.
4) There IS a legal requirement that any piece made after June 8, 1864 not be confusable with the coinage of the USA or any other country, nor give the appearance or have an accompanying claim of being intended for use as currency. This requirement extends to the sale of the pieces (regardless of the time of manufacture) and the corresponding advertisements for the sale of the pieces. Violation of this law is punishable by up to 5 years in jail, yet is a common occurrence today. Vigorous enforcement of this law occurred in 1871, 1875, 1880-1883, and 1919.
5) Some old pieces have no or very little gold (at least 1 piece struck in 1882 is gold plated brass), some much newer pieces are solid gold. Estimating the gold content of one of these tiny pieces without damaging it is a bit of an art. Standard jeweler's test methods (touch stone or acid drop) always damage the piece. The standard water displacement method of measuring specific gravity cannot cope with items that are this small. One non-destructive method is to measure the thickness, diameter and weight, compute the specific gravity, and use a look up table that is compensated for the effect of the relief of the design to estimate gold content. This is not very accurate, but it is usually sufficient to distinguish 10K gold from brass. The formula are:
Measure thickness (thk) and diameter (dia) in millimeters. For an octagonal piece, measure from flat to flat (not corner to corner). Measure thickness in the middle of the piece, not at the (often thinner) rim. 0.05mm accuracy is required and a plastic caliper should be used to avoid damaging the piece. Be very careful with the thickness measurement as very small errors can invalidate the measurement. Practicing on some pieces of known content is recommended. Measure weight in grams. 0.01gm accuracy is recommended, although 0.1gm is sufficient for pieces that weigh more than 1.0 grams. Calculate
estimated specific gravity (round) = 4000*weight/(dia*dia*thk*3.14)
estimated specific gravity (octagonal) = 1000*weight/(dia*dia*thk*0.8284)
If the estimated specific gravity is less than 7, the piece is brass or similar base metal.
If the estimated specific gravity is greater than 9, the piece is gold.
If the estimated specific gravity is between 7 and 9, the content is unknown. Silver usually falls in this range. A bent gold piece falls in this range. A worn brass piece falls in this range.
6) Most of the solid gold tokens contain about 0.1 to 0.2 grams of gold, or 0.003 to 0.006 ounces. If gold is $1000/ounce, that means the gold in the piece is worth $3 to $6. The solid gold tokens generally sell for much more than that, so that the value of the gold in the piece is not a factor in the value of the piece.
7) Anything is collectible, so none of these pieces are worthless as-is proclaimed in most editions of the Redbook (A Guide Book of United States Coins). However, some pieces are common, some are rare, some are popular and some are not. The value of a piece is determined by supply and demand. California souvenir gold ranges in value from a few dollars to many thousands of dollars. Most of the pieces that you find for sale are later date pieces that are brass and valued in the $5-10 range.
8) Modern California souvenir tokens are rarely replicas (an attempt to accurately copy an earlier issue) or restrikes (a piece struck using the original dies long after the original striking was finished), as they typically have different designs than the original pieces. However, some replicas have been made very recently and are readily available as of 2009.
9) None of these pieces is HEX (or hexagonal, 6 sided). Octogonal is a French word, octagonal (8 sided) is English. Round and octagonal shapes are well known shapes for these issues.
10) California was never an organized territory of the USA. California became a state on September 9, 1850. Therefore none of the California Fractional gold coins can be territorial issues by any legal definition of territorial, since they were first made in 1852. These coins are properly classified as private issue gold coins.
11) The helmeted figure on many of these souvenirs is Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war. The founders of the state of California considered her birth as a fully grown adult to be parallel to the circumstance of the state's creation with no "childhood" as a territory. She is not a soldier as is often stated. Minerva is depicted in the Great Seal of the State of California, holding a spear (not a man going fishing with his dog)
12) When Minerva is fully depicted, she is holding a shield and a spear. The correct "emblem" on the shield is the severed head of Medusa.
13) The Great Seal of the State of California is often mislabeled as the Arms of California. The origin of this error is unknown but goes back at least to Ed Lee's 1932 book which used the term "Arms of State".
14) The Great Seal of the State of California depicts the Carquinez Strait from San Francisco bay (officially it illustrates the Sacramento river, pathway to the gold fields but the Sacramento river is not visible from San Francisco bay), not the Golden Gate to the left of Minerva.
15) The 1884 tokens with the Great Seal of the State of California design that depict a bear with the legs cut off by the edge of the design was engraved by A. Kuener, who also engraved the 1st and 3rd official versions of the Great Seal of the State of California as well as many dies for larger private issue gold coins. This design pretty accurately replicates the official design at that time. These particular tokens were struck by C Mohrig of San Francisco, apparently only in 1884.
16) EUREKA (Greek for I found it) is the California state motto, it is not the name of the design beneath the word.
17) The foliage that surrounds the bear on many of these pieces represent California Poppies, the state flower.
18) A sun with rays in the design of one of these pieces is a rising sun; this is part of the Great Seal of the State of California, an illustration of the path from up the Sacramento river to the gold fields (that would be East). Note that a sun with rays on an Alaska Gold token is the midnight sun.
19) California Gold with Breen-Gillio (BG) numbers of 1301 and higher were made after the 1883 Secret Service crackdown on denominated California fractional gold. BG1301-1307 were made by Herman Kroll of New York City circa 1910. BG1301a, BG1304a, and BG1307a were made using Kroll's dies in the 1950s and 1960s and are more common than the first striking. BG1330 is of Portugese origin (DOLAR is the correct spelling in that language) and may be related to the late 19th century gold rush in Mozambique which was then known as Portugese East Africa.
20) BG numbers less than 1300 indicate the size and shape and period of the piece
101 to 111 are octagonal quarter dollars from 1853-1856
201 to 230 are round quarter dollars from 1853-1856
301 to 311 are octagonal half dollars from 1853-1856
401 to 436 are round half dollars from 1852-1856
501 to 534 are octagonal dollars from 1853-1856
601 to 607 are round dollars from 1853-1857
701 to 799 are octagonal quarter dollars from 1859 to 1882
800 to 892 are round quarter dollars from 1858 to 1882
901 to 966 are octagonal half dollars from 1859 to 1882
1001 to 1079 are round half dollars from 1859 to 1882
1101 to 1129 are octagonal dollars from 1859 to 1876
1201 to 1209 are round dollars from 1870 to 1872
Denominated Indian head coins dated 1852 or 1868 were made circa 1881 and are numbered together with the 1881 dated coins.
20) Walter Breen created a classification scheme that is in common use today. Information published in the second edition of "California Pioneer Fractional Gold" brings doubt on the validity of that classification scheme. Breen proposed that issues produced from 1852 until 1857 (BG numbers 101 through 607) were used as coins in regular commerce and classified them as period 1. Breen also proposed that denominated issues produced from 1858 through 1882 (BG numbers 701 through 1209) were used as souvenirs and classified them as period 2. Breen lumped all issues after 1883 (BG numbers 1301 and higher) that have a denomination as period 3. It is a common error to call all period 3 issues "Kroll", since BG 1301 through 1307 have been traced to New York jeweller Herman Kroll.
Particular problems with this scheme include:
Period 1 issues are light weight and no evidence that they achieved significant circulation exists. There is no evidence of any bank accepting them as cash.
Period 2 issues vary wildly in weight, with some of them being heavier than period 1 issues. Although Frontier & Co advertised their issues as "jewelry coin", others did not add the "jewelry" term. There are about as many reports of period 2 issues circulating as there are reports of period 1 issues circulating.
Breen reported that Kroll's dies were a copy of Nouizillet's work. However, very careful inspection reveals that the head punch used to make the dies for BG 1301 through 1306 is the same punch used to make period 1 BG 428. The punch was rusted and broken at the time (circa 1910), but the remaining details match exactly. Since the punch was passed from Nouizillet to Gray to Levison Bros to Herman Brand (this sequence is documented in the second edition of "California Pioneer Fractional Gold"), and Herman Brand traveled to the east coast of the USA in 1903 (published stops in Buffalo, N.Y. and Washington D.C.), it is possible that he sold the punch to Kroll.
In addition the restriction of Period 3 to denominated issues completely overlooks the wide variety of non-denominated issues.
21) The term "California Fractional Gold" is in wide use today, but has different meanings to different people and is a misnomer. The term is used for most $1/4, $1/2, and $1 size issues, and sometimes is extended to larger pieces that have a similar appearance. Some people restrict the term to denominated issues. A $1 issue is not a "fractional" issue in any case.
22) It is common today to use the term "coin" for denominated issues and "token", "charm", "fake" or "restrike" for the non-denominated issues. However for almost all of the issues only the terms "token" and "charm" are technically accurate. Private issue "coins" are actually either ingots (if the correct value in metal is included) or "tokens". The terms "fake" and "restrike" are discussed in item 8) above.
23) The USA government produced a small number of gold $1/2 patterns in 1852, so it is not accurate to claim that the mint never made any such issues. It is accurate to say that no such pieces were "issued" as they were never released to circulation.