Collecting Period One California Fractional Gold By Mike Locke

Period One California Fractional Gold consists of privately issued gold coins in $0.25, $0.50 and $1.00 denominations that were struck from 1852 to 1857. There was a shortage of small change in California during this time period and these privately issued gold coins were intended to alleviate that shortage. Although banks apparently never accepted them, there are several written accounts of them being used in normal commerce during this time period. Please see the essay by Bob Chandler for specific accounts of the use of fractional gold coins and more information on this fascinating part of Gold Rush history.

Unlike the $5, $10, $20, and $50 private issue gold coins that were made in California from 1849 to 1855, the more common Period One California Fractional Gold pieces remain at affordable prices. There are many potential causes of this valuation difference but these are speculative and beyond the scope of this discussion.

In spite of being intended for use in commerce, most Period One California Fractional Gold coins are light weight. As early as 1853, they became popular for use as souvenirs—a use that continued long past the 1850s. As a souvenir, the weight of the coin was unimportant.

Collecting by Type

There are 8 basic types of Period One California Fractional Gold:

Octagonal $0.25 Liberty head

Round $0.25 Liberty head

Round $0.25 Defiant Eagle

Octagonal $0.50 Liberty head

Round $0.50 Liberty head

Round $0.50 “Arms of California”

Octagonal $1 Liberty head

Round $1 Liberty head

Additional types can be added to this basic set based on personal preference. Typical additions include the eagle reverses, the 25 CENTS Liberty heads, or one variety with each style of Liberty head. Regardless of the objective set, at least one rare variety is needed.

Collecting by Variety

No complete set by variety has ever been assembled. Assembling a variety set of Period One California Fractional Gold is the ultimate challenge in this field. Varieties that are Rarity 5 or higher command a premium price that becomes very large for Rarities 7, 8, and 9. In addition, there is extra demand for varieties that are needed to assemble popular type sets (BG-220, BG-302, BG-435, BG-501, BG-504, BG-602, BG-603, and BG-605), so these varieties command a premium price beyond what the rarity indicates.

The rarities below are from the second edition of Breen-Gillio; many of the highest rarity ratings are now slightly lower because of new discoveries made since publication. It is a tribute to Jack Totheroh’s research into auction appearances that none of these ratings have major errors. Low, middle, and high rarity ranges have been lumped together, even though the difference is significant for Rarity 6 and Rarity 7. Rarity 9 is used as an abbreviation for Unique.

Rarity Number BG numbers. Varieties included
R2 2 222, 530
R3 9 105, 106, 111, 221, 224, 401, 409, 428, 430
R4 25 102, 104, 107, 108, 110, 206, 223, 229, 230, 302, 305, 306, 308, 311, 407, 421, 429, 434, 505, 508, 511, 519, 531, 532, 533
R5 22 101, 109, 204, 207, 226, 226A, 304, 307, 309, 405, 414, 415, 417, 431, 432, 435, 501, 504, 510, 514, 518, 523
R6 23 202, 203, 205, 216, 227, 310, 406, 408, 422, 423, 427, 436, 507, 509, 517, 522, 524, 525, 526, 528, 534, 602, 603
R7 30 201, 208, 209, 210, 212, 214, 215, 217, 218, 219, 220, 225, 301, 303, 403, 404, 411, 413, 416, 418, 420, 424, 425, 433, 503, 506, 512, 515, 527, 605
R8 17 103, 204B, 209B, 228, 402, 410, 412, 419, 422A, 426, 502, 513, 520, 521, 601, 604, 607
R9 11 204A, 204C, 209A, 213, 217A, 304A, 304B, 415A, 416A, 516, 529

The following six varieties are unknown in any collection at this time: BG-211, BG-219A, BG-311A (two have been reported), BG-434A, BG-511A, and BG-606. Several of these have been seen first hand and a photograph of BG-606 appears in an auction catalog. However, none of them have been examined recently enough to be certain that they exist as described.

A Statistical Look at BG Rarities

There are a total of 139 documented varieties and 6 undocumented varieties. However, a collection without any Rarity 7, 8, or 9 varieties contains no more than 81 varieties (58% complete). Even if all of the Rarity 7 varieties are added to the collection, the resulting set will contain no more than 111 varieties (80% complete). The large number of rare varieties explains why no complete set has ever been assembled.

The Jay Roe collection was the most complete set ever documented. It was missing BG-204A, BG-209A, BG-304A, BG-304B, BG-415A, and BG-416A (96% complete). Three of these great rarities are part of the Jack Totheroh collection.

Continuing Research

There are numerous gaps in the information available about Period One California Fractional Gold. These gaps add interest in the series since anyone may find the information needed to fill one or more of them.

BG-915A is a circa 1860 restrike of the 1856 dated octagonal $1/2 BG-311. It is noted for having a plain edge and a gold plated baser gold planchet, both unlike the original BG-311. The late die states of BG-111 may have a similar story, although no conclusive evidence has been found. BG-818A is a circa 1860 restrike of BG-111, struck on a round planchet, providing further context that points to the late die states of BG-111 being restrikes.

BG-209B and BG-424 are both thinly gold plated over base metal or very low grade gold, while BG-209A is suspect but has not been tested. No other pieces in Period One have such a construction, and this construction is unlikely to be acceptable as coinage, raising the question: Are these pieces properly classified?

Although most Period One California Fractional Gold is light weight, a few pieces are near full weight. An 1850s USA gold dollar weighs 1.672 grams and is 0.900 fine. By this standard, and assuming 0.88 fine native gold, a California Gold dollar should weigh 1.71 grams, a $1/2 should weigh 0.855 grams and a $1/4 should weigh 0.438 grams. Of all of the $1/4 varieties only BG-220 comes close to the correct weight. A handful of $1/2 coins are found close to full weight: BG-401 (early states), BG-402, BG-410, BG-426, and BG-427. These $1/2 coins are all presumed to be the first issues in the series. None of the $1 coins have more than 75% of the correct weight. Is this information meaningful? Are all of these coins properly classified?

No image of BG-416A is available, so it is not confirmed to be as described. BG-220 and BG-435 have unique designs with no linkage to any other issues. Were they made at the same time and for the same purpose as the other issues?

BG-1314, BG-1315, BG-1078, and BG-1079 give some of the appearance of being Period One California Fractional Gold but in other ways appear to be of later origin. Are these pieces properly classified?

Copies, Counterfeits, and Fakes

In spite of many reports of copies, counterfeits, and fakes in this series, very few of these reports have proven valid. Most of the reports were generated by individuals that were not familiar with the series. A few of these copies are listed in California Pioneer Fractional Gold by Walter Breen and Ron Gillio, but others are not. Some of these were made by Herman Kroll circa 1906, apparently with the help of some of the original tooling. Kroll copies that resemble Period One coins are BG-1301 (copies BG-111 but the date is different), BG-1302 (copies BG-226), and BG-1304 (similar to BG-428, but the date is different).

Restrikes of Kroll copies are BG-1301A, BG-1304A (obverse differs), and BG-1307A (1863 dated). Other copies that are not traced to Herman Kroll are BG-1309 (copies BG-305), BG-1310 (copies BG-305), BG-1311 (copies BG-305), BG-1311A (BG-1311 in lead), BG-1311B (BG-1311 in white metal), BG-1311C (BG-1311 in brass), BG-1314 (copies BG-224), BG-1315 (copies BG-224), and BG-1322 (cast copy of BG-434). Other copies have dates that fall outside of the range of the production of Period One California Fractional Gold.

Click here to view the California Gold Collections for sale in the 2013 April Treasures & Tribes Auction

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