Great Mentor and Friend—Jack Totheroh By Bob Lande and Barry Sunshine

Imagine you are a coin collector thumbing through the Redbook. You look at the listings towards the very end on “Private or Territorial Gold” coins, and survey all the marvelous pieces. You see that the “common” pieces in low condition are worth thousands of dollars and the rarities sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You tell yourself that even though they are historic and fascinating they’re out of your price range. Just as you’re about to close the Redbook you notice listings titled, “California Small Denomination Gold”. The text of the Redbook entry starts provocatively: “There was a scarcity of small coins during the California Gold Rush, and starting in 1852, quarter, half, and dollar coins were privately minted from native gold to alleviate the shortage….”
With amazement you look at their prices and see that most cost only a few hundred dollars each—even in uncirculated condition! You quickly note that the vast majority can be purchased for less than $2,000. Breathlessly, you decide you can form a collection with all the romance and history of the Territorial pieces at a fraction of the price! You are hooked!
Then you notice that the Redbook says there are more than 570 varieties, but it only lists prices for a few dozen major types. This presents a huge problem. How do you figure out fair prices to pay for them? Without a pricing guide, you cannot start your collection. You are paralyzed.
Fortunately, someone (perhaps Don Kagin or another dealer, or a collector you meet in a coin forum or a coin show) tells you about a collector named Jack Totheroh, who has compiled a California Small Denomination Gold coin Auction Sales History (“ASH”). You call Jack and he patiently explains everything you could possibly want to know about Cals. He tells you the history and background of this series—he clearly loves discussing them, which is perfect because you want to know everything about them. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his enthusiasm catching, and he is as friendly as can be. And he is also wise in the advice he provides you. He offers to sell you, at a nominal cost, his personal developed ASH, which contains everything you ever could want to know about the rarities of the Cals and the prices you should pay for these incredibly scarce and fascinating coins.
You purchase Jack’s ASH (and of course also the Breen-Gillio book) and become a Cal collector. (Somehow, the first time Jack calls you a Cal collector, that makes it official!) You then quickly discover you have also acquired an invaluable source of information and advice, someone who turns into a trusted confidant and friend. But because you are a newcomer to the field while Jack is its grand guru, you also realize you have acquired something even more valuable: a mentor! Someone who willingly will give you the benefit of his experience, answer your questions, provide you with trusted advise and good counsel, and make sure you never feel like you are bothering him no matter how long you talk, and no matter how many times you write to him or e-mail him.

The two of us surely talked, wrote letters to, and e-mailed Jack more than 100 times over the years—because Jack loved his Cals and enjoyed talking with us about almost anything concerning the series. For example, whenever a scarce variety was being offered at auction, Jack would consult with us beforehand. He would give us information about the history of that particular variety and tell us whatever he could about that coin’s provenance. If we were interested in the coin he would review the coin for its strike, die state, scarcity, and for its eye appeal. As to its overall look, Jack would advise us whether the coin was fully struck and whether it had die cracks. Then he would compare that coin with his to see whether there was anything else we should know about that coin. And of course he would consult his ASH and advise us on the variety’s prior prices so we wouldn’t overpay. If we were successful at acquiring the desired coin Jack would always follow up with congratulations, indicating (for example) whether we had acquired not only a rare coin but one with a great provenance.
Most of Jack’s Cals were raw, as was typical for collectors from his generation. One reason he kept them raw was that he enjoyed holding them as he contemplated their history. Despite his old-fashioned approach—or maybe because of it—he was an extraordinarily astute grader. Always ready to offer a second opinion about the grades of both raw and certified coins, we could always trust his judgment. Jack’s wisdom, knowledge, and expertise were crucial to us as we built our collections.
We also remember talking with Jack about his earliest years collecting Cals and how he spent many years putting together a high quality set. In Sept 1993, Jack was devastated when his collection was stolen. When we spoke with him about his first set he always mentioned the BG-220 and the other rarities in his collection. He was very proud of those pieces and never gave up hope they somehow would reappear. The robbery would have killed most collectors’ enthusiasm for the series, but afterwards Jack decided to build another set: the set that is being sold in this auction. Jack’s tireless and relentless pursuit of Period 1 Cals, and his keen eye, allowed him to build the extremely advanced and exciting set that is being offered in this catalog.
After many years of conversing with Jack, we had the opportunity to meet him in 2005 at the ANA meeting in San Francisco. At this meeting the Society for Private and Pioneer Numismatics presented Jack with its lifetime achievement award. We were fortunate to be there, and fondly remember hearing him speak about his collection with fascination and—because we considered him our mentor—a kind of pride. Afterwards, we had dinner with Jack and we stayed up until late in the evening talking about Cals with him; a memory we will always cherish.
Without Jack’s advice, encouragement and ASH, we probably wouldn’t have had the courage or knowledge to even start collecting this series, let alone to become serious collectors. We are grateful to him for the countless hours of fun we’ve received in the process. In fact, in our minds we’ve almost come to equate Cals with Jack, and his presence will always be with us as we continue to enjoy collecting this series. For as long as we collect these pieces we will proudly consider Jack to be our mentor.

Click here to view the Jack Totheroh California Fractional Gold Coins for sale in the 2013 April Auction.

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