While Jack Totheroh collected a single Period by type and die state, this is hardly the only way to enjoy studying small California gold pieces. Many collectors begin by forming a type set of each denomination and shape—six pieces—and then expand it by completing the same set for each Period, making 12 coins. The next step is to add some of the fascinating designs of the period beyond the stock Liberty head/value type. For Period One, these include eagle reverses copying the Humbert design on $50 gold “slugs,” eagles with rays after the 1853 Arrows and Rays silver quarters and half dollars, and even the intricate arms of the State of California. Period Two brought further innovations, a portrait of George Washington and two styles of Indian heads, one closely copied from the contemporary Indian Head Cent.
There is no agreed-upon definition of what a complete type set consists of. For PCGS Set Registry, a “Complete Type Set” contains only 25 pieces (omitting variations in Liberty and Indian head designs); the 2013 Red Book prices 51 different types. But you are free to decide for yourself whether a particular issue constitutes a new “type” or not. This set contains 23 of the 25 Types needed to complete a PCGS Set Registry Complete Type Set, but is expanded to include most major subtypes as well. The goal of this collection was not just a Type Set; it was to be the finest Type Set ever assembled—and it comes very close to achieving this.
The collection contains as astonishing 19 finest known, and 13 second finest known coins – 70% of the collection!
The Herbert M. Bergen/Barbara Bergen Istvan Small California Gold Expanded Type Set is the indirect legacy of Herbert M. Bergen of California (1897-1988), President of the American Numismatic Association 1969-1971. Herb Bergen received the Farran Zerbe Memorial Award in 1974 and was elected to the Numismatic Hall of Fame in 1982. In 1974, he loaned an outstanding collection of U.S. Colonial coins for the Bicentennial exhibit at the ANA Museum, and his S mint date set was on public display at the San Francisco Mint for several years. It is a privilege to be able to offer coins associated with this great numismatist.
A few small California gold coins from Herb Bergen’s estate were passed to his daughter, Barbara L. Bergen Istvan (1921-2005). Stimulated by her love of California, she and her husband Edwin J. Istvan (1923-2010) began collecting small California gold pieces after he retired to Washington DC. This interest developed into a passion to assemble the best, most complete type set possible: not the 25-coin PCGS “Complete Type Set,” but rather an expanded version of all major subtypes.
The Istvans considered that there were 15 Types in Period One and a further 39 in Period Two, making a total of 54 Types. Of these, they obtained 13 of the 15 Period One Types and 33 of the 39 for Period Two; only 8 Types are lacking. The collection grew to include their own discovery of the Period Two normal and inverted reverse octagonal Indian Head dollars; these are published here for the first time (Lots 349 and 350). Both round and octagonal examples of dollars with normal and inverted reverse are included in the Type Set, as are 8 additional pieces chosen for their exceptional condition—4 quarters, 2 halves, and 2 dollars—for a total of 54 coins.
The Bergen/Istvan Expanded Type Set has 46 of the 54 coins. The set contains an astonishing 19 finest known examples and about 13 second finest known coins, or coins that are tied for these designations. Thus 32 of their 46 coins in this unofficial PCGS Registry Expanded Type Set are the best or second best coins, a whopping 70%! The Bergen/Istvan goal had been to assemble the finest Registry Set. They were close, and they may have been closer than they thought, because the collection was assembled before the “gradeflation” period. Over many years they acquired an amazing number of super high grade coins. A dozen of them are certified in PCGS old green holders, cataloged as O.G.H. Clearly, many of these pieces were not available to photograph for the Breen-Gillio reference, as many would be plate coins; nevertheless, two are Plate Coins in the standard catalog of the series, the second edition of Breen-Gillio, California Pioneer Fractional Gold. BG number and die state collectors will also find much of interest here!
Period One – Historic Gold Rush Small Change 1852-1857
California suffered from an extreme shortage of small change in the early 1850s. Foreign silver coins were pressed into use, often passing at well above their intrinsic or exchange value. Offering a partial solution were some of the numerous San Francisco jewelers, who introduced gold half dollars in 1852 and dollars and quarters the next year. These coins were carried in the miner’s gold dust pouch and proved to be a convenience, it being rather difficult to weigh out amounts of dust of one dollar and less.
In period One, these pieces were made by about seven known jewelers, plus a few makers whose identities can only be surmised. (See Breen-Gillio and the catalog of the Totheroh Collection for more information.) Circulation reached its height in 1852 and 1853 and declined as the coin shortage became less severe and the San Francisco Mint opened. However, pieces were found mixed with gold dust as late as the 1857 wreck of the SS Central America. Most issues ceased in 1856, though there is a final dollar coin known dated 1857.