Private and territorial gold coins are among the rarest and most valuable issues in American numismatics. The Moffat & Co. ten dollar gold coins were struck to serve an urgent need for a circulating medium of exchange in the booming regional economy of the Gold Rush period, and nearly all examples seen show signs of the wear and rough handling they experienced in that role. Fortunately, a few remarkable specimens were specially struck and carefully preserved by their creators to serve as show-pieces and personal mementos of their work. Heritage Auctions is offering one of just two known specimen strikings of this historic issue in the January 2014 FUN Auction.
Moffat & Co. was probably the most important of the California private mints that sprang up after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. John Little Moffat was the senior partner of the smelting and assaying firm that was established in the summer of 1849 near the San Francisco waterfront. The business soon relocated to the corner of Clay and Dupont Streets, because tidal erosion threatened the stability of the first location. His junior partners were Joseph R. Curtis, P.H.W. Perry, and Samuel H. Ward, all of whom had worked for him in his previous firm in New York. They would continue the business after Moffat sold his interest on December 24,1851.
Moffat & Co. began issuing rectangular gold ingots with the fineness, weight, and dollar value hand-stamped on each bar shortly after they opened their business in 1849. The ingots, valued from $9.43 to $264, served a limited role as currency in the local economy for about two months. The irregular denominations made them difficult to use in most transactions and Moffat & Co. soon graduated to issuing circular $10 coins, after George Albrecht Ferdinand Kuner joined the firm as chief engraver in July of 1849. The new coins were well-produced, with both obverse and reverse designs that closely resembled the federally issued Liberty eagles of that era except for the inscription MOFFAT & CO. on the tiara instead of LIBERTY, and the legend S.M.V. CALIFORNIA GOLD on the reverse. The first ten dollar coins were issued in August of 1849 and Moffat & Co. offered to redeem their coins at face value in silver, inspiring the wide acceptance of the company’s issues. The firm issued several varieties of five and ten dollar coins from the same basic designs in 1849 and 1850.
Unlike many private issues of the time, the coins of Moffat gold were universally accepted and widely acclaimed for their consistency and strict adherence to weight and fineness standards. This reputation enabled the company to secure a government contract to issue coins under the auspices of the U.S. Assay Office of Gold in 1851. Augustus Humbert, a New York watchmaker, was appointed United States Assayer and dies for the new coinage were engraved by famous sculptor Charles Cushing Wright and transported from New York to California by Humbert on his journey out. Moffat & Co. cancelled their own coining operations and moved to more spacious offices on Montgomery Street in anticipation of increased business under the federal contract.
Humbert arrived in San Francisco on January 30, 1851 and began striking coins with the dies Wright had made almost immediately. These coins were the famous fifty dollar “slugs” that became so famous in Gold Rush history. Although there was some criticism from local businessmen, who saw the Assay Office as just an inadequate substitute for a hoped-for United States branch mint, the new “government” coins quickly drove the lower-quality issues of the private coiners out of circulation, as they were soon melted down and recoined into slugs.
The Treasury Department was reluctant to approve the issue of smaller denomination gold coins in 1851, but because so many of these pieces had been converted into slugs, an acute shortage of five, ten, and twenty dollar coins severely hampered the regional economy. A petition from prominent San Francisco bankers and merchants convinced Moffat that his firm should produce small denomination gold coins under the old company name, acting independently of their government contract with the Assay Office to circumvent the Treasury Department’s refusal to issue such coins. Moffat & Co. issued $86,500 in ten dollar gold pieces between January 12 and January 27 1852 to address this serious shortage. The obverse design was essentially the same as the earlier ten dollar issues, with the date coming in both Wide and Close varieties. The reverse features an eagle with ribbon and scroll that is quite similar to the motif on the slugs, with the legend reading 264 GRS. CALIFORNIA GOLD above and TEN D. below. The present coin is one of the finest survivors of this daring commercial exploit.
The present coin is much different from the usually seen worn and heavily marked example of this issue. In addition to its impeccable preservation, this coin was obviously specially prepared and struck. This gives a clue to its original owner, as all known proof and specimen strikings of California private gold issues were struck at the behest of United States Assayer Augustus Humbert. Humbert’s private collection, most of which was sold to Captain Andrew Zabriskie by his executors after his death in 1873, included proof examples of the 1852/1 U.S. Assay Office of Gold twenty, 1851 Humbert fifty dollar slug, 1854 Kellogg twenty, and four 1855 Kellogg fifties. Although Humbert may not have retained all the known Kellogg fifties (14 known), which were all struck in proof format, he is almost certainly the man responsible for their striking and initial dispersal (a number of these pieces was also saved by his partner, John Glover Kellogg).
A smaller collection was retained by Humbert’s brother Pierre until his death in 1901. When that gathering was sold in the Weeks-Humbert Collection (S.H. & H. Chapman, 5/1902), it contained another proof specimen of the 1855 Kellogg fifty and a magnificent, SP67 example of the 1852 Moffat ten, a twin brother to the present coin. These coins, which can all be traced to Humbert, and the present example constitute a complete census of all the proof and specimen California private gold issues we are aware of, except for the now doubtful 1853 USAOG proof twenties. Although we can find no documented link from this coin to Humbert, it seems overwhelmingly likely that he had the coin struck for some purpose and caused it to be carefully preserved afterward.
The coin offered here is a stunning specimen striking, graded SP63 by PCGS, with deeply reflective fields that show swirling lathe marks around the devices. The design elements are sharply rendered and perfectly centered and the well-preserved yellow-gold surfaces are remarkably free of contact marks, although a few hairlines are present. A small depression on Liberty’s cheek is the only pedigree marker of note. A small obverse rim cud is visible at 5 o’clock and a couple of die cracks extend from the G in GOLD to the ribbon on the reverse, features that are also present on the other specimen example of this issue. Eye appeal is extraordinary for any territorial gold issue.
This coin has been off the market for seven years and before that it was not available for decades. The advanced territorial gold collector should bid accordingly.