Andrew S. writes: I’ve got several gold coins that are extremely small. Three are octagonal in shape. One of these has an indian head with 13 stars dated 1852 on one side and the words “California gold,” a picture of a bear and 1/2 on the other. The other two have 13 stars, the bust of a man with curly hair wearing a hat, one dated 1855, the other dated 1853. The other side of the smaller 1853 coin only has one star and “California gold” on it. The other three coins are round in shape, two with the indian head and one with the bust of a man in a helmet. The indian head coins each have 13 stars, one dated 1856, the other dated 1854. The 1854 coin has 1/2, a bear and “California gold” on the back. The 1856 coin, smaller in size, shows 1/4 and “Calif. gold” The coin with the man in a helmet has “eureka” above it with 12 stars on one side and “California gold,” a small bear and flowers on the bottom. These coins were left to me by an uncle and I’ve been wondering for years if they have any real value. An extreme thank you for any help! Andrew
None of the original California gold coins have bears as a design device. Your tokens are modern replicas. Though most are brass or gold plated and some are minted in 9 Karat gold, their numismatic value is nil.
All of the small California gold coins that are contemporary with their dates were minted between 1852-56 and were privately made by jewelers. The purpose of these coins was to alleviate the acute coin shortage, especially of small change that existed in the “Gold Rush” era in California. The coins were slightly underweight in relation to their face value. This fact was ignored since the need was so great and the alternative was to use unreliable gold dust.
Nearly all the 1852-56 coins are signed by the makers by an initial punched into the die. They come in 1/4, 1/2 and 1 dollar denomination which are part of the reverse design, usually placed within a circular beaded border. The coins come in octagonal and round shapes.
We know from publications of that time that these small coins were used as money. Later pieces dated from 1859-82 were made by jewelers for the trade and not for use as money, though some of these pieces might have circulated as well. The “souvenir” tokens of 1870 to about 1915 were probably used as money as well as jewelry items. The jeweler’s tokens are valued far less than the issues of 1852-56.
All types of California gold are collected, including the token issues, without denominations, made in the early 20th Century. Don’t confuse these pieces with the modern (c. 1960 or so) brass or 9 Karat gold imitations that plague the unknowing in the numismatic market place. See the following sources:
- Kagin, Donald, Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States NY Arco 1981
- Adams, Edgar H., Private Gold Coinage of California 1849-55 Its History and its Issues 1912 (reprinted fairly recently)
- Doering, David and Susan California Fractional Gold, 1980 Santa Monica California
- Kenneth W. Lee California Gold 1979 Kolbe Publications
- Walter Breen and Ron Gillio California Pioneer Fractional Gold, 1983, Pacific Coast Auction Galleries, Santa Barbara, CA.
For more info on the real thing, see: U.S Fractional Gold Coins