Fantasy and Souvenir California Fractional Gold

Posted on 9/20/2011

A few helpful tips can make sure you never get fooled by these sometimes deceptive fantasy pieces.

California Fractional Gold is an interesting and historically significant series that includes more than 500 varieties. During the California Gold Rush there was a shortage of small change and beginning in 1852 several jewelers privately minted gold quarters, half dollars, and dollars. The San Francisco Mint opened on April 3, 1854 and within a few years enough small change had been issued to eliminate the necessity for these minuscule gold tokens.

Those struck from 1852 to 1857 are termed “Period One” issues and are believed to have actually circulated, while the “Period Two” strikes from 1858 to 1882 were struck as souvenirs of the Gold Rush by local jewelers. NGC grades Period One and Two issues. A few helpful tips can make sure you never get fooled by these sometimes deceptive fantasy pieces.

All California Fractional Gold from Periods One and Two are denominated. Usually they will have the word DOLLAR (with a fraction if a quarter or half dollar), but there are also some that are denominated in cents. Occasionally you will see the word DOLLAR abbreviated as DOL, DOLL, or even DOLA. Although the Coinage Act of April 22, 1864 made it illegal to privately mint coinage, the law was not enforced by the Secret Service until 1883 and thus jewelers were still able to denominate their souvenir tokens. The tokens struck in 1883 and later almost always do not have a denomination (in order to comply with the law) and instead might say “1/2 CAL GOLD” or “1/2 CALIFORNIA GOLD CHARM”.

Many of the 20th century tokens feature a design that does not resemble either circulating United States coinage (many of the Period One and Two issues were designed to blend in). For example, some have a bear on the reverse and others have a crudely engraved portrait of an Indian or Liberty. Most of these are made of gilt base metals although a few are struck on low fineness gold planchets. While a handful of these, such as Hart’s “Coins of the Golden West” are quite collectible, the vast majority have little numismatic value.

Perhaps the best defense against imitation California Fractional Gold would be a copy of Walter Breen and Ronald J. Gillio’s California Pioneer Fractional Gold (Second Edition, 2003). Cal Gold is attributed by “BG” numbers for “Breen-Gillio” and NGC grades all of the coins listed by the authors as Period One and Period Two.

Last month’s Counterfeit Detection article highlighted how variety attribution can help you avoid fakes. This is another perfect example—if your California Fractionals are not listed by Breen and Gillio (or are listed as restrikes or copies), you should be very cautious. California Fractional Gold is one of the most extensively imitated series, and the 2012 Guide Book cautions in bold letters “Beware of extremely common modern replicas.” However, if you keep just a few things in mind when collecting these coins you should be able to avoid many of the modern restrikes and fakes.

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