Tiny pieces of Gold Rush history fetch big bucks

AP News
Posted: Apr 21, 2013 10:59 PM

RENO, Nev. (AP) — Tiny pieces of California Gold Rush history fetched big bucks at a Reno auction of Western Americana.

The Jack Totheroh Collection of some 200 gold coins privately made in San Francisco in the 1850s sold for $865,000, while the Bergen-Istvan Collection of about 50 similar gold coins went for $252,000, reported Holabird-Kagin Americana, which staged last week's auction.

According to historians, the rare coins in 25 cent, 50 cent and dollar denominations were struck by jewelers from 1852 to 1857 when there was a shortage of small change in California. Historians say while banks apparently didn't accept them, they were used at some San Francisco businesses. They also became popular as souvenirs as early as 1853.

"Not until the federal mint was built in San Francisco in 1854 did federal gold coins come in circulation in California," Fred Holabird said. "There was no paper money at that time in California because people didn't trust it. The entire trade was based on gold dust and gold coin."

Both modern collections of what's known as "California fractional gold" were split up and sold to dozens of different buyers at prices well above estimates, he said. The coins are "itty-bitty" — only roughly 5/10 inch in diameter, he added.

"Not a lot of it survives to this day. We had exceptionally heavy action from all over the world for it," said Holabird, whose Reno-based company bills itself as the largest seller of Western Americana in the United States.

Also drawing worldwide interest was a collection of some 50 Panamint Indian baskets that sold for a combined $106,000 to different buyers. The baskets were generally small in size and made in the first half of the 20th century. The Panamints, a branch of the Shoshone, lived around California's Death Valley.

A telescope believed to have been used by 19th century explorer John Fremont did not sale, Holabird said, perhaps because it was priced too high at $50,000.

The auction, which drew over 400 bidders, resulted in $2.4 million in sales.