Monday, March 30, 2009

Coin Monday: Rarity Comes With the Territory

March 30, 2009
Posted by John

Though cataloging comes fairly late in the consignment process, often the catalogers get a hint of what’s coming through the pipeline. My main source is the consignment director grapevine; I can’t count the number of times I’ve met a CD in the hallway and the first thing I hear is: “You’re going to love this. I had an (insert fabulous rarity here) come in today. It’s going in the next auction.”

I have my other sources as well, and one of them told me about a small gold ingot that was in-house and was going to be part of next month’s Central States Auction. A few probing questions later, I found out it was a Moffat ingot, created in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. I was on the numismatic equivalent of a sugar rush the rest of the day, asking for updates on the ingot’s internal processing status a little too frequently. I also spoke with the other catalogers and convinced them to let me do the write-up on it. Victory was mine!

Two days later, I had the opportunity to actually catalog the ingot itself. In the meantime, I’d done plenty of research and consulted with outside sources, supplementing my knowledge of the Moffat ingots in general.

Most ingots created during the California gold rush were meant only to serve as a way of transporting gold; a solid rectangular ingot was much easier to handle than the gold dust and tiny nuggets that made up the bulk of California gold discoveries. Such ingots were weighed, usually to the hundredth of an ounce, and stamped with that weight, the ingot’s fineness to three decimal places, and a conversion of that weight and fineness to a dollar value based on official government rates. Sizes and dollar values varied widely.

The Moffat ingots from 1849, by contrast, are smaller and share the denomination of $16.00.

Why $16.00? Some scholars suggest that the $16.00 denomination corresponded with the eight escudo coins, better known as doubloons, circulating in Latin America; just a few years before the gold rush, California was Mexican territory, and even after California became part of the United States, Mexican coinage stayed in use. (Two other small-size Moffat bars are known, denominated in irregular dollars and cents. They are unique and held by the Smithsonian.)

Somewhere between one dozen and two dozen of the $16.00 Moffat ingots survive today, suggestive of what must have been a much higher original mintage. In addition, all known examples show wear from handling. It is clear that the $16.00 ingots, of a much smaller size than other ingots, were not intended as a mode of transportation; instead, they were made to serve as money, and judging from their worn states, the Moffat ingots did indeed serve that purpose. They were among the first pieces of West Coast territorial gold, or gold money struck by private individuals or firms instead of a government mint or assay office.

This $16.00 Moffat ingot is a fascinating artifact of the California Gold Rush, an inspiration for those with a passion for the past. As I held it, I remembered the classic numismatist’s line about money being “history in your hands,” and once again I felt its truth.