Monday, January 18, 2010

Coin Monday: Behind the Gold Bars

Jan. 18, 2009
Written by John Dale

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I have a penchant for vintage California gold bars, specifically the mid-1850s assayers’ ingots recovered from the S.S. Central America; I’ve already dedicated one Coin Monday slot to their remarkable qualities.

That post, however, largely restricted itself to stating the obvious, and there’s much more to assayers’ ingots than “heavy,” “shiny,” and “gold.” Though the company names seen on gold bars rarely lasted long—measured usually in months, and sometimes weeks—the people within the partnerships often made spent long portions of their careers in California, mixing, matching, and establishing reputations. The Harris, Marchand & Co. ingot in Heritage’s February 2010 Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction offers an excellent illustration.

The “Harris” of Sacramento-based Harris, Marchand & Co. was Harvey Harris, a fortysomething native of Denmark. Harris billed himself as “Melter and Refiner” of the firm, apparently newly created, in an October 1855 advertisement quoted in the catalog description.

(The source for the advertisement was California Coiners and Assayers by Dan Owens, a remarkably well-researched book that combines selections from thousands of vital records and newspaper commentaries to paint a picture of the personalities. Regrettably, California Coiners and Assayers, like so many numismatic library essentials, seems to be out of print. Secondhand copies are out there, but if anyone knows a way I can purchase the book “new,” so that a well-deserved royalty goes to the author, please let me know in the comments section!)

Harvey Harris had worked at two U.S. Mints, New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as the private assay offices of Kellogg & Co. and Justh & Hunter. Both firms, or their successors, would also have assay ingots aboard the S.S. Central America. For more information on the Hungarian Mr. Justh, a striking figure in his own right, see this recently offered ingot.)

By contrast, the other “name” partner of the firm, the Belgian-born, Paris-certified assayer DesirĂ© Marchand, has credentials emphasized over experience. The reason? In short, he was a kid. Exactly how young he was is open to debate—sources noting his death suggest he was born in 1836 or 1837, but information from his naturalization as an American citizen suggests a birth in 1838 or even 1839 instead.

So in October 1855, when that advertisement went in the paper, if one goes by the death-notice figures, he was probably 19 years old, possibly 18. If the citizenship numbers are correct, he was 17 or maybe even 16! In other words, by the time I was interning at Heritage, looking at gold, Marchand was in California was assaying the stuff. Commence feelings of inadequacy…

How the two met, or why they went into business together, is lost to time, but it’s not hard to piece together a mental image of an alliance of convenience between Mr. Harris, long on experience but without the benefit of his former assayer employers, and Mr. Marchand, a young technical master who might have been lost in the rough atmosphere of California. And while the firm “Harris, Marchand & Co.” did not last until September 12, 1857, the date the S.S. Central America sank, this ingot, among the last assayed under that title, was in the ship’s cargo, lost to the ocean as part of a tragedy, brought back to the surface as a piece of history.

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-John Dale Beety

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