There are certain stories that will be told and retold for as long as there are collectors of U.S. coinage. The sinking of the S.S. Central America, with its lost gold and lost lives, has enough financial and personal tragedy to endure for centuries. Yet for decades the disaster faded from memory, not quickly but with the slow erosion of waves on a rock, as ships such as the Titanic and the Lusitania took on more meaning.
When the Central America’s gold was re-discovered, so too was its story, and the long-forgotten details seemed fresh and exciting. The “Ship of Gold,” as it is now often called, gave historians new insight into California Gold Rush assayers’ ingots and collectors a remarkable opportunity to own like-new 1857-S double eagles, such as this Gem in the upcoming April-May Central States U.S. Coin Auction.
The assayers’ ingots and gleaming double eagles, stacked up and packaged up in the hold of the Central America, are of great historical and collector importance. When I think about the wreck, though, I find myself drawn to other numismatic treasures. In addition to the ingots and double eagles, headed for the banks of New York City before they met a different fate, there was more gold onboard the ship: the personal fortunes of passengers, which often took the form of double eagles but also eagles and half eagles, gold dust and nuggets.
There were also a number of oddities, reminders of the strange and often dysfunctional monetary system that Californians cobbled together in less than a decade. Two Territorial gold coins in the Central States auction, both moderately worn from five years of use in West Coast commerce, were recovered from the bottom of the ocean floor. One is an 1852 ten dollar Augustus Humbert/United States Assay Office coin, graded VF30 by PCGS; the other, also dated 1852 and graded VF30 by PCGS, was issued by Moffat & Co.
As the San Francisco Mint became established, many of the old Territorial gold coins that stayed in California were melted, and few survivors remain. Both coins are of varieties rated as R.6, or “very rare,” with a couple dozen examples known at most. While fewer Territorial gold coins were recovered from the Central America than assayers’ ingots or 1857-S double eagles, the few Territorial pieces salvaged do offer valuable clues to how various issues were used or not used in California at the time.
One of the great paradoxes of the Central America is that for all the value its gold holds for us today, there was a time when it was all but worthless. Survivors’ accounts tell of people throwing away their golden fortunes, like the coins and nuggets were leaden weights instead of wealth—and why not, for what is the value of gold against one’s life? We, however, are not in danger of drowning. We can study. We can acquire. We can collect.
We must remember.