Unique pioneer gold coin from 1855 in upcoming sale

July 13, 2021 3 min read

Unique pioneer gold coin from 1855 in upcoming sale

By Paul Gilkes , Coin World,Published: Jul 12, 2021, 12 PM

One of four known 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co., Large Head pioneer gold $20 coins and the only one available to collectors is being offered without reserve in an online auction by GreatCollections with an Aug. 15 closing date.

Attributed as Kagin 8a according to Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States by Donald H. Kagin, the coin in the auction is unique, being the only example of the Large Head obverse paired with the reverse die otherwise found only with the Small Head type.

It was once in the collection of famed Texas collectors Amon G. Carter Sr. and Amon G. Carter Jr.

The coin is graded and encapsulated by Professional Coin Grading Service as About Uncirculated 50. It is stickered by Certified Acceptance Corp.

Of the three remaining Large Head coins, one — once part of the Josiah K. Lilly gold coin collection — is in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; one was stolen in 1967 during a robbery at the Florida home of noted collector Willis H. DuPont and never recovered; and the third was also stolen in a separate 1967 heist from the Yale University collection.

Some published sources indicate the piece stolen from Yale University may have been recovered, but its current whereabouts are not widely known. Yale University Collection officials did not respond to Coin World’s inquiry by publication deadline concerning the status of their pioneer gold coin.

GreatCollections notes seven auction appearances of an 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co., Large Head $20 pioneer gold coin since 1896, with six of the appearances being the unique die marriage.

The unique variety wasn’t identified as such until the coin was last offered at public auction, in 2014, when it realized $558,125 in an April 24 sale by Heritage Auctions.

The Kagin 8a die marriage, according to the Heritage auction lot description, “exhibits the reverse of the more available Wass, Molitor & Co. Small Head twenty dollar piece, K-7. The two reverses are easily distinguished, as the K-7 reverse shows the eagle’s left (facing) wingtip pointing to the R in FRANCISCO, while the wingtip in the K-8 reverse points to the F. This fact was first noticed by numismatic researcher Wayne Burt while studying the image of the present coin on the Heritage website. Further investigation by Burt, Saul Teichman, Stuart Levine, and Heritage cataloger David Stone revealed that the other three surviving Large Head coins all exhibit the K-8 reverse, making the coin offered here the only known example of this newly discovered territorial gold variety.”

Historical perspective

Wass, Molitor & Co. was one of several private mints that operated in the San Francisco area during the pioneer Gold Rush era of 1849 to 1855.

Wass, Molitor & Co. was founded in October 1851 by exiled Hungarian immigrants Count Samuel C. Wass and Agoston P. Molitor. Wass and Molitor fled Hungary in 1848 after participating in a failed attempt to gain independence from Austria.

Wass arrived in California in October 1850, Molitor in 1851. In October 1851, the two men founded an assaying office. By Jan. 6, 1852, the firm was coining gold $5 coins and weeks later, added gold $10 coins to meet the area’s coinage needs.

The firm struck no coins of any denomination in 1853 or 1854.

Production resumed in 1855 with gold $10, $20 and $50 coins, as the firm was called upon to strike the gold coins while a severe shortage of parting acids forced the San Francisco Mint, which opened in 1854, to temporarily shutter operations.

The 1855 $20 coins included both the Large and Small Head obverse designs.

Wass, Molitor & Co. was dissolved shortly after the distribution of these coins, and Molitor left California for London in 1856. Wass left for a time also, and his fortunes declined in his absence, but he returned in late 1858 and soon started a new assaying business with his son Stephen.

Because of their high intrinsic value, most Wass, Molitor & Co. pioneer gold coins were turned in for recoinage at the San Francisco Mint, resulting in almost the entire mintage of Large Head $20 coins being soon destroyed.


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