Beautiful Condition Rarity, 1851 K-2 Humbert Fifty, 880 Thous. Without 50, MS63
1851 $50 LE Humbert Fifty Dollar, 880 Thous. MS63 NGC.
Lettered Edge, No 50 on Reverse, K-2, R.5. The supply of
circulating coinage was scarce in California during the early Gold
Rush years, and citizens became accustomed to using gold dust as a
medium of exchange. The privately struck coins that did exist were
typically underweight, if not drastically so, and met with
widespread public distrust, particularly after the 1851 exposé of
crusader journalist James King of William. An influx of federal
gold coins produced in the East seemed like an obvious solution,
but such coins were unobtainable at par. The people of California
were in desperate need of a stable coinage that was properly
assayed and accepted as a financial standard within the region.
Some endeavored to establish a branch mint in San Francisco, yet
efforts to do so were unsuccessful until 1854. As a compromise,
Congress established a United States Assay Office in San Francisco
in the fall of 1850.
The coin in this lot is of the first type struck at the new Assay Office: the fifty dollar ingot, as it was officially called. Shortly after being introduced, the fifty dollar piece acquired nicknames such as "slug," "adobe," and "quintuple eagle," although "slug" seemed to be the most popular and is still widely used by numismatists and collectors of our time. Charles Cushing Wright, a New York City-based diesinker and artist, designed and engraved the obverse die, and Augustus Humbert, former watchcase maker and newly appointed U.S. assayer, delivered the dies to the new Assay Office in January 1851. The octagonal shape is perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the first fifty dollar slugs. The circular obverse die features a defiant eagle with a U.S. shield resting on a rock, which symbolizes the U.S. Constitution. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA encircles the border and a scroll between the eagle's wings reads THOUS; a blank space was intentionally left for the fineness of the gold to be imparted by three individual numeral punches, in this case 880. Below the eagle are a D and a C, separated by enough space to allow for the dollar and cent amounts to be hand-stamped into each ingot.
This is a fascinating design feature in that no examples of Humbert octagonal slugs are known to exist with a denomination stamp other than 50. What was Humbert thinking by allowing for the possibility of a fractional denomination? We may never know for certain. This is also true of the purpose of the octagonal shape of the slugs. The reverse design of concentric wavy lines, although seemingly simple in execution, was actually intended as an anticounterfeiting device. Kagin's Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States reproduces a letter from Charles Wright to the U.S. Assay Office. In Wright's own words, "The reverse side of the Octagon ingots will present an embossed surface known to mechanics as 'Engine Turning' and similar to the web-like engraving of the vignette of Bank notes. The Die that produced this effect cannot be easily imitated and the machine that executes or engraves the Die is the only one in the United States." Humbert's own experience as a maker of watchcases is certainly reflected in the design, and he is credited with producing the reverse dies (Breen, 1988).
The historic significance of the Humbert octagonal fifties cannot be overemphasized. Since the Assay Office established in San Francisco was a provisional government mint, it can be argued that the Humbert fifty dollar slugs produced there were the first coins of said denomination, as opposed to the Panama-Pacific commemoratives struck in 1915. In Bowers' A California Gold Rush History, an excerpt from a January 30, 1851 editorial in the Alta California newspaper reads, "... they are coins of the United States government as is the dollar and the eagle, being, like them, issued by Act of Congress, and bearing the stamp of the government." Furthermore, it can be reasonably assumed that the Pan-Pac octagonal fifties were inspired by the Humbert slugs of the same shape.
The current example is of the highest quality that one could reasonably expect to locate for the variety or the type. A review of other certified Uncirculated Humbert fifties reveals that the vast majority of pieces display numerous marks and abrasions, as one would expect from such a heavy coin struck in soft metal. The surfaces of this coin are pleasantly free of distractions, save for a tick in the left obverse field. The strike is bold for the issue, and the attractive greenish-gold color only adds to the aesthetic appeal of this magnificent specimen. Listed on page 352 of the 2008 Guide Book. Census: 4 in 63, 2 finer (6/07).
From The Pacific Rim Collection. (NGC ID# ANH3, PCGS# 10196)
View all of [The Pacific Rim Collection ]
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