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1851 Humbert Lettered Edge Fifty Dollar, MS60
Rare 880 Thous. K-2 Variety
Seldom Seen in Mint State

1851 $50 LE Humbert Fifty Dollar, Lettered Edge, 880 Thous. MS60 PCGS. K-2, R.5. No 50 on reverse. Attempts before Congress in 1850 by their respective congressional leaders aimed to establish official branch mints in the state of New York as well as California, the latter having officially joined the Union on September 9 of that year. Congress failed to authorize official branch mints in either state. In the case of California, however, it did enable Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Corwin to contract with a well-established assaying firm in California, namely Moffat & Co., to affix the United States stamp and the appropriate fineness to ingots and coinage (although there was no clear line of separation between the two).

Augustus Humbert, a watchcase maker from New York, was appointed United States Assayer and contracted to stamp the official U.S. Government seal of approval on the ingots and coins to be assayed and struck at the Moffat & Co. establishment. In 1850 Moffat & Co. had struck coins only in the denomination of five dollars that were similar to the 1849-dated coins, becoming the sole private mint in California to strike gold coinage in both years.

The creation of the U.S. Assay Office was a temporary provision, created in the absence of an official U.S. mint, but it gave Moffat & Co. semiofficial status as a provisional branch mint. It was a well-received proposition, given the success in 1850 of the State Assay Office, operated under the auspices of California State Assayer F.D. Kohler. It also served to support the price of gold dust, which otherwise fluctuated wildly in value, usually creating a considerable loss to its miners. Unfortunately, Moffat & Co.'s near-official status also subjected the firm to various restrictions that other, later private assayers could ignore if they so chose.

One reason for the reluctance on the part of the Washington bureaucracy to authorize a nonprovisional branch mint in California during this early Gold Rush period was the inability of coiners and assayers in the West to bring gold up to the required Federal standard of 900 fine, or 90% pure gold with 10% alloy (mostly copper). "Parting acids" (nitric acid or aqua regia) required to refine and purify gold were unavailable. An "Essay on California Gold," written by A.P. Molitor and published in the Alta California newspaper supplement of September 30, 1859, says in part:

"By reason of its infinite divisibility, [gold] may sometimes occur in such minute particles as to be invisible to the naked eye, but, in every instance it is mechanically--never chemically--mixed with its matrix-may this be quartz, pyrites, or whatever else.

"Another peculiarity of gold is, that it is never found in nature perfectly pure but always contains a certain portion of silver, and sometimes a slight admixture of other metals, such as iron, tin, lead &c. The proportion of silver, in the native gold varies very much; in fact, it may be asserted that almost every degree of mixture has been found between the two metals, from nearly fine gold. containing some traces of silver, to silver containing some traces of gold.

"Out of this fact, which is generally ignored by the multitude, there arises the great variations in the value of the noble alloy. The less the proportion of silver in the same, the finer of course, in gold it will be, and consequently the more valuable; on the contrary, the more silver it contains, the more it must decrease in gold, and consequently in fineness and value."

The lack of acids to part the gold and silver meant that they had to be either shipped overland at great hazard, or transported via oceangoing vessel, almost as perilous. In the absence of parting acids, the only way to bring the native California gold up to the Federal 900 fine standard was to add a small amount of pure (999 fine) gold -- which was also unavailable, for the most part.

This splendid yellow-gold Mint State example is of the 880 Thous. fineness with no 50 in the central reverse; this K-5 variety does display a small concentric circle in the center with 24 tiny arrow points around its circumference. The surfaces show some scattered contact marks on each side, along with a few small irregularities that were undoubtedly part of the planchet-making process. The most notable mark is one near the lower-right vertex on the obverse, although a couple of rim bumps appear, consistent with the grade. The original surfaces show a good strike overall and great eye appeal. Population: 1 in 60, 5 finer (2/14). Listed on page 380 of the 2014 Guide Book.
From the Collection of Donald E. Bently, sold for the benefit of the Bently Foundation. (NGC ID# ANH3, PCGS# 10196)

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Auction Dates
March, 2014
20th Thursday
Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 15
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