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    Description

    1853 Assay Office Twenty Dollar, MS63
    Rare 884 Thous. Variety
    Tied for Finest Graded

    1853 $20 Assay Office Twenty Dollar, 884 Thous. MS63 NGC. K-17, Low R.7. The Humbert/U.S. Assay Office twenty dollar pieces were issued in 1852 and 1853, the 1852 coins actually overdated 1852/1 and bearing the Augustus Humbert nameplate on the reverse. In 1853 the twenty dollar coins bore the United States Assay Office nameplate on the reverse, indicative of the retirement of John L. Moffat and the reorganization of the firm as the U.S. Assay Office of Gold under the remaining partners, Curtis, Perry, and Ward.

    The 1853-dated Assay Office twenty dollar coins were struck in two finenesses, 900 and 884. The 900 fine pieces matched, of course, the federal standard, while the 884 fine coins are anomalies with an interesting backstory. On August 31, 1852, Congress passed a bill requiring that any coinage accepted for Customs payments adhere to the federal 900 fineness standard. Assistant Treasury Secretary William L. Hodge wrote to San Francisco Customs collector T. Butler King, revoking his authority to collect sub-900-fine coinage for Customs payments -- this, in what was by far the most important port on the West Coast at the time. Donald Kagin wrote in his 1981 reference on private gold that "the effect was virtually to deprive California of all legal currency."

    The Herald newspaper at the time published an article revealing that California Senator William M. Gwin had vigorously supported the measure. As Kagin explains it, Gwin believed that the continued support and encouragement of the United States Assay Office as a provisional branch mint was, in effect, preventing or delaying the establishment of an official branch mint in San Francisco -- a recommendation that had been made as early as December 1848 by President James K. Polk in an address to Congress.

    Although the Assay Office could by late 1852 make 900 fine gold coinage (as a result of the temporarily purer gold deposits received), to strictly adhere to the federal standard (set in 1837) would also require an alloy of at least 50% copper admixed with the remaining silver. This requirement for copper alloy was made moot at an October 9, 1852, meeting of local businessmen with Customs collector King. The businessmen agreed to indemnify King against loss -- he was in a difficult position, serving not only as the Customs collector but also as the assistant treasurer for California -- and he agreed to again accept the 900 fine Assay Office coins even though they lacked the requisite copper alloy.

    The transient shortages of parting acids would return in 1853 (as they did during the early years of the San Francisco Mint), and the Assay Office could only make lower-fineness gold coins, of 880 and 884 thousandths' purity. There was again an acute shortage of lower-denomination gold coins. Assayer Humbert delayed as long as possible, then produced dies engraved first with 880 fineness, then 884, contravening the latest Congressional mandate. Soon afterward the parting acids arrived, but not before a few 884 fineness ten and twenty dollar pieces had been struck off. The majority were remelted into 900 fine coinage soon after, making the survivors especially rare, even within the already-rare context of Territorial gold. (The 884 fineness twenty dollar coins, K-17, are all 884 over 880; the 900 fineness twenty dollars of 1853, K-18, are 900 over 880.)

    This example of the K-17 884 fineness twenty dollar coin in MS63 is tied for the best at NGC with one other submission; the highest graded at PCGS are two in MS62 (2/14). The prevailing sandy-gold surface color is punctuated with daubs of deeper orange and lilac patina on surfaces that show impeccable preservation. The strike is quite sharp, both on the obverse with the familiar eagle, scroll, and rock motif as well as on the engine-turned reverse. This is another Territorial coin of immense importance in this impressive consignment. Listed on page 383 of the 2014 Guide Book.
    From The Riverboat Collection. (NGC ID# ANHC, PCGS# 10010)


    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

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    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    April, 2014
    23rd-27th Wednesday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 12
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