1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. Twenty Dollar Gold Piece, AU53
1855 $20 Wass Molitor Twenty Dollar, Large Head AU53 NGC.
Variety unlisted in Kagin, believed unique. An exciting new
study on the 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. Large Head twenty dollar
gold piece has revealed some important new facts about the issue,
one of the most elusive coins in the Territorial gold series with
only four examples extant. The most important finding of the recent
investigation is that the coin offered in this lot represents a
previously unidentified die variety of this rare issue. All known
examples of the 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. Large Head twenty
dollar gold piece, identified as K-8 in Donald Kagin's Private
Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, employ the same
obverse die. Until now, it was believed they all featured the same
reverse as well. Surprisingly, this coin 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. Ken Bressett informs us that
this discovery is under consideration and is a good candidate for
inclusion in future editions of the Guide Book.
Extremely Rare Large Head Obverse
Newly Discovered Variety, Unique Example
Conventional wisdom acknowledges the existence of only three examples of the 1855 Wass, Molitor Large Head $20, but the recent study uncovered reliable images of four distinct specimens, all listed in our roster below. One of the coins is included in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and the present location of two other examples is uncertain. Both coins were stolen in the 1960s and, although we believe they were eventually recovered, they have not been publicly offered since. Images of these coins are almost as difficult to locate as the coins themselves. It was only the generosity of Dan Hamelberg, who provided vital information from his extensive numismatic library, that made this study possible.
The firm of Wass, Molitor & Co. was founded by two exiled Hungarian patriots, Count Samuel C. Wass and Agoston P. Molitor. They attended the prestigious School of Mines of Germany and acquired much practical experience working in various Hungarian mines before participating in their country's gallant, but futile, attempt to win independence from Austria in 1848. Forced to flee their homeland, Wass and Molitor were naturally drawn to the great opportunities offered by the California Gold Rush of 1849. Wass arrived in California in October 1850 and Molitor followed in 1851. In October 1851, the two men founded an assaying office on Montgomery Street, below Bush, in San Francisco, but soon moved to a fireproof building on the corner of Merchant and Montgomery Streets. Both men were expert craftsmen and Wass, Molitor & Co. became one of the finest assaying firms in the area. The firm established a reputation for honesty that was second-to-none, and their practice of paying back depositors in 48 hours (rather than the eight days required by the U.S. Assay Office) made them extremely popular with a variety of clients, including express company giant Adams & Co.
All private mints in the territory were closed in April 1851 by order of the California Legislature. Only the U.S. Assay Office continued to issue coinage, in the form of fifty dollar slugs that were too large for many day-to-day transactions. The resulting shortage of circulating coinage prompted Wass, Molitor & Co. to start up a coining operation of their own. They first acquired dies for coinage in 1851 and began issuing five dollar pieces on January 6, 1852. The five dollar coins were shown to include $5.04 intrinsic value in gold when turned in to the U.S. Assay office, and some $7,000-$8,000 in five dollar pieces was issued daily by the firm during this period. The company began issuing ten dollar coins a week later. These coins were well-received and seemingly met the local need for coinage for some time, as no 1853 or 1854-dated coins were issued. The opening of the U.S. branch mint in San Francisco appeared to spell the end for Wass, Molitor coinage, but one final chapter was still to come.
A shortage of parting acids, among other problems, caused the San Francisco Mint to close at intermittent intervals during its first few years of operations, and the facility was unable to meet the needs of the regional economy on its own. During a particularly desperate period in March 1855, local merchants and bankers petitioned Wass, Molitor & Co. to resume private coinage to alleviate the situation. The firm responded promptly, and issued coins in ten, twenty, and fifty dollar denominations. The twenty dollar coins included both the Large and Small Head designs we are familiar with today. 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. coins were turned in for recoinage at the San Francisco Mint and almost the entire mintage of Large Head twenty dollar coins was destroyed at an early date.
The early history of the present coin is unknown, but it surfaced before any of the other specimens in our roster, in the collection of O.P. Hayes, Esquire, of San Francisco, California. It moved from there through the famous collections of DeWitt Smith and Virgil Brand, and was a highlight of the fabulous collection of Belden Roach by the early 1940s. When this coin sold in lot 298 of the Belden Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1944), Mehl summarized the then-current knowledge about the rarity and history of the piece:
"The Exceedingly Rare Wass Molitor & Co. Twenty-Dollar Gold Piece WITH LARGE HEAD
"Lot no. 298
"1855, $20.00. Wass Molitor & Co. Obverse, very large head, diadem inscribed W.M. & Co. Date below. Thirteen six pointed stars. Reverse, small eagle, shield on breast, an olive branch in its right talon and three arrows in its left. 900 THOUS. On small scroll above. Legend SAN FRANCISCO CALIFORNIA TWENTY DOL. Milled edge. Fine to very fine. Of excessive rarity. Only three specimens known to exist, one of which is in the Yale University Numismatic Collection. Another is in the great Mid-West Collection which will undoubtedly never come on the market in our lifetime. And this one is the only one now available. The specimen in the Mid-West Collection I sold some fifteen years ago for well over $2,000.00. The specimen in the Yale Collection is from the Lawrence Sale, 1929, where the coin brought &7,000.00. The specimen here offered is the second best. One of the real great rarities of the Pioneer Gold Series. When we consider the number of specimens known to exist and the still smaller available, I consider this coin equal in rarity to any Pioneer gold coin. It has a starting bid of $2,000.00. This coin is originally from the great Virgil Brand Collection of Chicago."
The coin sold for $2,000 to Frederic W. Geiss. The Mid-West Collection Mehl referred to was the collection of Charles M. Williams, an insurance company mogul from Cincinnati, Ohio. Apparently, Mehl was not aware of the second example of this issue in Virgil Brand's holdings, as it did not emerge from his estate until 1951, eventually finding a home in the Smithsonian Institution. The $7,000 price realized by the example in the Lawrence sale was extremely high for any coin at the time. However, it was only the second-highest price realized in the Lawrence sale, following the Massachusetts and California $5 gold piece in lot 1384 that realized a staggering $7,900. Both of these prices broke the record for any coin previously sold at auction, set by the Brasher doubloon in the Stickney sale in 1907, a record that stood for more than two decades. After Geiss sold his collection in 1947, this coin was a centerpiece of the famous Carter Family Collection until 1984. The January 1984 Stack's sale of the Carter Collection was the last time this, or any other, Wass, Molitor & Co. Large Head twenty dollar coin was publicly offered.
The present coin is the finest-certified example, and probably challenges the Smithsonian coin for finest-known honors among the Wass, Molitor & Co. Large Head twenty dollar pieces. Of course, it is absolutely the finest-known specimen of this newly discovered variety, as it is believed to be unique. The design elements exhibit only light wear and retain much of their original design detail. The pleasing orange-gold surfaces show a few russet highlights, and traces of mint luster remain in sheltered areas. This piece is lightly abraded for such a large gold coin. Prices realized for some exceptional Territorial gold coins offered at auction in the past year have approached, and even exceeded the $1 million mark, including the $1,072,000 realized by the magnificent MS68 NGC example of the 1852 Humbert ten dollar in lot 4058 of the Eric P. Newman Collection, Part I (Heritage, 4/2013). We expect intense competition from advanced Territorial gold collectors when this unique and historic issue crosses the auction block for the first time in more than 30 years. Listed on page 390 of the 2014 Guide Book.
Roster of 1855 Wass-Molitor & Co. Large Head Twenty Dollar Gold Pieces
1. AU53 NGC. Possibly O.P. Hayes Collection (S.H. & H. Chapman, 2/1896), lot 51, realized $132.50; DeWitt Smith; Virgil Brand (Journal number 47413); Brand Estate; Horace Brand; Ruth Green, advertised in the December 1942 issue of The Numismatist, page 928; Belden Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1944), lot 298, realized $2,000; Frederic W. Geiss Collection (Mehl, 2/1947), lot 2226, realized $1,750; Amon G. Carter, Sr.; Amon G. Carter, Jr.; Carter Family Collection (Stack's, 1/1984), lot 1161, realized $40,700; unknown intermediaries; the present coin.
2. AU53 PCGS. Discovered circa 1922 per Wayne Burt; Dr. George Alfred Lawrence Collection (Thomas Elder, 6/1929), lot 1406, realized $7,000; Henry Chapman; Francis Patrick Garvin; Yale University; stolen in 1967; believed recovered, present location unknown.
3. AU55, per numismatist David McCarthy. Recovered from a consignment of coins from the United States of Columbia received by the banking firm of Zimmerman & Forshay in 1908; Public Auction XVI (Thomas Elder, 4/1908), lot 838; Virgil Brand; Brand Estate; Horace Brand; Ruth Green, advertised in the April 1951 issue of the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine; unknown intermediaries; Abner Kreisberg; Josiah K. Lilly; Lilly Estate; Smithsonian Institution. The Kagin plate coin.
4, XF40. Waldo Newcomer; B. Max Mehl, circa 1931; Charles M. Williams; Abe Kosoff; offered in the January 1951 issue of the Numismatic Gallery Monthly; Lammot duPont; Willis H. duPont; stolen in 1967; present location unknown.
From The Riverboat Collection. (NGC ID# ANJT, PCGS# 10360)
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