1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. Fifty Dollar, MS63
1855 $50 Wass Molitor Fifty Dollar MS63 NGC. K-9, R.5. The
Wass, Molitor & Co. fifty dollar gold piece was the flagship
coin for that company's 1855 coinage issue. The firm had stopped
striking coins after 1852, in anticipation of the opening of the
San Francisco Mint. Unfortunately, many problems arose that
hampered the operations of the federal facility in its early years.
A shortage of parting acids was particularly troublesome in
refining the raw gold turned in by depositors to suitable fineness
for coinage. The Mint was forced to close on intermittent occasions
and found itself unable to meet the demand for coinage in the
regional economy. When the Mint experienced an especially long
layoff in March of 1855, a group of influential bankers and
merchants petitioned Wass, Molitor & Co. to resume coinage
operations to alleviate the situation.
Sought-After Round California Issue
Tied for Second-Finest Certified
Wass, Molitor & Co. replied on March 24 that they would begin issuing coins within the week. Ten dollar coins were struck first, followed by twenty and fifty dollar pieces shortly afterward. The Wass, Molitor fifty dollar pieces were round, unlike the familiar octagonal slugs issued by the United States Assay Office. They were eagerly accepted, as the firm had established a reputation for honesty that was fully justified by an assay conducted by Agoston Haraszthy at the San Francisco Mint. The subsidiary coinage of ten and twenty dollar coins was accepted without question as well.
The obverse design of the 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. fifty dollar gold piece features a central bust of Liberty, with no inscription on the coronet, surrounded by 13 stars and the date below. The reverse displays the legends SAN FRANCISCO CALIFORNIA above and WASS, MOLITOR & CO. below. The denomination, expressed as 50/DOLLARS, is enclosed by a wreath, with a ribbon inscribed 900 THOUS. above. Although the design is not really beautiful, the coins were well-received by the public. An article in the April 30, 1855 edition of the Sacramento Daily Union summarized the popular feeling:
"This coin is circular, almost entirely destitute of ornament, and plain as a maiden's countenance who has breathed the air of fifty summers...the coin certainly has no pretentions to beauty; nevertheless we would not like to refuse a few to break with our friends."
What they lacked in aesthetic appeal the Wass, Molitor fifty dollar pieces made up for in stately size and instant recognition. An article in the San Francisco Herald of March 1, 1854 outlined the desirability of such a coin for trade purposes:
"In a country like our own, where the currency is purely metallic, it is of great importance to have coins issued of a size which will admit of rapid and easy counting, both in receiving and paying money; and the experience of all our businessmen goes to show that in the absence of bank notes the Fifty Dollar piece is the most convenient coin for such a purpose."
The coins circulated widely throughout the region and in other parts of the country. An article in the Alta California reported that Wass, Molitor was issuing $38,000 worth of twenty and fifty dollar gold coins per day at their peak. Some of the coins were even used in international transactions and found their way into European collections. One such piece was the example in lot 679 of the John G. Murdoch Collection (Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 7/1903). This lot description followed four fifty dollar octagonal slugs in preceding lots:
"Another, 1855, ROUND, bust to left, with 1855 below, within a circle of stars; rev. 50 DOLLARS, within an olive wreath, with 900 THOUS. on a scroll above, WASS, MOLITOR & CO SAN FRANCISCO CALIFORNIA, edge grained, extremely fine and excessively rare. [Pl. VII]"
The lot was purchased by Samuel Hudson Chapman, for 84 pounds. Murdoch's collection also included the Mint State 1794 dollar that would later belong to George Earle and Harry Bass, which sold for 48 pounds to Spink, and the 1783 Nova Constellatio bit that is presently in the collection of the Eric P. Newman Numismatic Education Society, which also sold to Chapman, for 26 pounds (Heritage Auctions will offer this coin and many fine Colonial pieces from the Eric P. Newman Collection in a monumental Signature auction in May 2014). The current price realized record for the Wass, Molitor & Co. fifty dollar gold piece is $345,000 brought by the finest-known MS65 example, ex: Garrett, in Stack's sale of October 2003. Wass, Molitor ceased coinage operations after the 1855 coinage was dispersed.
The present coin is a spectacular MS63 specimen, which is tied with one other coin for second-finest honors at NGC (MS64 is finest). PCGS apparently graded one coin in MS63 previously, but it no longer appears in the Population Report, and no other PCGS-graded example is better than AU58 (3/14). The lustrous orange-gold surfaces of this Select piece are remarkably clean for such a large gold coin, and both sides retain significant amounts of original mint luster. The design elements are well-detailed, with full star centers and just a trace of softness on the ribbon bow. Eye appeal is outstanding. A diligent search of auction records reveals no offering of an MS63-certified Wass, Molitor fifty dollar gold piece since the inception of third party grading in 1986. Territorial gold enthusiasts should bid accordingly. Listed on page 390 of the 2014 Guide Book. Census: 2 in 63, 1 finer (3/14).
From The Riverboat Collection. (NGC ID# ANJU, PCGS# 10363)
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