The story of the gold rush is, in some sense, the story of America. Adventures into a new and strange land, making your fortune and living happily ever after may not have been the case for the majority of those who headed west, but the story itself has endured. The wild west still inspires Hollywood more than a century after it can be said to truly have ended, and stories such as that which came out of the other side of the country earlier this year continue to capture the imagination.
When gold was first discovered at Stutter Mill in 1948, there simply wasn’t an infrastructure for minting in place for such a remote region, and gaining the gold’s worth was difficult. In fact, many of the residents of gold towns began trading nuggets themselves as a means of currency. By the middle of the next decade, however, the government had began minting the gold into currency. To begin with, this produced the Half American Eagle, which had a face value of $5. Unfortunately, production was not smooth and fewer than 300 were circulated. Until this discovery, only three were thought to exist, making it extremely sought after and giving the coin an almost magical air for collectors.
Despite the coins failure to become widely circulated, or perhaps because of it, it soon became something of an icon and many reproductions were created for collectors in the more than 150 years since. This led to a collector in New England to believe that his coin was one of these “Fakes”, despite how convincing it appeared.
When showing it to other collectors at a convention, the received wisdom was the coin was a “Tribute” and relatively worthless, although aesthetically pleasing. The alternative would be the equivalent of “Finding a Picasso at a garage sale,” according to NGC chairman Mark Salzberg.
Authenticating the coin was not straightforward and many things had to be taken into consideration before the anonymous collector could reap the rewards of the coin’s value. For starter’s, one of the very few remaining coins in existence was stolen when W.H. Dupont and his family were tied up in their Florida mansion and gunmen seized the coin along with several thousand other rare coins in the late 1960’s. The robbery is among one of the most infamous in American history and much effort has been made to trace the stolen goods ever since.Authentication of the coin’s origin was also complex, with various tests required to ensure that dating and other peculiarities match what is known about the original from one of the other two coins in existence (kept at the Smithsonian Museum) using high resolution pictures. No doubt, this was a highly stressful period for the soon to be lucky collector, with wild rumours about the coin’s value doing the rounds in collector circles. The Numismatic Garanty Corporation (NGC), a Florida based group of authentication experts, however, found that not only was it not part of the stolen lot, it was indeed an original.
So how much exactly is the coin worth? There is some debate about this, but the general consensus is that it is in the millions of dollars. The less rare Quarter American Eagle fetched $200,000 each when around a dozen of them were auctioned in the early 2000’s. As the amount of American Half Eagles known to still exist can be counted on one hand, this find has record breaking potential.
Other questions that the curious want answered is where did this coin come from? Apparently the collector isn’t letting on, but whatever the outcome of the auction and the story coin’s background, collectors and those who enjoy a good luck story will be watching with great interest. Mostly though, those with an interest in the history of the United States will be fascinated to catch sight of a genuine piece of the country’s past.