1852 $50 U.S. Assay Office of Gold “887 THOUS.” Target Reverse PCGS MS62



1852 $50 United States Assay Office. Augustus Humbert. K-13. “887 THOUS.” Target Reverse, No 50 in Center. PCGS MS62. What a marvelous relic of the California Gold Rush that took place over 165 years ago! One can typically only hope to see a Mint State example of a $50 “slug” let alone have the opportunity to acquire one. The present example displays original light golden-yellow surfaces accompanied by attractive orange highlights. The obverse certainly shows more central detail than most of the examples we have had the privilege to examine, or own, and the lustrous and very attractive reverse is remarkably free from any distracting contact marks.

This extremely rare variety may well be the second finest known. PCGS Coin Facts reports only three other examples in this lofty grade of higher. Lot 1516, Bowers & Merena, January 1999 estimated by PCGS as “SP63,” which realized $189,500. Heritage sold an NGC-62 for $49,500 in March 2004. A PCGS 62 example, Lot 1212 in the June 2005 Goldberg Sale realized $138,000.  With only three MS-62 or better examples of this variety reported, and none since 2005, we need to look at data from the sale of other varieties in order to attempt to establish a more current value. For example, in January of 2014 Heritage sold Lot 5621, an 1851 887 Thous. K-6, PCGS 62 for $440,625. The current PCGS Price Guide lists K-6 MS-62 examples at $325,000. 

Early in 1852 Moffat & Co. was dissolved and John L. Moffat severed all connections with his former partners. They continued in the business under the name of Curtis, Perry & Ward. The Treasury Department, as authorized by the 31st Congress on September 30, 1850, transferred the Contract for Smelting and Assaying Gold in California, to the new partnership. Augustus Humbert stayed on as U. S. Assayer with the organization now called The United States Assay Office of Gold. In spite of the slight change in title the firm continued to work as a provisional mint operating under emergency conditions. While the designs adopted for the issues included an undeniably American Eagle, the coins deliberately avoided any close resemblance to those of the regular U.S. mints. Nevertheless the fact that they carried the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA gave them an official status and guaranteed their weight and fineness.

The somewhat irregular nature of the USAOG was not only a reflection of the crisis conditions then prevailing in the California gold fields, but a deliberate, and necessary, attempt to evade the Mint Act of January 18, 1837. The Act provided that U.S. Gold coins be .900 fine with no more than 50 parts of silver in an otherwise pure copper alloy. It was virtually impossible to conform to this regulation. Copper was in short supply in California and the parting acids required in the refining process could not be shipped safely either by land or sea. Nevertheless the coinage of the USAOG was accepted in payment of obligations to the federal government thanks to the realistic attitude of the U.S. Collector of Customs, T. Butler King, who managed in spite of conflicting instructions from Washington.

The efforts of the Assay Office of Gold to conform to the law, meet the necessities of the time, and yet operate at a profit were varied and complex. For a long time, the details were not easy to penetrate in depth. In recent years they have, however, begun to become less obscure. In the last decade positive evidence was provided by a hoard of regular coins, patterns, trial pieces and ingots. In addition, research in the National Archives has greatly enlarged our knowledge of the firms operations and the means taken to solve some of the many problems facing it. This information is of great interest to collectors with whom the USAOG coinage has long been popular.

On July 3, 1852 Congress finally passed the Act authorizing the establishment of a United Sates Branch Mint in San Francisco. Curtis was able to buy the contract for the new mint and the following year the USAOG was transferred to the federal government for $285,000. This sum included $425,000, for an expansion of the original premises under Curtis supervision. Meanwhile Perry undertook to acquire $50,000.00 worth of machinery. The old provisional mint was finally able to go into operation as the U.S. Branch Mint, San Francisco, on April 3, 1854. The first double eagles of the standard national design were struck on April 15, 1854.