From the June 2003 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:
California Fractional Gold Book
By Mike Nourse
There is a new book that just came out in April 2003 on the subject of
California fractional gold coinage. Actually, it is not a new book; it is an
updated version of a book that was first printed 20 years ago in 1983. A great
deal has been learned about this series of coins since that time, and the
authors have done an excellent job of packing this 262 page book with tons of
The original book was entitled "California Pioneer Fractional Gold"
and was authored by the duo of Walter Breen and Ronald J. Gillio. It came out 20
years ago, and was intended to replace two older references on the subject, a
1932 book by Ed M. Lee (revised by Kenneth W. Lee in 1970 and 1979) and a 1980
(revised 1982) work by David Doering. This new edition still shows Breen and
Gillio as the primary authors, though a lot of the work on this new edition was
done by Robert D Leonard with assistance by others. Each California fractional
gold coin design has been given an identifying number commonly referred to as
its Breen-Gillio or 'BG' number. If you look at an advertisement in a numismatic
periodical, there is bound to be at least one advertisement that has some of
these tiny coins for sale, and you will therein see BG numbers in action.
This particular book starts out with the standard introduction and forward,
which only occupy a few pages before we get into the main section of the book.
At this point it is important to know that Walter Breen divided up the
California fractional gold series into what are called three periods. Period one
consists of coins produced from 1852 through 1857, and these coins are
distinguished by the fact that they were generally produced for the actual
function as coinage intended for circulation. The period two issues were
produced from 1858 through 1882 for purposes of providing souvenirs of the
California gold rush or small charms for jewelry as it had become illegal at
this time for anybody other than the US government to produce coinage for
circulation. The third period coinage has been produced from 1883 to present for
sale to collectors, often with the intent to deceive them.
When you see a California fractional gold piece, don't necessarily assume that
the date you see is the actual date the coin was minted! There was a good deal
of fudging involved where the date was concerned! In the period two era, some of
the coins were produced with earlier dates so that they would not appear to be
illegal issues produced after private coinage was outlawed. Additionally, the
fraudulent intent of many period three issues required a date much earlier than
the year in which they were produced.
Knowing that Mr. Breen divided the series up into three periods of production,
it will come as no surprise that the book is divided up into three sections.
Each section starts out with some background information, but quickly gets into
the coins themselves. To help with attributing a particular coin, there are flow
charts and tables that will help narrow down your particular coin to a range of
BG numbers based on the shape (round or octagonal), denomination, and date.
Within the chapter the coins are listed by their manufacturing entity.
The individual listings within each chapter start with a sharp black and white
photograph of an actual coin, blown up to about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The
images could have been made slightly larger (mostly for aesthetic purposes) but
the coin details are readily visible. Below the image is a basic description of
the coin, focusing on the details that differentiate this coin from the other BG
types. Weights and diameters of tested specimens are listed to help with
authentication. A brief history follows which tells the reader who discovered
the particular BG type if known, or the first auction appearance found. Die
states are listed if there are any known. Lastly, there will be a listing of all
known survivors in some cases or a listing of auction appearances in others.
Quite typically there are two to four coin types listed per page using a two
This is a fascinating book about some of the real coins of the California gold
rush! Obviously, the section of the book dealing with period one will be the
most interesting to persons interested in gold rush times as these pieces were
actually minted for the purpose of functioning as money. Handling one of these
coins in circulated condition forms a real connection with those days of 150
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