UNITED STATES ASSAY OFFICE OF GOLD UNDER CURTIS, PERRY AND WARD (1852-1853)
Immediately following the official dissolution of Moffat & Co. on February 14, 1852, the three remaining partners, Joseph R. Curtis, Philo H. Perry, and Samuel H. Ward, formed the United States Assay Office of Gold, and assumed the government contract to issue gold coins and ingots. Augustus Humbert was instructed by Secretary of the Treasury Corwin to continue in his capacity as U. S. Assayer while working with Curtis, Perry and Ward, while at the same time, Customs Collector T. Butler King was informed by Corwin to accept the coinage of Curtis, Perry and Ward in receipt for custom payments.
Both the Herald and Alta California of February 16 carried announcements of the newly organized firm along with a scale of “reduced rates” for coining ranging from ¾ percent for bullion to 2 ¾ percent for $10 and $20 coins. The new rates, the firm explained, were made possible through “increased facilities.” Although not mentioned in the announcement, these increased facilities were probably a reference to a move to larger offices at 608 Commercial Street.
The spring and summer of 1852 were generally uneventful in the area of private coinage. The new United States Assay Office $10 and $20 issues seemingly met the commercial needs of California. There was, however, a futile request made in April by bankers and merchants to Curtis, Perry and Ward, and from them to Secretary Corwin, for an issuance of $5 coins.
Later that summer, a newspaper revealed that for the most part the United States Assay Office coins were being taken by bankers at par and in some cases being sold in Europe for as much as a ¼ to ½ percent premium. Then in September a new crisis developed. On September 4, 1852, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury William L. Hodge wrote collector King that pursuant to the federal law passed on August 31, his authority to receive coins of the U. S. Assay Office which were under .900 fine was revoked. The effect was virtually to deprive California of all legal currency.
In a revealing article published in the Herald relative to a Congressional speech delivered by California Senator Gwin, the reasons for such a decision became apparent. In his speech, Gwin admitted that not only did he support the new measure, but vigorously fought for its passage. He had become convinced that the only obstacle to passage of the much desired bill for establishing a branch mint in San Francisco was the continued support for the United States Assay Office. The latter, only intended as a temporary measure, was precluding the establishment of a mint in San Francisco officially authorized by Congress on July 3, 1852. By prohibiting receipt of the Assay Office issues, Gwin argued, this would effectively put an end to the quasi-mint.
An additional Congressional complaint against the Assay Office included the loss of American prestige if the Assay Office issues were traded abroad. The thinking was that the Mint Act of January 18, 1837, prescribed the fineness of U. S. gold as 900 parts per thousand fine with no more than 50 parts silver per thousand, and the remainder copper. Since copper was almost nonexistent in California and parting acids for purification very scarce, it was virtually impossible for the California assayers to comply fully with the law.
Instead, the latter issued coins of a natural alloy of silver in varying fineness of 880, 884, or 887 per thousand parts gold. If these coins of less than standard purity entered world commerce, the Congressmen argued, their sub-900 fineness would damage United States prestige. What these Congressmen did not point out, and may not have known, is that Humbert had accordingly increased the weight of the United States Assay Office coins in order that they would be of full mint value, thereby having more gold per coin to compensate for the lesser fineness.
Now the United States Assay Office’s quasi-legal tender status was not even that, as a result of the “.900 fine” amendment appended to the Civil and Diplomatic Bill passed by Congress on August 31, 1852. Its coins no longer were acceptable for payment of custom duties, despite the fact that the intrinsic value of these coins (due to their greater gold content) actually exceeded their face value in many cases.
Even more strangely, this same act which forbade the United States Assay Office issues, accepted foreign gold coins of Mexico, Peru, Chile, Central America, France, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain, and Colombia without regard to their fineness! Collector King was assured, however, that the Treasury Department would try to establish a mint in California as soon as possible. Until then, he would have to abide by the new law.
The obvious effects of such myopic action were published in the National Intelligencer (September 14, 1852):
“Perhaps a more unnecessarily severe and wanton injury has never been committed upon an entire community by the National Legislature, than this enactment, comprised in two lines, has inflicted upon the people of California.”
The paper went on to point out that the value of the Assay Office coins was sustained by their acceptance for custom dues, and that this new law would mean the virtual end to the Assay Office, resulting in great losses to the community. The new branch mint was not scheduled for operation for two years, and the necessity for a circulation currency acceptable for custom dues until that time was quite apparent to the California merchants.
Hodge’s letter to King arrived on October 8 and the entire community was overwhelmed with shock and dismay. The Herald and Alta California called the action “reckless” and “oppressive,” especially considering that there was less than one week’s supply of “acceptable” coin available and the process involved in making .900 fine coins of the proper alloy was extremely difficult and tedious. The United States Assay Office could make .900 fine coins without much greater effort and expense, although including copper might be extremely difficult. The principal problem surrounding the “.900 fine” law was that all previously acceptable gold coin in California circulation at that time suddenly became invalid for custom duties. What would the economy do until an ample supply of newly minted .900 fine gold coins with copper replaced the millions of dollars of invalidated coinage currently in the economy? Even more importantly, what would be done if the newly minted .900 fine coins did not contain the unobtainable copper?
The local merchants held an emergency meeting in the Merchant’s Exchange on October 9 to determine what action they might take to remedy the situation. Collector King was also present and explained that since he was not only collector but also assistant treasurer for California, he was obliged to follow the directive which forbade the Assay Office ingots.
He did, however, propose that if he were relieved of personal responsibility against loss, he would be willing to accept .900 fine coins without the proper admixture of copper. The committee agreed to indemnify King against any loss and soon after the United States Assay Office began striking .900 fine coins acceptable for customs dues. Congress was informed by King of this arrangement, which lasted until the Office closed on December 14, 1853, but took no action against it.
A memo was written to Secretary Corwin outlining that in effect there was now no circulating currency in California, that the price of gold had been as low as $6 to $8 an ounce, that the citizens were forced to pay ½ to 10 percent premium for U. S. coins, and that the refusal to accept Assay Office coins would result in an acute shortage of goods. In addition, the Act of September 30, 1850, they argued, made the ingots of the Assay Office coins of the United States. Furthermore, the merchants argued, the Assay Office had effectively driven out the undervalued private gold issues and had established a fair price for gold in California.
While the citizens of California desired a United States mint, until the time when it was operating some sort of medium was needed which would be accepted by the government for payment of custom dues. In conclusion, the merchants urged the Treasury Department to support Mr. King and allow him to accept the U. S. Assay Office coins after they had been made to conform with the standard fineness of regular United States coins, disregarding the copper content requirement.
Messrs. Curtis, Perry, and Ward were requested by the merchants to prepare and strike coins of .900 fineness for the United States Assay Office. The coiners finally agreed, adding that they thought this might be done in the course of a week. Evidently, the Treasury Department acquiesced to the requests of King and the merchants, for soon after the letter was sent to Corwin, coins of 900 fineness began to appear in circulation. Many were struck from dies which had been altered from 880 thous. to read 900, with later issues being made from melted-down issues of lower fineness.
It also seems that soon after the August 31, 1852, law was passed, Curtis sent Secretary Corwin a letter offering to abandon his company’s contract, believing the law would be disastrous to the company’s interest. But on October 30, realizing that recent events such as King’s acceptance of .900 fine coins still would enable the minter to provide the United States Assay Office coinage at a profit to the Company, Curtis asked to be released from his earlier letter. In accordance with his request, Curtis’s first letter was ignored and Curtis, Perry and Ward continued serving the government contract.
Soon afterwards, the Assay Office obtained machinery for use of their minting that was almost identical to that of the Philadelphia mint. The new capacity enabled them to issue some $360,000 in $10 pieces and $720,000 in $20 pieces per day. This development further enabled the company to reduce its tariff rates as follows:
|For $20 pieces, under 400 dwts
|For $20 pieces, from 4000 to 8000
|For $20 pieces, over 8000
|For $10 pieces, under 8000
|For $10 pieces, for 8000 and over
|For melting and assaying into bars
|For large amounts
It will be apparent on examining the above that the issue of [$50] ingots will for the present cease, as no person would pay the same percentage for coining them (1 ½ per cent the rate) as for $20 pieces. We may, therefore, congratulate ourselves on having soon a circulating medium without any of the objections so long and strenuously urged against the octagons."
These new tariffs, as predicted by Curtis, Perry and Ward, effectively put an end to the issuance of the $50 slugs. Few people would accept the cumbersome fifties at the same rate that they could obtain the much more convenient tens and twenties.
At this same time another severe coin shortage forced the businessmen of San Francisco to appeal again to the U. S. Assay Office of Gold to coin small denomination pieces. The minter was then out of parting acids and the shipments on order were late. Humbert made the decision to have emergency $10 and $20 dies cut imprinted at first with “.880” and then with “.884 THOUS”; an act in total defiance of the August 31, 1852, law. He hesitated as long as possible, and then commenced striking the lower fineness coins from February 23 to March 1, 1853. The new parting acids arrived before too many pieces were struck and immediately the .884 THOUS. pieces on hand were remelted and coined into .900 THOUS. coins. A very few of both the $10 and $20 pieces survive today.
Partner Samuel Ward died in April, and Curtis and Perry may have suspended coining operations soon after. They did make, however, one final issue. Until now, the 1853 MOFFAT & CO. $20 gold pieces have been a mystery since Moffat & Co. had ceased operations in February, 1852. The following announcement appearing in the Herald on July 26, 1853, reveals that in accordance with the dissolution contract, Curtis, Perry and Ward could use the name “Moffat & Co.,” thus explaining who issued 1853 dated coins with the abolished company’s name on them:
CARD – Curtis & Perry, survivors of Curtis, Perry and Ward, having for
the present discontinued operations under their contract with the Secretary
of the United States Treasury, for Smelting and Assaying Gold in
California, announce to the public that they will continue to receive
deposits of gold for melting and assaying into bars and ingots on the same
terms as heretofore.
Their BARS will be stamped “CURTIS, PERRY & WARD”, “AUGUSTUS
HUMBERT, ASSAYER,” together with their weight and fineness.
Their issues of TENS and TWENTIES will be stamped on the obverse:
“MOFFAT & CO” and on the reverse, “SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA,”
and will be nine hundredths thousands fine. The weight of the former will
be 258 grains, and of the latter 516 grains.
The name of the old firm, “Moffat & Co.” is retained in accordance with the
articles of dissolution.
Augustus Humbert, Esq., will continue his connection with the establish-
ment, and superintend, as formerly, the Assaying department.
CURTIS & PERRY, SURVIVORS & CO.
There is no present locatable explanation for why Curtis & Perry suddenly would issue private coins in light of the state’s law forbidding it and of their association with the United States Assay Office, which did not seem to terminate until November 1853. The line in their announcement (“Present discontinued operations under their [Assay Office] contract”) does not appear to be verified elsewhere.
Evidently the new coins were released that day, as the Alta California of the same date (July 26, 1853) stated that the coins were “attracting much admiration for their beautiful workmanship.” None of the $10 issues or any of the bars of “CURTIS, PERRY & WARD,” are known ever to have been issued.
In July, Treasury Secretary Corwin suggested to Director of the Mint Snowden that on November 1, 1853, the U. S. Assay Office of Gold should cease operations in preparation for the arrival of the branch mint. Officially, however, the United States Assay Office did not cease operations until December 14, 1853.
Curtis and Perry took that contract to furnish both building and machinery for the new United States Branch Mint. Curtis attended to the expansion of the building and Perry to the making of all arrangements for the machinery. Their offices on Commercial Street near Montgomery were expanded by some twenty feet, and it was there that the San Francisco Branch Mint began operations on April 15, 1854, by striking a number of $20 gold pieces. No plans were made to retain Humbert as assayer, nor did he indicate that he wanted the position. Agoston Haraszthy became the U. S. Mint Assayer, having obtained useful experience with Wass, Molitor & Co., a private minter functioning during the closure of the United States Assay Office and the opening of the United States branch mint.
--Reprinted with permission of the author
from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the
United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc. of New
Images courtesy of Ira
& Larry Goldberg Coins & Collectibles, Inc.
PCGS Proof-65 (illustrated above). Ex - Garrett
Sources and/or recommended
"Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States" by
Donald H. Kagin