This is one of the most difficult issues to find from the private coinage from the early Gold Rush in California. The devices show bold definition and little actual wear, but the surfaces were marred as so often seen and later smoothed in an effort to marginalize a few points of damage. The color is bright yellow-gold with no signs of toning. There are likely not more than 30 to 40 of these in existence today, and finding any example is a challenge for even the most seasoned numismatist.
The 1850 Baldwin & Co. $5 is similar in aspect to the federal half eagle except that the coronet of Miss Liberty (or is it Miss Baldwin?) is imprinted BALDWIN & Co. The reverse has the inscription S.M.V [Standard Mint Value; the period is omitted after the V on this die] CALIFORNIA GOLD in place of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
The firm of Baldwin & Co. was founded on March 15, 1850, as the successor to Frederick D. Kohler & Co., California state assayer. George C. Baldwin and Thomas S. Holman advertised Baldwin & Co. as assayers, refiners, and coiners who also did "all kinds of engraving." The boast, "our coin redeemable on presentation," was made.
In 1850 into 1851 there was a shortage of gold coins of all kinds in circulation, and for a time pieces made in quantity by Baldwin that year circulated widely. Private coinage was conducted at a furious pace in San Francisco. In early 1851 the best known of all firms--Moffat & Co.--was busy implementing its new federal contract with Augustus Humbert as its assayer and was producing only $50 pieces after January. Thus, certain lesser known private firms had a field day making smaller denominations such as $5, $10, and, to a lesser extent, $20. The coinage of Baldwin was quite extensive and was second only to that of the United States Assay Office operated by Moffat. From January 1 to March 31, 1851, Baldwin outranked the Assay Office by producing $590,000 worth of coins as compared to efforts totaling $530,000 by the latter firm.
This ideal situation was lost for Baldwin when on March 21, 1851, a prominently local banker who styled himself as James King of William (to differentiate himself from other James Kings) sent samples of private gold coins to Augustus Humbert, official U.S. assayer in residence at Moffat & Co. Transmitted were the following coins: Baldwin & Co. $20, 13 coins; $10, 10 coins; $5, 28 coins; Schultz & Co. $5, 45 coins; Dubosq $10, 7 coins; and $5, 3 coins.
It was found that the Baldwin $20 pieces averaged an intrinsic value of $19.40, the $10 pieces averaged $9.74, and the $5 pieces were valued at $4.91. This seemingly unreasonable profit on the part of the coiners caused much public indignation, and from that point forward Baldwin coins were rejected by merchants. Of course, Humbert, being in the employ of a competitor, was hardly impartial!
The Alta California editorially noted that the holders of Baldwin $20 gold pieces would lose 60 cents on each coin, and that the best value was received by owners of Dubosq pieces who would lose only seven cents on each $10 transaction. The result of this editorial discussion was that banking houses immediately refused to handle any coins at face value with the exception of those made by Moffat & Co. It is believed that upon disclosure of Humbert's findings and the trial by journalism the firm ceased coinage immediately. Later they changed hands at a 20% discount, a figure significantly less than their metallic value, thus enriching James King of William, Moffat & Co., and others who shared the spoils.
The end of the enterprise was chronicled by the Pacific News on April 17, 1851:
"We hear a story, which is pretty well authenticated, that Messrs. Baldwin & Bagley, the manufacturers of 'Baldwin’s coin,' left in the steamer Panama on Tuesday for the Atlantic states. This is of course what might have been anticipated as the finale of so magnificent a financial operation as the coinage of one or two millions of circulating medium upon which they have pocketed a profit from 10 to 15 per cent, less the expense of manufacturing the stuff. Unable longer to impose their false tokens upon the community, an outraged public will now pocket the loss and congratulate themselves that the swindle has been exposed even this early.
"The amount of this coin in circulation is not less than $1,000,000, and is probably nearer to two. But suppose that the smaller sum be correct, the profit to the manufacturers is one hundred thousand dollars. Whose swindling false token establishment is next to be chronicled amongst the 'departures for Panama'?"
In addition to Humbert's assay, a $10 piece of 1850 evaluated at the Philadelphia was found to have an intrinsic value of $9.96, which was not much different from a $10 of the highly-acclaimed Moffat & Co. which was assayed at $9.97. A group of 100 $20 pieces of 1851, assayed at the same institution, were found to have an average value of $19.33.
Meanwhile, San Francisco bankers continued to buy Baldwin coins at 80% of face value. For a $20 piece this mean paying $16 for a coin that had $19.33 or more worth of gold, a handsome profit and one that far exceeded any return that could be made in the normal assaying, refining, and coining business.
All of this was grossly unfair to Baldwin and had the collateral effect of removing the firm’s coins from circulation almost immediately--giving them the status of rarities to a later generation of numismatists.
From the Dr. Dexter Seymour Collection. Earlier from our (Stack's) sale of the Cincinnati Art Museum Collection, June 1977, lot 979. Auction tag included.