Rare 1862 gilt coins offer glimpse into B.C.’s gold rush

Coin shows are often full of special finds, and the recent RCNA Show and Bourse didn’t disappoint as collectors had an opportunity to view a rare set of 1862 British Columbia pattern coins.

The two rare coins were on display at Sandy Campbell’s booth, during the 62nd annual convention of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA), held in Halifax, N.S.

Campbell, owner of Proof Positive Coins in Baddeck, N.S., has been showing off his jointly owned set of 1862 British Columbia pattern coins, which are worth more than $2.5 million altogether.

Campbell has been at shows all across Canada since August 2007, when he and Ian Laing, owner of Gatewest Coin Ltd., in Winnipeg, Man., jointly purchased the coins.

Campbell has the coins displayed together in a Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) holder, showing grades of SP-63 and -63-plus for the $10 “BC-1b” gilt coin and $20 “BC-2a” gilt coin, respectively. They come from the collections of esteemed U.S. numismatists Max Mehl, Virgil Brand and John Temple.

During the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858, about 30,000 gold miners flooded the banks of British Columbia’s longest river in what was the first big gold rush in Western Canada; however, all was not well, as there was an urgent and vital need for coinage with which to exchange the newly found gold dust. Despite appealing to Great Britain, the Province of Canada saw little help.

And despite there being some temporary relief provided by the colony’s government-issued banknotes, which first appeared in January 1862, the bills were redeemed by the government; making matters worse, the province experienced a rapid population growth soon after.

In an attempt to keep business within the colony and accommodate the miners that were being turned away to San Francisco to assay their gold, an assay office was established in New Westminster. Completed in May 1860, the operation proved to be a failure, ceasing to function by the end of 1867.

Although there was no provision to establish a mint in New Westminster when the assay office was first completed, this idea was quickly supported by The British Columbian; meanwhile, the media in Victoria, B.C. sought the mint for itself, the island capital. Finally, in 1861, amid seemingly endless gold discoveries, Governor James Douglas sought permission from Britain to establish a minting operation in conjunction with the assay office.

Eventually, the commission to design and strike $10 and $20 dies was given to a company, called Mr. Wagner of Vanderslices Silver Manufactory in San Francisco.

Albert Kuner, an engraver for Vanderslices, struck several silver trial pieces and sent them to British Columbia with the dies, each of which prominently displayed his name and initial – “Kuner A” – below the wreath on the reverse. He’s considered among the most famous engravers of the west coast and cut the dies for most of the privately issued gold coins during this time, Campbell said.

In April 1862, more than $5,000 of minting equipment arrived in New Westminster; however, Douglas refused any further funding for its installation, advising Royal Engineer William D. Gosset to hold off. Then after finally agreeing to pay the balance of the funding to set up the mint, Douglas refused to appoint an engineer to run it.

It would be a while still before he agreed to mint something, which turned out to be £100 in British Columbia gold pieces that would be displayed at the 1862 London Industrial Exhibition. Even after these gold coins were struck, Douglas wouldn’t allow them to be sent, although further protests caused him to relent and allow 18 $10 coins and 10 $20 coins to be struck and sent to the exhibition; however, Douglas demanded the coins be melted for bullion afterwards.

Gosset, who was also British Columbia’s treasurer, was allowed to keep two specimens. The few surviving pieces were likely acquired by senior members of the government.

KNOWN TO EXIST

The Sid and Alicia Belzberg collection of Canadian coinage included some 1862 British Columbia $10 and $20 gold and silver coins, which are among the rarest North American pattern coins, said Campbell.

Because British Columbia had not yet received permission to strike coins, these coins are considered patterns, of which very few are known to exist.

Of the $10 silver coins, five examples, two of which are in museums, are known to exist. There are even fewer of the $20 silver specimen, and two of these four coins are in museums.

There are five of the $20 gold specimens known to exist, but only two are available to collectors (one of which is co-owned and being displayed by Campbell) as the remaining three are held in institutions, Campbell said: one is in the British Museum in London, England and is “most likely the set Gosset had framed;” another can be found in the British Columbia Archives in Victoria, B.C.; and the last $20 gold coin is in the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce Collection.

Finally, the “rarest of the four coins”, said Campbell, is the $10 gold specimen, of which only three are known to exist. Of those, two are in museums of which one is in poor condition. The other set Campbell co-owns actually belonged to Kuner.

“There are two such pairs in gilt; the other resides in the Bank of Canada currency collection.”

Campbell added this set was acquired by esteemed U.S. numismatist Max Mehl from the Kuner estate.

“Mehl in turn sold the set to Virgil Brand. In the early 1980’s, John Temple purchased the set in the Brand auction.”

Campbell said the set is currently owned by PPC and Gatewest Coin and is not for sale “but would have a current value of $2.5 million.”

QUEBEC MEDAL

Campbell and Laing also jointly own a silver medal – one of only two such examples that have surfaced in the past 40 years – that’s being offered for $30,000.

The medal was struck to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec. It was struck in 1908 in Paris, France and based on a design by Henri Dubois (1859-1930), who came from a respected family of engravers. The medal’s obverse depicts Samuel Champlain (1567-1635) stepping off his ship and claiming new land. Alongside Champlain are the crowns of King Henry IV of France (1608) and Edward VII of England (1908), the two founding nations. The medal’s reverse depicts France and England beneath the tree of life, with the caption, “BORN UNDER LILIES OF FRANCE AND IMPROVED UNDER THE ROSES OF ENGLAND”.

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