Treasures from the gold rush and San Francisco lead Fall auction

Coins & Medals
2 Sep 2012
Los Angeles
Kellogg & Humbert 40.56 Ounce Gold Bar -­- Ex: S.S. Central America
The obverse is stamped: NO. 648 KELLOGG & HUMBE(RT) ASSAYE(RS) 40.56 OZ 8.87 FINE, and the value $743.70 at the base. The reverse is a plain casting save for the serial number 648 repeated at the top. The Kellogg & Humbert stamp is incomplete due to a light striking and some waviness in the gold casting.

The SS Central America, sometimes called the Ship of Gold, was a 280-foot side-wheel steamer that operated between Central America and the eastern coast of the United States during the 1850s. She was originally named the SS George Law, after George Law of New York. The ship sank in a hurricane in September 1857, along with more than 550 passengers and crew and 30,000 pounds of gold, contributing to the Panic of 1857.

On September 3, 1857, 477 passengers and 101 crew left the Panamanian port of Colón, sailing for New York City under the command of William Lewis Herndon. The ship was heavily laden with 10 tons of gold prospected during the California Gold Rush. After a stop in Havana, the ship continued north. On September 9, the ship was caught up in a Category II hurricane while off the coast of the Carolinas. By September 11, the 105 mph winds and heavy surf had shredded her sails, she was taking on water, and her boiler was threatening to go out. A leak in one of the seals to the paddle wheels sealed her fate, and, at noon that day, her boiler could no longer maintain fire. Steam pressure dropped, shutting down both the pumps keeping the water at bay and the paddle wheels that kept her pointed into the wind as the ship settled by the stern. The passengers and crew flew the ship's flag upside down (a universal sign of distress) to try to signal a passing ship. No one came. A bucket brigade was formed and her passengers and crew spent the night fighting a losing battle against the rising water. During the calm of the hurricane, attempts were made to get the boiler running again, but these all failed. The second half of the storm then struck. The ship was now on the verge of foundering. Without power, the ship was carried along with the storm, so the strong winds would not abate. The next morning, two ships were spotted. Then, 153 people, primarily women and children, managed to make their way over in lifeboats. However, the ship remained in an area of intense winds and heavy seas that pulled the ship and most of her company away from rescue and eventually took the ship and many of the roughly 425 people still on board to the bottom at around 8 pm that night. A Norwegian bark, Ellen, rescued an additional fifty from the waters. Another three were picked up over a week later in a lifeboat.

At the time of her sinking, the Central America carried gold then valued at approximately $2 million USD. The loss shook public confidence in the economy, and contributed to the Panic of 1857. Commander William Lewis Herndon, a distinguished officer who had served during the Mexican-American War and explored the Amazon Valley, was captain of the Central America. Commander Herndon went down with his ship. Two US Navy ships were later named USS Herndon in his honor, as was the town of Herndon, Virginia.

The ship was located by the use of Bayesian search theory and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) operated by the Columbus-America Discovery Group of Ohio, that was sent down on September 11, 1987. Significant amounts of gold and artifacts were recovered and brought to the surface by another ROV built specifically for the recovery. Tommy Thompson led the group. Thirty-nine insurance companies filed suit, claiming that because they paid damages in the 19th century for the lost gold, they had the right to it. The team that found it argued that the gold had been abandoned. After a legal battle, 92% of the gold was awarded to the discovery team in 1996. The total value of the recovered gold was estimated at $100–150 million. A recovered gold ingot weighing 80 lb (36 kg) sold for a record $8 million and was recognized as the most valuable piece of currency in the world at that time.

A lovely and highly impressive example that sports gleaming yellow-gold color and few imperfections as made. All other stamps are full and clear--a piece rich with historical appeal that is an indelible link to Gold Rush California. This lot includes a Certificate of Authenticity from the Columbus-America Discovery Group over the signature of Tommy Thompson indicating it was recovered from the S.S. Central America. Also included is a custom made presentation box.

Los Angeles — Bonhams is pleased to announce a strong result for its September 2 auction of Rare Coins and Medals in Los Angeles. During the fall sale, the auction house was privileged to offer several Gold Rush rarities including a highly sought after Kellogg & Humbert gold bar, coinage from the S.S. Central America, known by many as 'the ship of gold,' and two rare Panama Pacific $50 gold coins.

A lovely and highly impressive example from the S.S. Central America, the gold bar weighs 40.56 ounces and sports gleaming yellow-gold colour (est. $120,000-140,000, sold for $146,900). The ill-fated ship went down in a terrible hurricane 155 years ago on September 9, 1857 with great loss of life and property. The treasure was recovered in the late 20th century by the Columbus-America Discovery Group. This gold bar is a piece rich with historical appeal that is an indelible link to Gold Rush California. The lot includes a Certificate of Authenticity from the Columbus-America Discovery Group over the signature of Thompson indicating it was recovered from the S.S. Central America.

Paul Song, Director of the Rare Coins and Banknotes Department at Bonhams, said of the sale, "Material from Gold rush and San Francisco did extremely well during the fall auction. We were pleased to see a strong interest from private buyers with more than half of the top lots sold to individual collectors."

Also from 'the ship of gold' were two examples of frosty and brilliant honey-gold Gem 1857-S $20 MS66 PCGS with exceptional eye appeal and lively orange and olive highlights (est. $30,000-35,000, sold for $37,440 and $31,590). Following the dispersal of the S.S. Central America's treasure, thousands of 1857-S $20 pieces were discovered but only a small amount of them were of the remarkable Gem quality offered here.

Additional examples from California history included two rare models of the 1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific Exposition coins. Contributing to the lore of these pieces is the Congressional Act that authorised the United States Mint to strike $50 gold coins for sale in conjunction with the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and specified that a total of 3,000 pieces could be produced. Since initial sales for these impressive, large-size gold coins went fairly well, the authorities decided to proceed to strike the entire allotment. The delivery was split evenly between Round and Octagonal examples, with a few extra pieces of each type struck for assay purposes.

Sales of the coin eventually lagged due to the asking price of $100 per coin, which proved too steep among exposition attendees. Although Farran Zerbe continued to sell these coins via mail order after the exposition closed, Treasury Secretary William McAdoo ordered the return of all remaining examples to the Mint for destruction on November 1, 1916. A total of 1,017 Round and 85 Octagonal coins were melted, leaving net mintages of 483 and 645 pieces, respectively.

As a representative of the rarer of the two varieties, Bonhams proudly offered an exceptionally well-preserved Round version of the 1915-S $50 Panama-Pacific Exposition coin with original case (est. $70,000-80,000, sold for $69,030) and an unusual Octagonal style mounted in an old-time custom screw-top bezel with gold chain attached with a key at one end and corkscrew at the other end (est. $15,000-20,000, sold for $40,950). The remarkable Octagonal coin was initially purchased in 1915 at directly from the Panama-Pacific Exposition by the consignor's grandfather. As an avid wine enthusiast, he found a unique way to blend his two passions and had the item fashioned with a corkscrew.

Auctions of Rare Coins and Medals at Bonhams will continue on December 13 in New York. Highlights for the sale will be available in mid-September. For more information about the department, please visit


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to

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