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Rare gold: Paquet $20s are treasured
By R.W. Julian
June 16, 2017

The Number of varieties for U.S. gold coins, unlike silver and copper coins, is not all that high. The gold $20 of 1849-1907 is no exception to this rule and there is little in the way of change during these years. The motto was added in 1866 and the value spelled out from 1877 but otherwise, with one exception, there is little to interest the serious collector.

That one exception is the 1861 Paquet gold $20. Anthony C. Paquet (1814-1881) had served as assistant engraver at the Philadelphia Mint for several years; a native of Germany, he had worked in private industry before joining the Mint engraving staff at the request of chief engraver James B. Longacre.

During the late 1850s Paquet prepared several pattern coins but none was adopted for coinage. During the summer of 1860 the suggestion was made, perhaps by Paquet, that the reverse of the gold $20 be suitably modified so that the designs on both sides would strike up better in the coining presses.

During the fall of 1860 Paquet worked on the revised design until he was satisfied that he had accomplished the best that could be done. The new reverse is usually characterized by saying that it has taller lettering than the standard gold $20 reverse prepared in 1849.

The statement about taller letters is, of course, correct but there were other changes. Paquet also slightly revised the eagle motif and close examination shows several differences meant to improve the quality of the struck pieces.

After the new reverse hub (used to create working dies) was finished, the medal department struck pattern pieces in copper for Mint Director James Ross Snowden to consider. After a careful look at the new reverse, the director gave his permission to use the new reverse beginning in January 1861.

Because the gold $20 was the most important gold coin then being struck in this country, Snowden instructed that the engraving department prepare the necessary dies for the branch mints at San Francisco and New Orleans. There were, of course, two other mints, Dahlonega and Charlotte, but these two entities did not strike gold coins larger than gold $5.

The dies were duly shipped out but only those for New Orleans went by railroad. Those for San Francisco went overland by rail and stagecoach, the rail line to the West coast not being finished until 1869.

Coinage of gold $20s began the first week of January 1861 at Philadelphia but there were problems. In particular the new reverse dies had not been properly machined and sized to fit the coin presses. The resulting coins were then carefully examined, Snowden unexpectedly deciding to scrap the new reverse and go back to the old (pre-1861) die. The coins struck with the new reverse were then melted and the bullion used for a fresh run of gold $20s using the old reverse.

Once the decision had been made to abandon the Paquet reverse, the director notified the superintendents at New Orleans and San Francisco on Jan. 5 of the abrupt change in plans. The instructions to New Orleans went by telegraph but those for San Francisco were sent by ordinary mail; the telegraph line to the West, like the railroad, was under construction and would not be completed for some time.

The instructions to New Orleans were received in time to prevent any coinage with the new reverse but this was not the case at San Francisco. The Jan. 5 letter from Snowden was not received for four weeks.

In the meantime San Francisco Superintendent Charles Hempstead wrote Snowden on Jan. 10 that the new dies had been received but that there were some minor problems, thus delaying the gold $20 coinage. He indicated that the coiner was then working on the new reverses so that they could be used in the coining presses.

Snowden’s Jan. 5 letter arrived at the San Francisco Mint on Feb. 2, 28 days after being sent. On Feb. 9, Hempstead replied, noting that 19,250 gold $20s ($385,000) had been coined with the new reverse prior to the stop order being received.

The superintendent reported that the first attempt at coinage had resulted in a situation where “twenty pieces would pile too high.” The coiner then machined the reverse die by “decreasing the width of the border.” After that change, all worked perfectly. The date that gold $20 coinage began in 1861 at San Francisco is not available but probably was about the middle of January.

Because the stop order had not been received in time, the coiner had struck 19,250 pieces. Of these, some 2,000 pieces were minted in February just before the letter had been received. All of the coins had been paid promptly to depositors and there was now none on hand with the new reverse.

The special Paquet reverse used at San Francisco in January 1861 was not generally known to collectors until 1937 but the Philadelphia striking was reported as early as the 1870s; only two or three of the Philadelphia pieces are known. The 1861-S gold $20 is presently unknown in uncirculated although a few specimens are reasonably close.

There is always the chance that one of these rare coins will turn up in some unexpected place and enrich a collection.

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