1860 $20 Clark, Gruber SP64 PCGS. Special Strike. The historical associations of many rare coins are tenuous at best: they happened to have been made at this or that time, by this or that government. Nothing more than their styles and the dates they bear link them to any given time. Far rarer are the precious few historical coins, however, that not only exist as emblems of their times but in fact could have originated nowhere else, in no other time--they were born at a distinct moment, and were issued by the very hands of the people who caused that moment to happen.
Such is the case with this special--and specially made--golden rarity from the early days of the territory of Colorado.
The story of this marvelous coin literally reflects the story of early Colorado. Its modern, or "settled," history began within a year of when this coin came into existence, for while small amounts of gold and silver were found here and there during the preceding few decades, it was not until May of 1859 that a rich lode of gold ore was found in the hills of the low Rocky Mountains near Central City.
Soon the news reached the East of the richness of the gold ore and dust, seemingly found almost everywhere in the area now, belying the frustrations of a few earlier mining parties who had previously struck nothing, despite digging all over the same general area from 1852 and pretty much giving up the game. Suddenly it all changed. Thousands of hopeful miners came from Eastern and Midwestern towns, and in the same year of the big discovery at Central City some citizens formed a committee, and the Colorado Territory was born. It was still a wild place, though, with basic needs and provisions in short supply. As Don Kagin so aptly phrased it, "A man's wealth was in his supplies and materials. As mining increased, so did the use of gold dust to pay the merchants' bills"--to buy horses and guns and ammo and traps to capture food and the materials needed to pan the streams for gold dust."
As the fineness of the dust varied depending on what area it came from, some way was needed to assure merchants that so many grams or ounces of dust had distinct value. Some of the best ore came from mines that were figuratively in the shadow of Colorado's most famous landmark, a high mountain named after Zebulon Pike, who had explored the area in 1806, opening the way for future settlers. As gold poured from the hills and streams, individual gold-dust brokers could not handle the volume: they paid varyingly from $12 to $16 an ounce for the dust, giving the miners drafts on Eastern banks or federal gold coins. This often involved a waiting period until the shipped ore or dust was returned from Philadelphia minted into spendable coins. Most miners needed the funds quickly, though, to continue mining. The shipments to the East also involved considerable risk of loss (bandits and Indian raids among them), as well as a cost of up to 10% of their value to pay for insurance and shipping. During the normal period of up to three months in which miners waited for specie payment, the price of gold itself tended to fluctuate, adding to the uncertainty of the value of their dust and ore. Something had to be done.
The brokers of gold dust and most of the merchants who formed the early private banks in the territory seemed content with this type of business. The need for a local mint, to coin the ore and dust and thereby eliminate most of the risk and delay in being paid, was conceived by one of those bankers, former Midwestern grocer-merchants Austin and Milton Clark (from Ohio originally), who had moved into the area from Kansas when the first glimmers of a gold strike reached them in 1857, and Emanuel Gruber (from Maryland originally), who had been a bank cashier in Missouri. They announced the formation of Clark, Gruber & Co. in the spring of 1859 and, as the volume of their brokerage business expanded, the burdens of waiting for the Philadelphia Mint to return the raw gold in theform of coins became unbearable.
The surviving interview with Gruber from a newspaper of 1904 (recorded fully by Don Kagin on page 214 of his book Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States) is a remarkable document. He said that "one day the idea struck me that the firm of Clark, Gruber & Co. bankers should also become coiners." Within days the partners had found that no law existed against the issuance of privately made coins so long as the specie content was of full weight. Milton Clark himself evidently traveled to Philadelphia and New York to arrange for the creation of coinage dies and machinery (including a big safe), which was sent to them in Colorado by ox-team and overland express; they bought land in "Denver City" in January of 1860, and shortly (that summer) their "bank and mint" was in operation--turning out coins of convenience to the miners and merchants of the early territory that would soon acquire a reputation for consistently high intrinsic value. Naturally alloyed with silver ore, the coins thus produced featured the American eagle on their reverses, and either Liberty's head or a portrayal of Pikes Peak on their obverses.
Kagin relates that the mint was soon churning out coins on a 24-hour basis, and that this continued for two years until their operation was sold to the U.S. government in 1863. By 1862 the mint produced mainly gold bars. The coins of 1861 had more silver added to the alloy because the pure native alloy used for the coins of 1860 proved too soft, allowing the pieces to be easily marred. Only the 1860 coinage, therefore, was made of unchanged native ore and dust, and is the purest. The firm continued in the banking business for a short while after the sale of its mint in 1863, operating several offices including one in Central City where it all began, but in 1864 Clark, Gruber & Co. dissolved itself. Forty years later, Emanuel Gruber related his story to the Denver newspaper, but virtually all of his mint's splendid coins had vanished. Those that survived the transitions of the West bear witness to the enterprise. The largest coins, the twenties showing the "golden" mountain that made Colorado known outside the confines of its mining communities, and that led to the territory's statehood, almost all show, by their very nature, the difficulty of making coins so fine yet also well detailed. This very special specimen is both exceptional in its appearance and the ultimate testimony to the endeavors of the people who opened that wild land to civilization. All but a few of the Big Pikes Peak twenties perished and disappeared into history. One coin outside of museum collections stands alone as the finest achievement of those long-gone, golden days.
Over the years, this coin has been called a proof, prooflike, and Mint State. When it appeared in the 1947 ANA Auction (Numismatic Gallery), Abe Kosoff and Abner Kreisberg related that this "superb specimen was originally held by the owners of Clark Gruber & Co. Subsequently it was in the Mann and Col. Green Collections for many years. It was acquired by the NUMISMATIC GALLERY from the C. David Pierce Collection and sold to its present New York owner. The old envelope called this coin a proof and it is the prettiest thing we've seen." The coin sold for $2,700 and was offered in March of the next year with essentially the same description. In each of these long-ago auctions, the subject of the proof status was never directly addressed. Rather Kosoff and Kreisberg let the coin and its price realized speak for itself, with the only mention of proof status written on an envelope that was already separated from the coin 60 years ago. When RARCOA offered this coin in their 1970 ANA Auction, they described it as "Superb Gem Uncirculated with Proof-Like Surfaces."
It is currently termed a Specimen 64-Special Strike. That designation seems to be the most accurate description of the coin's surfaces. It is certainly more than a regular striking of the 1860 Clark, Gruber twenty. Yet, the surfaces lack the profound depth of reflectivity seen on federal proof coinage. As a Specimen striking, that places it somewhere in between these two finishes. This Specimen, as with many early (pre-1858) federal proof coins, finally resolves itself down to a question of intent. Was there a clear intent on the part of the maker to strike a coin that was distinctly different from normal production pieces? Even casual examination of this coin will answer this question "yes."
The Kagin reference makes a short but telling reference to what can be expected from the strike on the 1860 double eagle from this Colorado manufacturer: "Shield always weak." That is clearly not the case with this coin. All the shield stripes and bars are fully formed, an obvious attempt to strike up all the details that were engraved in the dies. Looking elsewhere on the coin, the other design elements are also fully defined. This is also the case with the proof in the Smithsonian: fully struck in all areas.
The fields show a slightly granular texture with light die striations over each side. The obverse (Pikes Peak side) shows more of the rippling granularity and less evidence of striations. The reverse, on the other hand, shows pronounced die striations which resulted in a more reflective surface on that side. The die polishing on the reverse also shows an interesting feature. That side was polished so vigorously that portions of the devices were partially effaced. This is especially apparent within the fletchings of the upper arrow, the attenuated arrow closest to the eagle's claws, the upper portion of the eagle's claws, and missing inner feathers on both of the wings. On the obverse, slight evidence can be seen of this same overpolishing by the disconnected leaves on the shrubbery to the right of Pikes Peak. This was certainly an unintended consequence by the coiner, and it is a feature that would never be a desirable outcome in coin production. But the lack of these details clearly shows two things: the intent to produce a coin with reflective surfaces, and a lack of experience in doing so.
Otherwise, the surfaces are bright yellow-gold, and as the grade indicates minimally abraded. The only mark that we see that could be used to positively identify this piece is a vertical, shallow abrasion from just below the B in GRUBER down to the top of the eagle's head. A magnificent specimen striking of this important and historically significant Territorial gold coin. (#10147)