The California gold hoard: a story worth millions
When a lucky California couple found $10 million in gold coins buried in their backyard, perhaps no one saw their beauty – and their story – more vividly than Don Kagin.
The 63-year-old president of Kagin’s Inc. numismatic firm has spent the last nine months polishing and treating the coins, which were caked with over a century of grit and rust after having been buried in eight cans in California Gold Country.
“It isn’t just a bunch coins. It’s a story,” says Kagin, holding one of the restored coins in his hand – the most valuable coin, in fact, worth $1 million. “It’s a time capsule about America at the time that someone buried these coins. There is art and metallurgy and history and political science, all wrapped up in these coins.”
You see, Kagin, 63, is not just a coin polisher. Ever since his father started the family numismatic firm back in 1933, his life has been about the stories that coins tell. He’s worked on recovering coins from shipwrecks, such as the SS Central America, which sank in 1857 off the Carolinas coast while carrying 30,000 pounds of gold. The sinking shook the confidence of the public and contributed to the Panic of 1857.
“But this is something different,” Kagin says of the California coins. “I’d have to say that these coins are some of the finest that exist.”
Many of the coins found in the Saddle Ridge Hoard, as it has been dubbed, are among the first $20 gold pieces ever minted to bear the words “In God We Trust.” As such, they have a special place in American coin history.
Kagin and his firm have brought most of the California coins back to their original gold luster and, starting in May, they will be sold on Amazon and through www.kagins.com, the web site for his family business.
While walking the dog last February, a couple identified only as John and Mary stumbled across a treasure of 1,427 gold coins from the mid- to late-19th century buried in eight cans in the shade of a tree on their property in Northern California.
Candace DeMarco Kagin
Don Kagin with one of the highly valuable coins found in the California gold hoard.
The $5-, $10- and $20-denomination coins — uncirculated and in mint condition — have a total face value of $27,000 and date from 1847 to 1894. The majority are $20-denomination Liberty Double Eagles struck at the San Francisco Mint between 1855 and 1894, though one $5 piece came from Georgia. Experts said some might sell at auction for about $1 million.
Kagin believes they were probably buried there in the late 1800s by someone who worked in the mining industry. In those days, “a lot of people did not trust the banks,” Kagin says. “So whoever it was took their bonus or their extra coins and buried them in this can.”
Restoring the coins was a long, involved process, although for Kagin, it is a labor of love. He said John and Mary initially tried to scrub the dirt and rust off themselves, causing some of the pieces to be unfortunately damaged.
So how did his firm restore the coins? Kagin isn’t giving out the recipe.
“Our technique is a trade secret,” he says. “Word to the novice: Don’t try this at home.”
Others have stumbled upon treasures, sometimes in unlikely places.
– Last July, Boy Scout Michael Detlaff, 12, was vacationing with his family when he found a 5-carat diamond in an Arkansas mine that allows visitors to dig for — and keep — diamonds. It’s estimated to be worth up to $15,000.
– In Utah, a man found $45,000, stored as rolled-up bills in boxes in the ceiling of his garage in May 2011. Josh Ferrin decided to return it to the previous homeowner, whose The money was returned to a family who had just lost their father and then sold his home.
– In 2007, Michael Sparks, a music equipment technician, bought a rolled-up official copy of the Declaration of Independence — one of 200 commissioned by John Quincy Adams in 1820 — at a Nashville music thrift shop for $2.48 plus tax. It sold at auction for $477,650.
– In 1989, a Philadelphia financial analyst found one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence behind a painting he bought at a flea market for $4. It eventually fetched $8 million at auction.
– One of the largest previous finds of gold coins was $1 million worth uncovered by construction workers in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1985. More than 400,000 silver dollars were found in the home of a Reno, Nevada, man who died in 1974 and were later sold intact for $7.3 million.
Contributing: Shannon Rae Green, Michael Winter, the Associated Press