Advanced collectors of Territorial gold coinage will have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to acquire a newly discovered variety an entirely unique example of an 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. $20 gold piece, AU53, known as the Large Head Obverse, offered by Heritage Auctions
from The Riverboat Collection in the official auction of the Central States Numismatic Society Convention (CSNS), April 23-25, 2014 in Chicago.
"The 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. $20 gold with the Large Head obverse is one of the most elusive issues in the Territorial gold series," said Greg Rohan, President of Heritage Auctions. "This coin, from the celebrated Riverboat Collection, has recently been examined by several expert numismatists and some exciting new findings have come to light."
Until now it was believed that all four surviving examples of this Large Head variety shared the same obverse and reverse. Careful study of the images of the Riverboat coin on the Heritage website by numismatic researcher Wayne Burt indicated otherwise. Further investigation by Burt, Saul Teichman, Stuart Levine, and Heritage cataloger David Stone revealed that the Riverboat specimen features the same Large Head obverse as the K-8 coins, but the reverse exhibits the design used on the Wass, Molitor Small Head $20, K-7. Information from bibliophile Dan Hamelberg proved essential in this research.
The two reverse designs are easy to differentiate, as the eagle's left (facing) wingtip points to the "R" in "FRANCISCO" on the K-7 reverse, while the wingtip points to the "F" on the K-8 reverse. The Riverboat specimen is the only known example of this newly discovered Territorial gold variety.
"The coin in the Riverboat Collection represents an entirely different variety from the coin pictured in Donald Kagin's Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States," said Rohan, "and the recent study indicates the coin is almost certainly unique. Ken Bressett informs us that this discovery is under consideration and is a good candidate for inclusion in the Red Book."
The 1855 Wass, Molitor & Co. $20 pieces were originally produced to provide much-needed circulating coinage during a period when the San Francisco Mint found it impossible to produce gold coins because of a shortage of parting acids.
Both Large and Small Head varieties were struck in large numbers. The coins were well-received by the public and circulated widely for a time, but the great majority of the coins were turned in to the San Francisco Mint and melted when that facility resumed gold coinage on a large scale. Like most other Territorial gold issues, the Wass, Molitor twenty dollar pieces were rarely encountered as early as 1860.
The Riverboat specimen was probably the first Wass, Molitor Large Head $20 to appear at auction, in a Chapman sale in 1896. It was definitely the last example to be publicly offered when it appeared in Stack's Amon G. Carter, Jr. Family Collection in 1984, more than 30 years ago.