California Fractional Gold Half Dollar Part of Gold Rush History

California fractional gold coins from the gold rush era are highly sought-after by coin collectors. A round 1853 Arms of California type gold half dollar is expected to sell for around $10,000 despite being quite a bit smaller than a dime!

What Are California Fractional Gold Coins?

California fractional gold coins are artifacts of Gold Rush history that were created to solve the lack of coinage in circulation that occurred when gold was found in the West in the 1840s and 50s. At the time, the West was far from most of the operational mints creating coins at the time and “off the beaten path” for most trade. While there were not enough coins in circulation to keep commerce running smoothly, there was plenty of gold metal–mostly impractical gold dust that presented a challenge for everyday purchasing.

Enterprising groups turned this raw metal into small but powerful coins known today as California Fractional gold. These were mainly denominated as 25 Cents, 50 Cents, or One Dollar. 

How Much are California Fractional Gold Coins Worth?

California Fractionals vary widely in value depending on condition and variety, but the most common versions are usually worth in the $100 to $500 range in typical condition. These coins are categorized by their BG, or Breen-Gillio, number. The BG number is used to identify the many minor or even major differences in design, denomination (ie 25 Cents or 1 Dollar), and date. Overall, more than 450 varieties are known to exist.

Many have a figure of Liberty on the obverse (front) and a denomination with a wreath on the reverse (back.) The Arms of California type being sold by Heritage is a particularly rare and popular design which standards out from the typical Liberty Head design that is more frequently seen.

liberty type gold coin

Another well-known and rare design is BG-302, the Peacock Reverse:

While the more common California Fractional gold coins are often available at auction in the $100 to $500 range, rare varieties may come up infrequently and can present a huge challenge to the specialist collector!

What is an Arms of California Type of Gold Coin?

Of the over 450 varieties known to exist, one of the most famous is the Arms of California type, which shows the state’s coat of arms on the obverse and a bold eagle on the reverse. Unlike most California Fractional Gold Coins, which have a basic Liberty Head design and a simple denomination, this design is relatively complex. The eagle on the reverse is reminiscent of the famous Augustus Humbert $50 Territorial gold coins and adds to these rare pieces’ appeal.

fractional gold rush coin

Less than 100 pieces are believed to be known, with PCGS grading service estimating only around 70 pieces to be in existence today.

1853 Arms of California Gold Half Dollar

Heritage is offering a round example of the 1853 Arms of California type gold half dollar, which is expected to sell for around $10,000 despite being quite a bit smaller than a dime! While several surviving examples are not in ideal condition, this coin is graded a well-preserved MS64 by PCGS and has beautiful luster. It is attractive piece for the specialist collector or enthusiast of gold rush and California history! Its combination of rarity, popularity, and high grade make this a very valuable and desirable coin.

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Posted by Sarah Miller

Director of Numismatics, New York

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