Photograph by Saddle Ridge Hoard discoverers via Kagin's, Inc., AP
Published February 26, 2014
The dream of discovering buried treasure came true for a California couple who found a real pot of gold while walking their dog. The largest such hoard ever found in the U.S. is comprised of 1,411 gold coins, minted between 1847 and 1894, worth an estimated $10 million in today's market.
The coins are now known as the Saddle Ridge Hoard, after a feature on the couple's property. Both the location of the land and the couple's identity are being kept secret.
According to an interview given to the coin company that will market the hoard, the discovery was made on a path they had used for years. Spotting the side of a rusted can barely emerging from a hillside, they dug it out with a stick and carried it home. Subsequent trips to the site turned up several more treasure-filled cans.
Most of the coins are $20 gold pieces, known as double eagles. All of those were made at the San Francisco mint, founded in 1854 to process the nuggets that prospectors were finding in the newly discovered California gold fields.
But at least one of the coins came from a much earlier bonanza—a $5 piece known as a Dahlonega half eagle.
That's Dahlonega, Georgia.
East Coast Gold Rushes
"Before the California gold rush, there were discoveries [of gold] in North Carolina and Georgia in the early 1800s—not on the same scale, of course, but enough to cause rushes to those places," said Douglas Mudd, the director and curator of the American Numismatic Association's Money Museum, in a phone interview.
"The U.S. government then opened two mints—one in Charlotte and the other in Dahlonega," he explained. Before that time, the mint in Philadelphia was the country's only such facility, established in 1792 when the city was the national capital.
At the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate government took over the mints in North Carolina and Georgia. But by then, the East Coast gold had mostly played out, and the mints closed after the end of the war.
Aside from sheer quantity, one of the extraordinary features of the Saddle Ridge Hoard is the condition of the coins. "They are in very good shape—they don't show a whole lot of wear," says Mudd. "Some of them probably haven't circulated at all."
About a dozen of the coins, in fact, are among the best surviving examples of their kind.
Condition affects the value of a coin, as does rarity. In 1860, for example, San Francisco produced more gold double eagles than it did in 1866, so coins from the latter year have added value. One of the finest double eagles from the Saddle Ridge Hoard, minted in 1866, has an estimated value of $1 million.
Some of the coins will be on display at the National Money Show opening tomorrow in Atlanta. Exhibitors setting up booths today already had a bit of gold fever.
After that, some pieces will be auctioned; others will be posted on Amazon.com for sale. The California couple hope to use the proceeds to help needy residents of their community.
List of Suspects
Based on the dates of the coins and the cans they were found in, experts believe that the hoard may have been buried over a span of time, but surely not after the early years of the 20th century.
The hoard's face value is $28,000. "That was a lot of money in the late 1800s," says Mudd. "A huge amount."
Who would have left a fortune in the ground and not returned to claim it?
A prospector who wanted to protect his stash? Not likely. "There were still a few people panning for gold in the 1890s," says Mudd, "but by then companies were doing most of the mining."
An outlaw trying to hide the coins while on the lam? Perhaps.
Someone extremely wealthy, eccentric, and distrustful of banks? Another possibility.
A researcher with the time and interest, who knows the location of the find, might uncover an answer. Property records would record the owner of the land in the late 1800s, says Mudd. That might be one clue. And a search through newspapers of the time could turn up a report of money gone missing. There might even have been a local tradition of buried treasure recorded somewhere.
What Are the Odds?
Could another lucky person strike gold like this, somewhere in the U.S., in the future? Not very likely.
"You get a lot of hoards in Europe—coins buried for hundreds or thousands of years," says Mudd, "but they're less common in the U.S. Our history isn't that long, and for most of the time we've had banks, so people have tended to put their money there."
The occasional cache of Spanish pieces of eight comes to light in the Southwest. Or a modest collection of colonial coins is uncovered. Finding "60, 70, 200 coins—yes," says Mudd. "1,400? That's exceptional."
There are exceptions.
In 1985, construction workers in Jackson, Tennessee, unearthed 300 gold coins in almost mint condition. The workers quickly took them to banks for cash, traded them for jewelry, and in one case even exchanged some for a used car. A book called Gold Is the Key, published in 2012, makes the case that the coins are linked to a local bank robbery and murder in 1859.
Most discoveries wouldn't have such a dramatic backstory, and are rare occurrences anyway. Still, people who sweep metal detectors over fields as a hobby, and backyard dog walkers casually kicking up a bit of dirt, can always hope for a lucky strike.
I'm surprised National Geographic didn't pick up on the San Francisco Mint angle of the story... It seems that an accountant in the Mint was convicted of stealing almost the exact quantity and type of coins from the mint in 1901. There was even a newspaper article stating that someone saw the man in Oakland carrying a suitcase which appeared " too heavy" for him to carry... Fascinating story... Considering all the pieces are nearly mint condition, the most plausible answer would be they probably came from the mint..!
The original owner of these gold coins obviously didn't trust banks, & who could blame him ! The banking industry has had a long history of corruption & mismanagement. In the late 19th century banks weren't bailed-out by the government like they are today....
The east coast gold rushes? Wow, learn something new everyday.
Very mesmerizing, that color of the coin in all the muck of the corroded can.
There are two things that occur to me:
1) These people are probably already quite well off. Unless this is a rural area, their "backyard" sounds like a sizeable piece of real estate.
2) They must have rocks in their heads to have disclosed this find in such a way that they're now on the hook for taxes. It would have been much more clever to sell these a few at a time, here and there, and fly below the radar. So maybe they aren't rich, otherwise they would have had better sense about the tax consequences.
This is really cool. This is why I love history. Most people think it happens and then it's done but there's more to the story even centuries after the fact.
@Dan DubieHere's an overview of the various theories: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Black-Bart-Jesse-James-Who-hid-10-million-5279157.php#photo-5955794
The 1901 Merrick theft doesn't hold up for a number of reasons, and if it were some other mint employee, they would have to have had direct access to coins for over 40 years. Of course if it wasn't Merrick, that means 1500 double eagles are still out there somewhere.
@Jeffrey Coley You aren't going to sell 1400 Da Vinci's a few at a time and fly below the radar, are you? These coins are worth thousands of dollars each. You could try to sell 4 a week for 7 years, and the collector community would notice after about a month. Or you could try to sell 5 a year for 280 years, and you'd get caught in a couple years. I just love it when someone's first thought is tax evasion.
@Albert Cadda It would've been very hard not to. Besides, if their spending habits later raised red flags and subsequently discovered what had happened, they would be accused of tax evasion. As it is, they owe 47% of 10 mil in taxes for the year. But they'll probably make well over the current market value, in individual sales (i.e. one coin is worth 1 mil alone).
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