If it's true that every great coin has a great story behind it, then this coin must be one of the greatest treasures of all time. Its history is filled with political intrigue, deceit and deception, high art, monumental rarity, the legends of the American West and, ultimately, vindication. To call it a numismatic classic would be to understate the importance of this coin. It is believed to be the finest example extant of this magnificent 19th Century prize.
The story of this coin begins in 1848 with the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill. The word of the bonanza spread like wildfire and the great Gold Rush was on as treasure seekers across the nation and around the world came to seek their fortunes.
There was a tremendous coin shortage in the West during the mid-19th century, and private mint ventures sprung up all over the San Francisco area in 1849-50. One of those mints was the firm of F. D. Kohler & Company. When statehood came to California in 1850, Mr. Kohler anticipated being appointed State Assayer. On March 15 of that year he sold his business and equipment to George C. Baldwin and Thomas C. Holman. On May 1, the following ad appeared from Baldwin & Co.:
Successors to F. D. Kohler & Co.
Assayers, refiners and coiners
Manufacturers of jewelry, etc.
George C. Baldwin and Thos. S. Holman
All kinds of engraving. Our coins redeemable on presentation.
Baldwin and Holman hired Albert Kuner to design their new coins and engrave the dies. Kuner was the die-maker for Moffat & Co. and was generally regarded as the premier artist of his day when it came to design and execution of die work. For the Baldwin & Co. 1850 $5 gold piece, Kuner stuck to the standard design of the day, which was the Federal coinage "Liberty Head" motif of Christian Gobrecht. For the $10 Baldwin & Co. gold piece, though, Kuner went into creative overdrive, manufacturing a beautiful kinetic masterpiece known today as the "Cowboy" or "Horseman" $10 gold piece.
It is unknown how many of the "Horseman" $10 pieces were struck, but extremely few survived due to a scandal that took place in March, 1851. A "do-gooder" with self-promotional motives named James King (who went by the pretentious name of James King of William) informed anyone who would listen that Baldwin & Co. gold pieces were underweight (and therefore overvalued). The press learned through a private assay that the specific coins James King had submitted were indeed 26 cents underweight (true value $9.74) and wrote scathing editorials about it. On April 9, 1851, The Pacific News reported:
The Gold Coin Swindle
It is perhaps a matter of no special wonder that the community feels outraged because of the fact that nearly all of the gold coin put in circulation by the private manufacturing establishments is short of weight. A citizen last evening went to Baldwin's establishment, and, presenting two of their own Twenty Dollar gold pieces, asked their redemption in silver. These were taken, and thirty-eight dollars returned.
This is about as cool and direct a piece of shaving as has come under our eye, touching the short-weight gold coin swindle. Why should the community suffer this to go on longer? Why not refuse every dollar of Baldwin's coin as well as that of every other that is not of full value and redeemed on demand. A bank bill is worth no more than the bare paper upon which its pretty picture is printed, except from the fact that securities are pledged for its redemption. So also with Baldwin's coin. It is worth no more than the actual value of the gold when compared with the government standard.
In the instance we refer to there was a loss of five percent, and as Baldwin's establishment has an immense deal of coin in circulation the proprietors must make a very neat little speculation out of the country and ultimately amass wealth at the expense of the honest and industrious citizens. The only way to stop this swindle seems to be to refuse the coin altogether, not only that issued from Baldwin's mint, but from every other that proves a short weight and not to be redeemed on presentation.
By mid-April of 1851, Baldwin and his new partner (a Mr. Bagley) left California and James King of William and his cohorts, including other bankers, bought up the Baldwin gold coins at 80 cents on the dollar. These coins were redeemed with other assayers, most notably Augustus Humbert, for melting and recoinage. By the end of 1851 the Baldwin gold coins of 1850-51 were seldom seen; today, all are extremely rare.
Were the Baldwin coins truly underweight? Philadelphia Mint assays done in the same year (1851) showed the Baldwin $10 pieces to contain $9.96 worth of gold, which was almost exactly the same amount as was found in the highly touted gold coins of Moffat & Co. Similar results were found for other private mints' coinage, such as Dubosq & Co. and Dunbar & Co. Even so, the damage had been done, and well over 99% of the Baldwin coinage was lost to numismatists forever.
It is now 150 years later, and the "Horseman" $10 stands alone in many ways. The design is truly unique in the purest meaning of the word (one of a kind) and the coin is considered by most numismatists to be the most original, attractive and desirable of all the private gold issues.
As a rarity, the coin is legendary. A "Horseman" $10 gold piece was a cornerstone of such great collections as Zabriskie, Raymond, Garrett, Beck and Eliasberg. This particular example has been theorized by numismatic historians to be a "special" coin, possibly kept as a memento by the Baldwin family or one of his associates.
Is it the finest extant? It is impossible to say, although it is unquestionably the finest example known to us or to other experts we have questioned. When it was catalogued in the collection of Harry W. Bass, Jr., it was noted that "the present coin eclipses in quality both the Garrett specimen and the Eliasberg specimen."
Perhaps even more significant than its "finest extant" status is what is unquestioned about the coin. It is beautiful! To quote once again from the Bass collection catalogue: "... an artistic masterpiece, a joy to behold." Few coins in the world offer so much in the way of historical significance, rarity, condition, desirability, beauty and eye appeal. An artistic masterpiece, indeed!