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What Constitutes an "Original" Dahlonega Gold Coin
(and Why is That Important)?

By Carl N. Lester

I recently responded to an e-mail inquiry relating to the coloration and originality of southern gold coins, from my experience base as a Dahlonega specialist. The gentleman posing the questions had recently read my article entitled "The Coloration of Dahlonega Gold Coins". As the term "original" is used quite often in the numismatic press these days (both in articles and advertisements), I thought that my reply might be of interest to a larger audience.

Question 1): As I currently understand it, the deep orange-ish toning I see on some old gold coins is a result of the copper alloy that was mixed with the 900/1000 parts gold. Does the silver tone as well? Is the "green gold" color in some southern gold coins a result of the silver toning, or was that the original color fresh out of the mint?

Answer: As I mentioned in my article, a gold coin with a high copper content in the alloy will tend to be orange in color. A significant amount of silver in the alloy will make the color more naturally gold in color, which some have termed green gold. These characteristics are also true of freshly minted coins. I think that this is why the U. S. Mint decided to put silver in the American Eagle gold bullion coins (in order to "tone down"--no pun intended--the effects of the copper). The American Eagle gold bullion coins contain 3% silver and 5.33% copper (by weight), according to A Guide Book of U. S. Coins. I recall that the Mint had received some criticism that the American Arts gold medallions (produced in the early 1980s) were too orange in color, because they were alloyed with copper only (no silver).

Both copper and silver are very reactive metals, unlike gold, which is a noble (non-reactive) metal. Both copper and silver (used as the alloy) will affect the color of freshly minted gold coins (as described in my article), but will also affect the toning that results as the coins age. The coloration of the toning is affected not only by the composition of the alloy, but the environment in which the coins are stored (and thus the substances that are allowed to react with the alloy). Obviously, this is a complex situation and is not easy to answer for all cases. As an example, suppose we had a "time machine" and could take 10 freshly minted Dahlonega gold coins of a given year and subject them to different environments, undisturbed for 100 years. It would not surprise me to find out that those 10 coins did not all look the same 100 years later.

We also know, based on the non-destructive analysis referred to in my coloration article, that Dahlonega gold coins varied in the relative amounts of copper and silver in the alloy. Of the coins analyzed, the copper content ranged from 8.7% to 5.0% by weight, with a corresponding silver content of 1.3% to 5.0%, respectively. Stated another way: of the Dahlonega coins analyzed, the copper:silver ratio in the alloy varied from 6.7:1 to 1:1. Thus, in addition to the various ways Dahlonega coins could be stored after minting (and the substances with which these reactive metals came in contact), the relative amounts of copper and silver in the alloy varied widely as well. The combination of these situations would thus determine not only the original coloration but also the subsequent toning of a given coin.

Question 2): I'm trying to learn to recognize "original" gold skins. Any advice on the best way to do this? I've found a lot of pictures of old gold coins really don't look the same "in person."

Answer: Even though there is a lot of variability (as described in my answer to your first question), I still think we can make some general observations on the way that an original Dahlonega gold coin should look. I have been collecting Dahlonega gold coins for over 25 years and have looked at hundreds of pieces. I also have a number of pieces in my collection that I consider to have 100% original surfaces and I use these pieces as "benchmarks" for evaluating potential purchases. [Side bar: in my opinion, a coin doesn't have to be 100% original in order to be attractive and desirable. It is one of several factors to consider when evaluating a coin for purchase (although in my opinion, a very important one). I would advise collectors to search for coins with at least a significant amount of originality, although it is getting tougher and tougher these days].

In general, it has been my experience that a fully original Dahlonega gold piece has the following characteristics (which I call "the look"):

(a) Tends to have a mellow appearance, as opposed to being bright and shiny.

(b) Has a crusty, or even dusty, appearance. This sounds a bit odd at first, but once you have seen a crusty, original piece, you will know what I mean.

(c) Sometimes has a "hallmark" of originality, such as a copper toning spot.

(d) Sometimes has traces of "dirt" (for lack of a better term) embedded in a coin's devices, especially on a piece that has seen some circulation.

(e) Tends to have a natural (as opposed to an artificial) appearance.

(f) For the higher-grade pieces, usually has some luster remaining. This may seem like a "no-brainer," if not for the adverse effects of dipping. The worst cases of dipping involve coins which have been so over-dipped that they look "washed out" and devoid of luster (as well as original coloration), even on high grade pieces. I (and others) have also used the term "lifeless" to describe these over-dipped coins.

(g) As mentioned above, the color of an original piece can vary, based on the copper:silver ratio contained in the alloy and also the substances with which the coin has come in contact (in the intervening years since minting). Having said that, I have found that an original Dahlonega gold piece can have color which varies from green gold (signifying a lower copper:silver ratio), to natural gold with orange highlights, to coppery russet (which would likely have a higher copper:silver ratio).

(h) An original piece as described in the previous line also sometimes has delicate "highlights" of color that vary from coin to coin. I have seen highlights varying from reddish/rose to russet to orange to green to gunmetal blue (and probably others). We know that silver coins tone all colors of the spectrum, but with gold coins, it tends to be much less pronounced (and the colors tend to be not as vivid). A word of caution: if it doesn't look natural, it probably isn't. Natural coloration has a certain richness that can't be imitated. I have seen some outlandish artificially colored coins over the years. One of the latest tends to employ an unnatural bright orange coloration. I suspect that the "coin doctors" are now re-coloring those previously mentioned over-dipped coins, in order to try and restore some degree of salability.

Since I brought up the subject of coin doctors, perhaps I should also mention some of the things that they will try in order to attempt to improve a coin's appearance. These can vary from a gentle cleaning, to the aforementioned dipping (with a chemical solution that attacks the original surfaces and coloration), to artificial toning (as described above), to application of substances to cover up scratches and other imperfections.

The latter can usually be spotted by viewing the coin in various lighting (including a halogen light if available) and by tilting the coin so that one may view it at various angles. The foreign substance sometimes looks hazy or cloudy, especially as it ages, but can be very deceptive when viewed at certain angles and under some lighting conditions--the haze or cloudiness almost seems to go away. In conjunction with examining coins carefully, the best way to guard against coin doctors is to view as many coins as possible, learn to recognize originality, and use it as a benchmark. As "good" as these coin doctors are, I don't think that they have been able to come up with anything that is as good as what mother nature accomplishes over a long period of time.

As far as trying to identify an original coin by the photograph (for example, via a web site or in an auction catalog), that is a difficult task at best. Part of this is due to the way that photographs can be manipulated (i.e., enhanced), in order to improve their attractiveness (for example, via PhotoShop or a similar software program). I have been amazed numerous times (when viewing auction lots) at the disparity between the actual coin and the photograph of the coin in the auction catalog. In those cases where there is a big difference, the photo almost always looks better than the actual coin. Thus, I feel that there is no substitute for viewing coins in person (or via a trusted agent). However, I can usually tell from a photo whether or not I would care to look at the coin in person. In other words, I can sometimes eliminate a coin from further consideration just by looking at the photo.

Some final thoughts to the Coin Dealer Newsletter readership concerning originality and its importance in today's numismatic marketplace: I agree with a well-known rare gold specialist who recently wrote that we are in a two-tier Dahlonega gold market. In my opinion, these two tiers consist of: (1) unoriginal coins, many of which are over-graded, and (2) original coins, which tend to be conservatively graded, and which are much less available in the marketplace.

The simple fact is that most serious Dahlonega gold collectors want original coins and it seems that originality is more important than numerical grade or price. Even though I've been in the hobby a long time, I can still get excited about a well-circulated Dahlonega coin with nice, original surfaces, especially if it is a better date. Nice, original coins tend to be bought quickly, are treasured by the new owners, and "disappear" for long periods of time. This is due in part to the fact that the savvy collector knows how rare that the coins with original surfaces are becoming. Unfortunately, even though there is a big demand for original southern gold coins, it is frustratingly difficult to acquire them in the marketplace.

Sadly, this lack of original coins has been exacerbated by the deliberate stripping of original surfaces, in order to obtain a higher grade from the grading services. It is no secret that the two major grading services have typically given a bright, shiny coin more grading points than a crusty, original piece.

I hope that dealers learn to recognize that original coins are much more salable than their dipped, over-graded counterparts. It should be in their economic interest to stock coins that will "move" quickly. A nice, original piece not only sells quickly but also results in a satisfied, happy customer. The converse is that a stripped, over-graded coin is a "hard sell" and inevitably results in the customer becoming dissatisfied with the piece. This is why these coins tend to bounce around between novice collectors or investors and ultimately languish in the marketplace.

I also hope that the grading services (that are supposed to reflect "market grading") start rewarding (instead of penalizing) coins with original surfaces. Knowledgeable collectors certainly reward original coins (with their willingness to pay premium prices for them). If the grading services started rewarding original coins, it would remove the misguided incentive for those who would otherwise strip away the original surfaces.

Aside from the previous points, I think that there is an even more compelling reason to leave the original surfaces intact. I believe that we have an ethical obligation as numismatists to preserve the original surfaces of these artifacts of our national heritage. Once the century-old patina is removed, it cannot be replaced. I sincerely hope that it is not too late to change this trend, so that the remaining original coins are preserved for all to enjoy as tangible pieces of our nation's numismatic legacy.

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