A GOLD SPECIMEN
from SPANISH DRY DIGGINGS,
ELDORADO COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
and a little of its history.
Lawrence H. Conklin
2 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Mineral specimens go through my hands virtually every day and only very rarely do I develop a non-professional interest in one of them. In fact, I have often, in the past, expressed my disdain for those mineral specimen dealers who compete with their clients for the best specimens. This is a practice that I considered most unprofessional but is widespread nonetheless, and, of course, is not limited to the field of mineral specimens.
I have, in the past, generally collected in those mineral-related categories that I do not deal in. My Brazilian eye-agate collection, for instance, is well-known and has been well-published. I now, also, collect the finest grade examples that I can find of polished Laguna agate nodules from Chihuahua, Mexico and I own a few examples of the lapidary arts.
But, every once in a while I am captivated by a particular mineral specimen, especially one that I sold in the past. If ever I decided to develop a serious personal mineral collection it might well consist entirely of specimens in this category.
Gold, Spanish Dry Diggings, four miles north of Greenwood, El Dorado County, California.
As it appears today on a base by Alec Madoff. 3-3/4x3x1-1/4 inches.
The subject of this story is a specimen of gold on quartz from the Spanish Dry Diggings, El Dorado County, California, that was described by Louis Pope Gratacap (1851-1917), one-time curator of minerals at the American Museum of Natural History as “Splendid crystallized specimen, in quartz. Rhombic dodecahedrons and octahedrons. Cubes. Significantly covering and intergrown with a small rough quartz matrix.”
The gold was estimated by the museum to be, approximately, 79% of the total weight of the specimen which is 338.5 grams or 10.883 oz. Troy. It measures 3-3/4 x 3- x 1-1/4 inches and the individual crystals are up to 3/16 inches.
On March 2, 1982, I nervously purchased this specimen from the American Museum, through Dr. George E. Harlow, for $12,500! The price was placed on it by the sellers and was non-negotiable. I remember thinking that purchasing a “sight” parcel of diamonds from De Beers must be a somewhat similar experience; essentially, take it or leave it. This device is also known, classically as “Hobson’s Choice.” One takes what is offered or one gets nothing. The gold was accompanied by six other specimens that were, fortunately, all to my liking and I was told that I had to “buy” or “pass” the entire lot- no picking or choosing.
The museum had just purchased the mineral specimen collection of Columbia University for a very significant sum and required that the Department of Mineralogy sell some of its specimens to supply partial “reimbursement” to the museum coffers. A classic example of sharing the pain.
My “sight” included two epidote specimens from Untersulzbachtal, Austria for $6,500 and $2,500 respectively; a Chivor mine, Colombia emerald specimen for $2,500 and a sulfur from Sicily for $1,000.
Also included, for a grand total of $27,500, a very good sum for 1982, were two Colorado golds. One from the Wire Patch Mine, Breckinridge, Colorado for $2,000 and another for $500. I was also given, very generously I might add, 90 days in which to raise the required sum and, if I remember correctly, I was a little late.
The great Spanish Dry Diggings gold, probably collected in 1854, had been a gift to the museum from “Mrs. R.L. Stuart” in 1886. Mrs. Stuart was, at that time, the widow of Robert L. Stuart (1806 - 1882)1 who had been the second chairman of the museum board and a very successful sugar refiner as well as an art patron and philanthropist. She had purchased it from “J. Terry.”
The price of $550 that was paid to “mineral collector” John P. Terry, Ph.B. of 12 Remsen St., Brooklyn, N.Y.2 on December 14, 1886, was an enormous sum for the time. It was much, much more, when adjusted for inflation, etc., than the $12,500 asked for it in 1982. In comparison, seven years after the Stuart purchase, in 1875, Clarence S. Bement paid only $50 for his great Russian emerald crystal. At that time people living in New York City and earning an annual income of $5,000 were considered to be “well-off.”
It is difficult to take the price comparison discussion much further because, in 1982, fine crystallized golds were relatively rare and there was no steady supply of fine specimens on the market as there was after the emergence of the beautiful, but plentiful, Eagle’s Nest mine specimens.
It is probably nothing more than coincidence, but on the day before Mrs. Stuart’s purchase, Robert Parr Whitfield (1828-1910), a paleontologist and curator of geology at the museum from 1876 to 1909, spent $309.50 for 8 golds, none of any individual significance however, for the account of the American Museum at the famous Dohrmann Sale3 in Philadelphia. One of them was from the Spanish Dry Diggings location.
That mine, located about four miles north of Greenwood, California which was begun in 1848 by “Spaniards” from Mexico and native “Californios” hit its production peak around 1854 when “two men at Spanish Dry Diggings reportedly took out 26 pounds of gold in October 1854, and in the following month a company of men extracted 110 pounds in 11 days.”4
The $550 purchase price of the gold specimen in 1886 seems even larger when one realizes that the entire Dohrmann sale of 1,687 specimens including 372 golds and 212 silvers grossed only $2,870!
I took the Spanish Dry Diggings specimen home immediately upon acquiring it and there it stayed for a while as part of a “personal” collection of golds that I had been assembling.
By Autumn, 1983, I had sold my entire gold collection to my friend, John Barlow, for a sum that I do not now recall, but it was a reasonable price for such a collection even at that time.
Gold, Spanish Dry Diggings as it appears in "The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection,"
Appleton, Wisconsin, 1996 on page 64.
When John decided to immortalize his great collection in the beautiful book The F. John Barlow Mineral Collection,5 Appleton, 1996, he, and his editors considered the Spanish Dry Diggings specimen important enough to be singled out for discussion, illustration and inclusion in a special chapter called “The Classics.” They labeled it #G119 and included what they knew of its interesting history on page 64.
Incidentally, on the facing page of the book (page 65) is a fine photograph and discussion of a great Venezuelan hopper-octahedron. John Barlow purchased that crystal from me somewhat later than the collection. It appears in another great photograph which I actually prefer, taken by Wendell E. Wilson in Roberts, Campbell and Rapp’s Encyclopedia of Minerals, Second Edition, New York, 1990, on Color Plate 21.
I have now reacquired the Spanish Dry Diggings gold specimen and am very pleased. My special affection for specimens previously owned by me has, apparently, increased over time and this specimen is surely one of the very best in that category.
The above paragraph and most of this story was written in late 2001 and I must confess that the gold got away again but in late 2004 my dear friend Ed David made it possible for that elusive gold to come back home again, for a while at least.
I offer special thanks to Curtiss Schuh and to my dear, late friend Richard A. Bideaux (1935-2004) for help with the historical research.
1 For more information on Robert L. Stuart, see my article “Charles W.
Herrmann” in Mineralogical Record, Volume 25 (1994), Number 3, pages 225 - 226 or on my website, www.lhconklin.com.
2 The Naturalists’ Directory, Boston, 1894. Page 224: “5456 Terry, John P., Ph.B., 12 Remsen St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Collector of minerals.”
3 Hughey, Richard. Spanish Dry Diggings, in Mountain Democrat, Feb. 2, 2001.
4 For more information on this sale, see my article “Anatomy of a mineral
sale: the Dohrmann Collection” in Mineralogical Record, Volume 23 (1992), Number 1, Pages 7 - 13 or on my website, www.lhconklin.com.
5 I highly recommend acquisition of this beautiful mineral colorplate book. I believe that copies are still available from the publishers.
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Lawrence H. Conklin
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