Couple walking dog find biggest gold hoard in US

A couple walking the dog on their property in Northern California last spring discovered the biggest and most valuable gold coin hoard ever unearthed in the United States. They were treading the same well-worn path they’ve trod hundreds of times for the dog’s daily constitutional when they spotted the rusted top of a metal can sticking up out of the eroded ground. They dug the can out with a stick and took it home.

It was so heavy lugging it back proved to be quite an effort. They figured there was lead paint inside. When the lid cracked off the husband saw the seductive rib of a single gold coin. Clearing out the rest of the contents, they found a lot of dirt and a stack of $20 liberty head gold coins from the 1890s. The pair promptly returned to the find spot, an area they dubbed Saddle Ridge, and dug some more. They immediately found another can about a foot to the left of where they had found the first can. Then they found five more smaller cans, and one last can they used a metal detector to locate.

The eight cans contained a total of 1,427 gold coins. Most of them, 1,373, to be precise, were $20 coins, 50 were $10 coins and four were $5 coins. Most were minted in San Francisco; one of the $5 coins was minted in Georgia. They date to between 1847 and 1894 and were stacked in approximate chronological order; all the 1840s and 50s coins in the first can and the rest by date in subsequent cans. The arrangement of coins and the varying condition of the cans suggest they were buried by someone over the course of years rather than the result of a single caper like a bank robbery. The total face value of the coins is $27,980.

In a panic over what to do with the immense gold treasure they had just found walking the dog, the owners took a page out of the original hoarder’s book. They put the coins in plastic bags and the bags inside an old cooler. They then dug a hole under the wood pile buried the cooler there. Two months later, they invited coin dealer Don Kagin and numismatic expert David McCarthy of Kagin’s, Inc. to examine the hoard. They found an incredible wealth of rare coins in beautiful condition. Fully thirteen of them are either the finest examples known to exist or tied for the finest. One of them, an 1866-S No Motto Double Eagle, is estimated to be worth $1 million on its own.

It’s fitting that such a rich find would be made in Gold Country, the region of the Sierra Nevadas east of Sacramento to the Nevada state line where an 1848 gold strike at Sutter’s Mill set off the madness of the California Gold Rush. Someone in the area was bucking the trend and putting gold back into the ground, oftentimes before it had even circulated. Many of the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins are in near-perfect condition, even the older ones. Paper money wasn’t legal in California until the 1870s, which means most of the coins from before then saw a great deal of circulation and wear. People didn’t start keeping California gold coins in uncirculated condition until the 1880s.

The exceptional condition and rarity of the coins makes their estimated market value around $10 million, far exceeding the estimated $1 million value of the other contender for biggest gold hoard found buried in the United States. The Tennessee Hoard was found in Jackson by workers building a city parking lot in 1985. The exact quantities found are not known because the workers pocketed much of the coins before the site was protected. Judging from the assessment of gold dealers who bought most of the Tennessee coins, there were hundreds totaling about $4,500 in face value and while the condition of some pieces was excellent, many of them were damaged by heavy machinery during the discovery while others were cleaned so roughly the coin surface was cracked.

The couple has chosen to remain anonymous and keep their exact location secret to avoid turning their peaceful rural home into Sutter’s Mill 2: Now We Have Metal Detectors. They plan to sell 90% of the coins in a landmark deal with Amazon’s new Collectibles & Fine Art store. This is the first coin treasure to be sold via Amazon. Most of the rest will be sold privately directly to collectors. The couple plans to keep a small selection of the hoard. As “John” says in this great interview with the finders “Mary” and “John” on the Kagin’s website, “We would like to hold onto a cross section of it – something to leave to relatives when we pass on.”

I love their response to the question about whether they had noticed anything unusual about the find spot before:

John: Years ago, on our first hike, we noticed an old tree growing into the hill. It had an empty rusty can hanging from it that the tree had grown around – that was right at the site where we found the coins… At the time we thought the can might be a place for someone to put flowers in for a gravesite – something which would have been typical at the time.

There was also an unusual angular rock up the hill from where the coins were buried – we’d wondered what in the heck it was.

Mary: It wasn’t until we made the find that we realized it might have been a marker: starting at the rock, if you walk 10 paces towards the North Star, you wind up smack in the middle of the coins!

27 thoughts on “Couple walking dog find biggest gold hoard in US

  1. Hello Again Livius! I hope you are well. I had a few questions. I know every Country has laws regarding finds like this. Germany has strict ones, England’s law’s seem somewhat fair, which I believe encourages a whole Army of hunters to help them dig up their Countries treasures. My question is, does the US have laws regarding the “ownership” of a find like this? What I gathered from your article, the Federal Government, other than I would expect the IRS, is going to let them have it. Does the State of California have any legitimate claim to the Hoard? I have learned in my life, when I was poor, no body cared much about my money and left me alone. Then, about 10 years ago now, my wife and I started a business with $20 and a bike, that literally grew into a 5 million dollar a year company in just a few years. All the sudden we not only had a line of “best friends” we also had attracted the attention of every government organization wherein our company sat. Federal, State, County, and even city auditors were at our door and ready to audit. Due to my cancer, which I believe you know of, we lost it all. The wealth was gone, and thank God, peace came back and the governments and municipalities moved on to another guy. Long question/ point being, how much added grief would you expect a family like this to incur due to their old fortune? Thank you for taking the time to read my long question/ letter.

    With the deepest of respect,

    -Tom Carroll

    1. The laws regarding treasure trove and archaeological remains are complex, but basically if you found it on your property, you get to keep it. Even extremely significant and ancient paleontological finds like the Dueling Dinos belong to the landowners. Neither state nor federal government has a public interest claim. Federal law only covers finds made on public property and Native American graves.

      In this case, the find was made by the landowners on private property, so they own the hoard free and clear. The state wouldn’t have a claim in any case, but issues might have arisen had someone else discovered the coins. The courts have ruled in conflicting ways over whether the finder or the property owner gets to keep an accidental find.

      Any income derived from sales of the coins will of course be taxed by the state and feds. The article mentions that the couple sought legal advice immediately, so I expect they’ve looked into those issues already.

  2. I wonder if that bucket in the tree was also a marker, or a buried can that got caught up in a growing sapling. They may have a million-dollar tree marking the spot.

    I am amazed at the condition of the coins. MS66? MS62? It’s as if they went straight from the bank into the ground. The discovery is a great story, but I’ll bet there’s an even better, and lost, story behing the burial.

    1. From their description it sounded more to me like the can got caught up in the tree’s growth.

      I totally agree with you on how the real story is how those coins got into the ground almost as soon as they were struck.

  3. Oh man! That’s where I buried that pot of gold I owned forever before burying it somewhere that I totally forgot about!

  4. It must feel good to have property with more than just dead rodents in the ground. So in this case, the heirs/new owners have found property on their property ? Is it known who the property holders were back in 1894, and -from a historical point of view- what could have been the motivation for hiding the gold over time ? Moreover, what were the digging claims back then, and are there any other claims involved ? Provided that this hoard really cashes in 10 million bucks instead of just one, they would have needed only 1899 other hoards to bid for property like ‘WhatsApp Inc’. – Is that wooden stick also to be sold over the Amazon ?

    Live long and prosper

    1. The current owners did some research into the property records but were unable to find any likely candidates for the original hoarder. It is not know what his motivations may have been for burying so much gold, much of it barely circulated, in various stages over years. Right now the predominant hypothesis seems to be it was your basic savings account, akin to stuffing your mattress with cash.

      The wooden stick is the sleeper hit of the show, in my opinion, and would surely attract much attention from Amazon buyers.

  5. Isn’t it odd that they buried the coins for two months before contacting an expert? Maybe they used that time to investigate their legal rights.

    Bibi: Well done!

  6. One reason for hiding it is that citizens were prohibited from posessing more than $100 in gold from 1933 to 1974. In 1933 President Roosevelt required citizens to turn over their gold to the government by claiming the government owned all the gold in the country.

  7. Great article. I live in Northern California, and have taken an interest in this story – it’s fascinating! Particularly since reading the Mashable article published yesterday that seems to correlate a robbery of the San Francisco Mint (by mint employee Walter Dimmick) that correlates with this find. If the gold was originally stolen from the U.S. Mint, well, can the couple really, legally, keep the find (even given the law that protects people and their property)? Doesn’t the U.S. mint theft add a new angle?

    The fact that some of the coins never made it into circulation certainly supports the U.S. mint theft idea.

    The mashable piece –


    1. Ooh, intriguing. What a wonderful piece of research. My first question would be: was the San Francisco mint in the practice of stocking gold coins struck 40 years earlier? A quick Google couldn’t find anything on point.

  8. About those gold coins found in CA. Could it be a made up story? Just asking. How would anyone know that these coins are not stolen? In the 1990’s I worked for a woman who had a box of gold coins. She was 95 at the time and had just moved into her own new home with some assisted living. I found these gold coins in a box in her bedroom while doing some work there. I brought it to her attention and she said” I wondered where the movers put those” This lady had no children and one time lived on a huge estate in PA. She was extremely wealthy and had told me these coins were passed down from her mother, and grandmother. I have thought about this many times over the years and wondered what would have become of those coins after she died.
    I say let’s find out more info about this “lucky couple”, just in case. You never know.

    1. They could have been stolen, sure, but if it they were it happened more than a hundred years ago. There are pictures of the cans in situ and the cans themselves testify to how long they’ve been buried.

  9. Just sick of all the people making suggestions that the government or original owners could get this money from the family. These people found it fair and square on their property and the hell with the government taking a penny of it from them. That is the problem with Americans now a days. They think the government should get something from them. I am happy when anyone other than a 1%er makes it in this once great country. We are now a fascist, evil empire and hope more people are able to make it good like these people.

    1. I don’t see anything wrong with exploring the question of whether the state has laws protecting objects of cultural heritage and whether descendants of the original owner might have a claim. These are reasonable issues that arise when historical treasure is found. That’s why the owners sought legal advice before arranging for an appraisal. I don’t see in the discussion itself indicators of fascism or evil empireness.

  10. Coins from the time of the California gold rush of 1848-54
    are sought-after collectibles, including evidence of one of the greatest migrations in the States. Literature: “The Gold of the Sierre Nevada”, ISBN: 978-3-86254-970-2, aavaa Berlin. The author Thomas Schmidt, Greudnitz/Germany. Germans and many other nations gold dug in the fields of Auburn, Grass Valley, Sacramento or Coloma. Literature 12/2013: “The dead at Fort Point”. ISBN: 978-3-8459-1026-0. Numismatists from around the world: “Rarity!, Rarity!” Golden Gate Bridge as a landmark of San Francisco spanning the Golden Gate to the Sierra. You should remember to the gold rush. Museums California do not only have valuable coins, but also paintings and graphics of the time.

  11. Ive heard this type of delusional anti govt rubbish so many times from stupid inbred southern tightfisted weirdos whose biggest fear in life appears to be contributing to the society they take so much from

  12. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the state having a claim on the trove via taxes, the couple did well to consult experts.

    I read that if the couple were to donate ALL the trove, it still might be liable in the first year for taxes on the whole value – not a tax-deductible donation, if one is deemed to have gained possession!

    Now, this would be crazy!

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