Raising The Bar
By: Melissa Carver
Since I first started enjoying the hobby of metal detecting about a year ago, I have dreamed of that one special find. Maybe it would be a cache of rare and beautiful coins, an exquisite brooch, or even a historically important artifact. Each time I hunted a new site, my hopes and expectations would rise, fueling that dream.
I was feeling that way once again as my husband and I arrived that Tuesday after work at the construction site where, until recently, an old Victorian home had stood. We had obtained permission from the contractor to search the property two weeks earlier, finding some Indian Head cents and other interesting items, but nothing of major value. Now, as we prepared to hunt the site for the second time, we knew there was a good chance of some better finds, since the ground had been graded down 6-12" earlier that day, but we had no way of knowing just how fortunate we would soon become.
Evening was quickly approaching, so this would be our only opportunity to detect before the coming weekend, and who knew what shape the lot would be in by then? Forms could be laid, filler dumped and spread, or maybe even some other lucky detectorist would have scanned the site.
As I surveyed the area, I began to contemplate where to begin my search. The house had stood in the center of the lot, and the area had previously been difficult to search because of all the scattered bits and pieces left over from the demolition process. Directly behind this area was a very large oak tree where my husband had dug an old "Mizpah" token when we hunted there last. Something about that tree beckoned to me. Surely over the years it had seen its fair share of activity... children playing hide & seek, an old tire swing, or maybe even a cool place to enjoy some refreshments on a lazy summer day.
Approaching the old oak, I was slightly disappointed to see that the immediate area surrounding the base remained undisturbed. Three feet out from the tree, though, a tractor had removed at least 10" of ground, and that's where I began a steady pattern of sweeps.
It didn't take long for me to realize that the evening's hunt would not be as easy as I had hoped. Although the ground was lower than before, there were still plenty of signals to decipher through my headphones. I was digging bits of this, pieces of that, anything that read positive on my detector- but nothing one would consider a "special find."
On a hunch, I began to sweep the dirt at the edge of where the tractor's blade had cut, that sharp incline between the lower grade and the higher, original topsoil. I immediately heard a signal unlike any I had ever heard before from my White's 5900/Di Pro SL... three distinct beeps, close together, reading high on the VDI, and that nice, "round sound" I always listen for. After a couple of more sweeps, I pinpointed the target to get an indication of its depth and shape. My detector said it was a little large, but right near the surface of the incline, about 10" below the topsoil, so I reached down with my trowel and brushed away an inch or so of dirt.
What I saw next was not very spectacular, just the corner of a large chunk of nondescript metal. Using my fingers, I gently wiggled the item back and forth, then up and down until it came loose and into my hand. It was rectangular in shape and seemed rather heavy. I was thinking, "Boy, this is one big chunk of lead," but as I turned it over my heart stopped cold, for there across the face of my new "whatzit" was a pronounced scratch, and from that scratch came the glint of gold! Could this be a gold bar?
My mind reeling, I slowly moved to where my husband was searching. I held out the bar to him and asked, "is this what I think it is?" He took it from me and rubbed some dirt from the face of it, exposing lettering, and silently stared for what seemed an eternity.
Again, I asked, "Is this what I think it is?" More silence.
It wasn't until the third time I asked that he replied, "It's an assay bar."
It was at this point that our education regarding assay bars began.
Initial internet searches brought few results. We did learn that similar Western assay bars had recently been sold at large numismatic auctions, commanding astounding prices.
Through continuing research we learned about such things as "base bars," "hallmark stamps," "clipped for assay," "transport ingots"... the list goes on. We also learned that Western assay bars are extremely rare, some even being exhibited in museums. The main question remaining in our minds, then, was: "Is it real?"
In an attempt to answer this question, a trip to a local coin dealer was made, but the opinion we got was not encouraging. The dealer thought it was a "fantasy bar," an item of recent manufacture... a novelty. He said we should melt it down to see if the assay numbers were accurate, or we could use it as a paperweight. Uhh... needless to say, a second opinion was in order.
That second opinion came from Heritage Coins, the world's largest numismatic auction house. We e-mailed a six-sided scan to their senior numismatic expert, who then forwarded the pictures to a West Coast expert who specializes in what is called "Western Numismatic Americana." The expert said, "Two thumbs up!" and estimated the assay bar's base value at $10,000!
Two weeks later, and a road trip to Dallas, found our "Huhn & Luckhardt" assay bar safely tucked away in the vault at Heritage Coins and slated for auction in 2004.
Although Heritage Coins assured us that they would research the origin of the bar, our excitement and curiosity became overwhelming. So, through continued research we learned of C.A. Luckhardt, who owned and operated the Nevada Metallurgical Works (N.M.W.) on First Street in San Francisco in the 1870s, and also owned various assay branch offices throughout the mining regions. We even located a Nevada Metallurgical Works advertisement in the Salt Lake City directory from 1873.
But by far, the most interesting information to surface concerns a mining scam perpetrated by Luckhardt and one J.M Seymore in 1881. It seems that the two owned some worthless property in Death Valley, so they gave it the exotic name of "South Pacific Mining Company," added some respected individuals to the company's board, and then promoted the property until it became a speculative favorite of Broadway. They then proceeded to make millions of dollars at the expense of unsuspecting market players and investors.
Yes, Mr. Luckhardt was indeed a very busy fellow!
How is it, then, considering the expanse of C.A. Luckhardt's enterprises, that I came to find the only "Huhn & Luckhardt / Nevada Metallurgical Works" assay bar known to exist? Also, how did it end up so incredibly far from home?
Maybe these questions, along with many others, will never be fully answered, but the ones that have been answered will indeed shed new light on the early history of California numismatics.
I routinely drive past that old oak, and every time I do my mind goes back to when this journey all began. I remember the feeling of hope and expectation I had on that Tuesday night... it's the same feeling I still get every time I detect a new site.
Yes, I did experience the thrill of uncovering that one "special find," but maybe- just maybe- the next "special find" is just right in front of my searchcoil.