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Gold coins found by California couple unlikely stolen from U.S. Mint

Gold coins worth $10 million that were discovered by a Northern California couple were not likely stolen in a 1901 U.S. Mint theft in San Francisco, an official said Tuesday.

“We do not have any information linking the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins to any thefts at any United States Mint facility,” U.S. Mint spokesman Adam Stump said in a statement, adding that lawyers have looked into the matter.

In 1901, six bags of double eagle gold coins -- 250 $20 coins in each -- went missing from the San Francisco Mint. Chief Clerk Walter Dimmick was convicted of stealing the $30,000 and served time in San Quentin prison for what was later called the Dimmick Defalcation.

The coins were never recovered, but a home owned by a Mint superintendent was used to cover part of the loss.

Each bag of coins in Dimmick’s cache would have contained coins with the same date and mint mark, said David McCarthy, senior numismatist for Kagin's Inc., which evaluated the Saddle Ridge Hoard.

The cache discovered last year contains a mix of coins with 72 distinct date and mint mark combinations, he said. The 1,427 coins, most of them $20 pieces, are dated between 1847 and 1894.

"That’s 12 times as many permutations as we should have if it was the group that Dimmick defalcated with,” McCarthy said, adding that it's doubtful the mint would have coins made more than 50 years earlier still in its stocks.

The numismatist firm did extensive research to determine whether the coins were ill-gotten, he said. McCarthy said he was aware of the Dimmick story before the cache was discovered but never suspected the coins were from the theft because he knew what that lot would have looked like.

Despite hearing from quite a few people, Kagin's has not received any credible claims to the coins and does not expect to, he said.

Numerous theories have cropped up since the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard was announced last week.

Another suggests the coins may have been buried by the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secretive, subversive Confederate group that some believe buried millions in ill-gotten gold across a dozen states to finance a second Civil War.

Though the coins very well could be a fortune buried by a wealthy businessman, the time period, markers near the cache and manner in which the coins were buried fit the mold of the KGC, said Warren Getler, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who coauthored “Rebel Gold,” a book about the group.

Getler and coauthor Bob Brewer argue in the book the KGC existed for many decades after the Civil War and continued to bury and protect underground gold and silver caches.

The Northern California couple, identified only as John and Mary by Kagin's, had walked the path on their gold country property for years before they spotted the edge of a rusty can peeking out of the moss in February 2013. When the lid cracked off, they found dirt-encrusted coins, some in better condition than those on display in museums.

"I looked around over my shoulder to see if someone was looking at me — I had the idea of someone on horseback in my head. It's impossible to describe really, the strange reality of that moment," John said in an interview transcript.

The Saddle Ridge Hoard, named for the space on their property, may be the most valuable cache ever found in North America, with an estimated value of more than $10 million. If you melted the coins, the gold alone would be worth $2 million, said David Hall, co-founder of Professional Coin Grading Services in Newport Beach, who recently authenticated them.

Thirteen of the coins are the finest of their kind. One "miraculous coin," an 1866 $20 piece made in San Francisco and missing "In God We Trust," could bring $1 million on its own, Hall said. When the motto was added to the coin in 1866, some were still minted without the phrase, he said.

Had the couple attempted to clean the delicate surface of the piece, they could have reduced the value to $7,000 or $8,000 in under a minute, McCarthy said.

Most of the hoard will be sold on Amazon.com in late May or early June to allow a broader swath of the public to access them, McCarthy said. The couple, who will donate some of the profit to charity, said the find will allow them to keep their property.

[For the Record, 7:21 p.m. PST, March 4: A previous version of this post gave the incorrect first name for Getler as Walter. His name is Warren.]  

[For the Record, 7 a.m. PST, March 5: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Dimmick’s Oakland house was used to cover the loss incurred by the 1901 U.S. Mint theft. The house belonged to a Mint superintendent, and it covered only part of the loss.]

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Twitter: @Sam_Schaefer

Samantha.Schaefer@latimes.com

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