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Rare Pattern From When Aluminum Outranked Gold

by Heritage Auctions

Published on August 19, 2020

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Aluminum is so ubiquitous today that it may not strike you today as a metal that would belong on the "precious metals" list or that even has much value. However, in the early and mid-1800s, it was considered in the United States and Europe to be very precious indeed. This led to the production of some rare pattern coins (trial pieces made to test out new designs or metal compositions) struck in aluminum. In fact, for a time during the 1800s, aluminum was more valuable than gold!

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The reverse side of the rare aluminum Amazonian pattern $20.

Aluminum is so ubiquitous today that it may not strike you today as a metal that would belong on the "precious metals" list or that even has much value. However, in the early and mid-1800s, it was considered in the United States and Europe to be very precious indeed. This led to the production of some rare pattern coins (trial pieces made to test out new designs or metal compositions) struck in aluminum. In fact, for a time during the 1800s, aluminum was more valuable than gold!

As an example, the most honored guests of French ruler Napoleon III dined with aluminum cutlery, while the less-important were only able to use the more everyday silver forks and knives. The issue was not necessarily scarcity but rather than most people did not understand how to scientifically make use of aluminum. It was not until scientists found easy ways to release this metal from its ore (starting in 1886) that it fell from its favored position as an uncommon element to become something very pedestrian. Before that point eventually came, just a few very special aluminum pattern coins were created that have occasionally survived to be enjoyed by collectors today.

One of the most famous pattern designs of all is the so-called "Amazonian" series. Heritage Auctions will be offering an amazing example of the $20 Amazonian pattern struck in aluminum as part of the Bob Simpson Collection in Sale 1310. US Mint worker William Barber designed patterns for all 6 gold coin denominations in 1872, with this $20 coin being the largest and most impressive. Only two pieces are known to exist in aluminum, making this a true prize for the most discerning collector.

Not only is this a very rare piece, but its condition is also a key factor. Aluminum is a soft metal, and the US Mint was unfamiliar with using it. Aluminum patterns are often not in the nicest condition or lack eye appeal today, but this coin is a stunning example that managed to not only be struck beautifully but also to be stored and cared for in nearly pristine condition. Graded Proof 66 Cameo by PCGS, this Amazonian $20 will really impress when it crosses the auction block. [link to auction lot]



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