Skip to main content

Kagin's Auctions tells entertaining story of Emperor Norton

A favorite numismatic tale is retold in the auction catalog of Kagin’s Auctions for its Sept. 21 Santa Clara Expo Coin and Stamp Show West Coast Sale.

The sale will feature a 50-cent bond of Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.

Naturally, the full story is laid out for the pleasure of all potential bidders and the wider numismatic audience.

50-cent note of Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, offered in a sale by Kagin's Auctions.

50-cent note of Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, offered in a sale by Kagin's Auctions.

The 50-cent bond is dated August 1, 1878. It is one of fewer than 40 known.

Pre-sale estimate is $15,000-$25,000.

Norton I “reigned” over his subjects from his capital of San Francisco.

As Kagin’s catalog relates, Joshua Abraham Norton was born in London in 1818. He relocated with his family to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1820.

In his youth he came to believe he was a missing heir to the French throne.

But it was a financial shock that turned his personal quirk into a full-fledged San Francisco popular figure.

During the Gold Rush he reached San Francisco in November 1849, where he promptly became a commission merchant.

According to the auction catalog, “He could judge the market for goods when ships arrived from varied cargoes, sought out buyers, and sold the merchandise for a percentage of the sale price.”

His profits were plowed into real estate.

He became a visible and active part of the community.

However, in December 1852 a bad deal over a rice cargo led to a series of financial reverses that resulted in bankruptcy.

On Sept. 17, 1859 he delivered a document to the San Francisco Evening Bulletin that proclaimed himself emperor.

He was adopted by the residents of the city as a beloved eccentric.

He often ate free but still needed money to live.

According to the catalog, “Norton I issued the first note in late June 1869. Between January 1870 and 1876, printers Cuddy & Hughes created three designs for the Emperor’s popular 50-cent bond.

"All showed the Emperor and paid seven percent interest, collectible in 1880. Some have an inked ‘seal’ most likely made from a coin.

“The earliest 50-cent note to survive carries the date November 11, 1870. Printed in bright red, it shows a large Columbia in front of a San Francisco scene. A dog, presumably Norton’s, lies next to a safe.

“From 1877 to 1880, Charles A. Murdock was the Emperor’s favorite printer. In the almost 10 years of his reign, His Majesty issued over 3,000 Bonds of Empire. Today, we know of only thirty-five.

“There are a total of nine types with various scenes and other denominations including $5, $10 and $100 notes. While retaining the 1860s cut of the Emperor on the left, Murdock added the California State seal to the right.

“Murdock saved the empire money when he reduced the rate of interest from seven to five percent. When the 1870s bonds matured in January 1880, Murdock and the Emperor solved a possible embarrassment by rolling them over at reduced interest.

“On the day he died, January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton issued 50-cent bond #3042, payable in 1890, at only 4 percent.”

See the full story at the firm’s website as well as a full list of the other auction lots that include 40 lots of Mormon gold, copper and paper currency.

Good luck to the buyer of the 50-cent note. He or she will own a fun piece of history.

But the tale of Norton I belongs to all collectors.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog for the third time in 2017 . He is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."