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Gold nuggets: the ultimate prize

Of all the forms taken by gold, nuggets generate the greatest excitement and, at times, the most discussion. While nuggets have been found in gold fields in most Australian states and in others around the world, those from Victoria were particularly large and abundant.

From the time of the first gold rushes in the early 1850s, the discovery of large nuggets aroused such exhilaration that news spread far and wide. Thousands of people from around the world migrated to Victoria, dreaming of making their fortunes on goldfields dripping, so they hoped, with nuggets. The records are undoubtedly incomplete, but more than 1200 nuggets weighing over 620 grams (20 troy ounces*) had been documented up until about 1910. The largest of all, the Welcome Stranger nugget (2316 troy ounces or about 72 kg) was uncovered on a bush track near Moliagul in 1869. The second largest, the Welcome (2218 troy ounces or about 71.3 kg), was found in 1858 on Bakery Hill at Ballarat, in an alluvial gutter at a depth of 55 metres.


The Welcome Stranger
Courtesy of Museum Victoria


Many other magnificent nuggets weighing close to 1000 troy ounces were found but virtually none survived intact to be preserved in Australian museum collections. Most were sold and melted down almost immediately in order to minimise the chances of theft and so that the finder could realise on their good luck. A number of smaller nuggets found their way to Europe as gifts for royalty. The Victorian Mines Department made models of about 100 nuggets, mainly from sketches and photographs, but the resulting outlines are often distorted or greatly simplified.


Discovery of nuggets around Australia

While the Victorian alluvial nuggets were the most spectacular, large nuggets were discovered on many Australian goldfields. In Queensland, the Curtis nugget (28 kilograms or 906 ounces) and another of 25 kilograms (804 ounces) were found during early mining at Gympie. Of the New South Wales fields, Burrandong near Orange yielded the largest nugget (40 kilograms or 1286 ounces) in 1858, and nuggets up to about 1200 ounces were found in the Turon River district in the period 1851-2. Kiandra was a prolific field with a 12.5 kilogram (400 ounce) nugget found in the Snowy River in 1860. One of the largest surviving nuggets, the Maitland Bar (11 kilograms or 350 ounces), was discovered near Hargraves in 1887. The so-called Holterman nugget, found at Hill End in 1872, was actually a 300 kg slug of gold mixed with quartz hammered from the reef at depth. In Western Australia, the 35 kilogram (1135-ounce) Golden Eagle, found near Kalgoorlie in 1931, was the largest. In 1894, two big nuggets, of 25 and 26.4 kilograms (800 and 850 ounces), were found at Coolgardie and Londonderry, respectively. In 1890, during early diggings on the Coongan River in the Pilbara goldfield, the Little Hero nugget (10.5 kilograms or 338 ounces) was discovered.


Modern day fossicking

In more recent times, the metal detector has revolutionised the discovery of gold in many of the old goldfields. Collectors have turned a weekend hobby into a livelihood by finding sizeable nuggets missed by the early miners. There is a flourishing market in gold specimens as collectables, and international collectors regularly visit towns in the Victorian goldfields to buy pieces. There is no doubt that many fine specimens, including nuggets and crystals, have left the country without any records being made.


The sometimes colourful fate of contemporary nuggets

A few of the big nuggets found by metal detectors have been announced to the public, and for some the media coverage they’ve received has been notable. In Victoria, these include the magnificent 27 kilogram (845 troy ounces) Hand of Faith nugget, found in 1980 near Kingower and sold, after a protracted battle to find an Australian buyer, to a Las Vegas casino for $1 million. A 10 kilogram (317 ounces) nugget found by two prospectors near Inglewood in 1995 became the subject of a bitter ownership dispute. The beautiful 8 kilogram (256 ounces) Pride of Australia nugget, found near Wedderburn in 1981 and purchased by the State Bank of Victoria, was stolen from the Museum of Victoria in a smash and grab raid on its display case in 1992 and has never been recovered. Perhaps the most notorious of the recent Western Australian nuggets was actually a fake. The Yellow Rose of Texas was fabricated in a garage by members of a Perth family and sold as a genuine 12.4 kilogram (400 ounces) nugget in 1980. The buyer, who paid $350 000, was none other than prominent businessman Alan Bond. After the fake was revealed, and the culprits charged in 1991, Mr Bond sold the ‘nugget’ to the Perth Mint, where it was melted down.

More recently, in 1999, a spectacular 25.5 kilogram (819 ounces) nugget received world attention when it was exported to the USA for auction without the required permit under federal legislation protecting cultural heritage. Found in 1995, the King of the West nugget, as it was originally called, was renamed the Normandy nugget after it was purchased by Normandy Mining Ltd upon its return to Australia. Other Western Australian nuggets include the 16 kilogram (520 ounces) Evening Star and the 6 kilogram (200 ounces) Golden Aussie.


Nuggets around the world

Large nuggets have been found on goldfields in Russia, the USA and Brazil, mostly prior to the 1860s. Some from near Miask in the Urals weighed up to 36 kilograms (1160 ounces) and a suite of large nuggets up to 34 kilograms (1090 ounces) was collected between the 1840s and 1850s from Tuolumne County, Colorado. The famous Californian goldfields produced nuggets up to about 9.3 kilograms (300 ounces) during the same period as the great Victorian finds, however California is better known for superbly crystallised gold specimens.

*The troy system is used to measure weights of precious metals such as gold, and has units of ounces, pennyweights and grains. A troy ounce contains 20 pennyweights and 1 pennyweight contains 24 grains. One troy ounce is equivalent to 31.1 grams in the metric system.



Credits

By Dr Bill Birch, Senior Curator, Geosciences, Museum Victoria




 
 

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