Famous California nugget came from Australia

8:30 PM, Jun 6, 2011   |    comments
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  • Jim Grill. Photo courtesy: The Union newspaper
  • This 1987 photo shows the Australian gold nugget
  • Pre-auction photograph of the Washington Nugget

WASHINGTON (NEVADA COUNTY), CA - The giant gold nugget is real, but the story of how it went to auction in Sacramento is full of giant holes.

James Saunders Grill reported finding the 98-ounce nugget last year on his property along the South Fork of the Yuba River in the Gold Rush-era mining town of Washington.

After the discovery, a Website appeared seeking investors to help develop a commercial mining operation called the Lost Scotchman Mine on the 180-acre property, suggesting the giant nugget was just the "tip of the iceberg."

"Act now and just like the 49ers of 160 years ago, you can experience the wealth and excitement of the Gold Rush," the Website encouraged prospective investors.

The property is landlocked, and federal court documents show Grill, 70, has been involved in a long-running legal battle with the United States Forest Service to gain road access.

What became known as the Washington Nugget fetched $460,000 at a Sacramento Convention Center auction March 16, and the well-publicized event helped lead to the unraveling of the story.

Australian prospector Murray Cox saw the story in a mining trade magazine and contacted News10.

Cox, 56, provided a 1987 Melbourne Sun newspaper article and photographs showing that he and partner Reg Wilson, now 62, unearthed the giant nugget in Rokewood, Victoria 24 years ago.

Wilson sold the nugget, which the pair called Orange Roughie, to an American gold dealer in 1989.  A picture of the giant nugget is still displayed in the Rokewood Hotel.

The Arizona gold dealer, colorfully known as Rattlesnake John, later used an image of the Australian nugget on his business cards.

Fred Holabird, the Reno auctioneer who sold the nugget in Sacramento, said he was convinced it came from Northern California because it had the same appearance as others from the area.  It also came with a signed affidavit from Grill attesting to its authenticity.

"I got taken as bad as anyone," Holabird admitted.

Holabird said he was surprised that no one recognized the nugget while it was on public display for three months prior to the auction.

Holabird has offered to pay for scientific testing to verify the nugget's origin, but hoped to avoid the expense and wasted time by encouraging Grill to come forward to explain what happened.

Holabird said he had contacted Irvine-based Spectrum Group International, a precious metals broker that represented the anonymous buyer.  He said he had not yet heard back from the company.

On Monday, the gate was locked outside Grill's home in Washington where he's said to be a seasonal resident.  Grill has not responded to email or phone messages from News10.

On Washington's Main Street, there was a strong sense of vindication among Grill's fellow prospectors who said they had been skeptical about his reported discovery.

"As a gold miner myself, I seriously doubted that it was found where it was portrayed to have been found," Doug Cole said.

by George Warren, GWarren@news10.net 


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