Extremely Rare and Important 1879 Coiled Hair Stella, PR631879 $4 Coiled Hair, Judd-1638, Pollock-1838, R.6, PR63 NGC. Of all the many numismatic delicacies created inside (and occasionally outside) the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia during the period of from roughly 1857 to the late 1870s, the 1879 and 1880 Coiled Hair stellas have a special mystique that few other U.S. coins share, a delectable combination of rarity, high demand, beauty, and mystery. The period is renowned for the hijinks, shenanigans, and general free-wheeling of various Mint personnel, often for their own aggrandizement or for those of various VIPs and the numismatically well connected. The four dollar stella, from its outset, was an ill-fated and poorly conceived coin issue, one destined to join the company of odd-denomination numismatic curiosities, those coins that are the object of intense desire on the part of dedicated numismatists, and that are the object of puzzled interest on the part of the uninitiated. A short list of those odd-denomination coins would also include the half cent, two cent and three cent pieces, half dimes (perhaps), the three and four dollar gold pieces, and such oddities as the Pan-Pac commemorative and territorial fifty dollar pieces (and perhaps the quintuple stella and the half union).
The accompanying 1879 Flowing Hair stella lot tells the story of the Honorable John A. Kasson's quest to produce a four dollar coin of international renown, and how it was doomed to failure from the outset. Kasson's proposal included a "goloid" silver dollar, as well as a "quintuple stella" twenty dollar gold piece, composed of 35 grams of gold, 30 pure gold and 5 alloy. Members of Congress had sufficient interest that a number of "original" 1879 Flowing Hair coins were made, likely 15 or 20 pieces. When demand swelled, several hundred more examples were made, probably in the following year. The 1879 Flowing Hair stellas were distributed to Congress in three-coin pattern sets that also included the 1879 "metric goloid dollars," Judd-1618 and -1626. A popular numismatic legend offers that many Congressmen gave their stellas to their wives and mistresses as gifts, accounting for the many pieces seen with jewelry mountings removed.
While Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber prepared the Flowing Hair obverse, it fell to Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan, of Morgan dollar fame, to prepare the Coiled Hair obverse that was also used on the stellas. The Coiled Hair stellas were produced in numbers that were strictly limited, and their distribution was apparently a highly clandestine "affair" of a different sort. The 1879 Coiled Hair stellas likely were made to the extent of only 15 or so pieces, and their existence was unknown to the numismatic fraternity for many years. Today they are extremely rare, with probably a dozen or so surviving pieces.
The Judd pattern reference, ninth edition, writes tellingly of the circumstances surrounding the issuance of the 1879 stellas:
It was announced by someone, perhaps a Mint official, that 15 of the 1879 Flowing Hair $4 Stellas were struck, these as patterns, but there was a sufficient demand for them that a few hundred more were struck for congressmen, who [were] allowed to acquire them for $6.50 each. This was an era of great secrecy at the Mint, and virtually the entire pattern coinage of 1879, including the 'Washlady' and Schoolgirl silver coins, were produced for the private profit of Mint officials. These were not given to congressmen or openly sold to collectors at the time, and, indeed, for many issues, their very existence was not disclosed. ... With regard to Morgan's Coiled Hair Stella, this was strictly a delicacy for Mint officials. None were shown to congressmen, and none were made available to the numismatic fraternity--the whole matter was hush-hush. How many were struck is not known, and estimates have ranged from about a dozen up to perhaps two or three dozen. Whatever the figure, it is but a tiny fraction of the 1879 Flowing Hair style."
All of the stellas enjoy a special status and popularity shared by a small handful of U.S. coin issue, those that are strictly patterns or specimen strikings, but which are collected as part of the regular series of U.S. coinage. The stellas share this favored niche with such legendary coins as the 1856 Flying Eagle cent, most of the Gobrecht dollar issues, the 1859-60 transitional half dimes and dimes, the 1907 Wire Rim eagles, and the 1866 No Motto Seated dollars. Collector fervor for these rarities is also fueled by their listing in popular collector guides such as the Guide Book, alongside regular issue coinage. (The Guide Book is extremely influential, as legions of collectors make their collecting decisions based on what coins that reference chooses to list or not).
The present PR63 example, certified by NGC, is one of three pieces so graded at that service, with four pieces finer. PCGS has graded no PR63 specimens, but seven finer. Include a handful of Cameo coins, and both NGC and PCGS combined have seen a total of 25 grading events for this coin (10/06). Given the high likelihood of multiple resubmissions, the estimate of a dozen or so survivors appears reasonable. This is a well-preserved example of the Coiled Hair stella. There are very few contact marks present on either side. The most notable surface "flaw" is actually a strike-through, a curlicue depression in the right obverse field behind Liberty's hair bun. This strike-through is likely the most reliable pedigree identifier on this important coin. The central details are weakly struck, a fact that explains the presence of roller marks that were not struck out of the coin (as a rule, fully struck coins do not show roller marks). The fields are nicely reflective, and the surfaces display rich orange-gold coloration.
From The Freedom Collection.(Registry values: P3) (NGC ID# 28AZ, PCGS# 8058)
Weight: 7.00 grams
Metal: 86% Gold, 4% Silver, 10% Copper
Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.
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