1879 Flowing Hair Stella, Judd-1635, PR66 Cameo
1879 $4 Flowing Hair, Judd-1635, Pollock-1833, JD-1, R.3, PR66
Cameo PCGS. "Eccentric" is an adjective usually reserved to
describe human behavior, but the term seems appropriate for the
curious United States pattern that takes the anthropomorphic name,
stella. Unique in American numismatics, these four dollar gold
pieces were made in limited quantities for just two years. Two
types were manufactured for reasons not entirely known (Flowing
Hair and Coiled Hair), and much about the conditions of their
production remains uncertain. Indeed, for years rumor, legend, and
speculation have dominated discourse about this four dollar issue.
Simply put, the stella is a numismatic oddity, a relic of the late
19th century with a past shrouded in mystery.
A Fresh-to-Market Example From a New England Estate
All the more fitting, then, that this particular example derives from an old-time estate, where it sat untouched and undiscovered for decades in an antique safe in a cottage in the Norman Rockwellesque town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Like the stella itself, this particular representative, recently graded PR66 Cameo by PCGS, has quite the unorthodox story to tell.
Origins of the Denomination
By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution, the development of railways and telegraphs, and increasing trade served to heighten and enhance the complex nature of international exchanges - financial, commercial, and cultural. What we might now refer to as globalization demanded a system of equivalencies between weights, measures, and currencies.
From the 1860s through the 1880s, Americans like Salmon P. Chase, treasury secretary from 1861 to 1864, Samuel B. Ruggles, a delegate to the 1863 International Statistical Congress, George F. Dunning, the superintendent of the New York Assay Office, and Dana Bickford, a manufacturer from Brattleboro, Vermont, believed strongly that the United States ought to develop a new system of coinage to facilitate trade with its European counterparts. Several proposals were made by these men and others, all of which ultimately failed, although their projects did produce a few interesting patterns.
Without question, the most famous of the international coinage proposals is the four dollar gold piece or stella. Serial inventor and flagrant self-promoter Dr. William Wheeler Hubbell of Philadelphia is now credited with the idea for the coin. For a long time the Minister Plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary, Representative John A. Kasson, was associated with the denomination, having suggested a coin of equal value to the standard gold pieces of the Latin Monetary Union -- in other words, a coin worth $3.88. However, Hubbell distorted Kasson's suggestion and used it as evidence that his plan for a four dollar gold piece would solve the international coinage problem.
No background in mathematics is required to see that Hubbell's plan did not create an equivalency between American and European coinages ($3.88 ? $4), but that was beside the point. This was an opportunity for self-advancement, a way to have Congress pass legislation that would authorize a new system of easily convertible "metric" coinage (rounded to the nearest gram or tenth of a gram) struck in Hubbell's patented goloid alloy, composed of gold, silver, and copper in set ratios. The alloy was nothing new, it had existed in similar forms for thousands of years and had previously been rejected by the U.S. government for commercial usage, but Hubbell's persuasive nature convinced Chairman of the Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures, Representative Alexander H. Stephens, to recommend test pieces be made.
On October 4, 1879, Mint Director Horatio Chapin Burchard sent a letter to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden instructing him to have the stellas struck: "Mr. Stephens requests that specimens of coins be prepared in accordance with the provisions of the bills and I am desirous of accommodating the Committee." This letter was the impetus for a small group of 25 Flowing Hair stellas manufactured in December 1879. They were distributed for $6.10 in three-coin sets in early 1880 along with examples of the Goloid dollar and Metric dollar. An additional 100 sets were requested on March 1, 1880, followed by 300 sets on May 10. Thus, the reported mintage of 425 Flowing Hair stellas. It should be noted that roughly 20 1879 Coiled Hair, 20 1880 Flowing Hair, and 20 1880 Coiled Hair four dollar gold patterns were also struck, likely for well-connected coin dealers and collectors.
The 1879 Flowing Hair stella is the only collectible version of the four variants, though it remains an unquestioned rarity. The obverse was designed by Charles Barber, who modeled the portrait of Liberty after one used by his father William a few years earlier on a five dollar pattern (Judd-1574), while the reverse, which is common to all four issues, was design by Hubbell himself and engraved by Barber.
A New Treasure is Found
The series of events that led to the discovery of this Premium Gem Cameo stella is straight out of a Hollywood movie.
According to her niece and nephew, Aunt Mary had always been generous, sharing her time and energy as a community leader, and helping to pay for school and other necessities when family members were in a bind. But she was equally careful, never spending extravagantly on herself and always living within her means. She lived in the same understated home for half a century.
As Aunt Mary's health deteriorated, she warned her niece, who made regular trips up to Stockbridge: "Be careful before giving things away." Without being explicit, she put her niece on notice. Still, after Aunt Mary's death it came as a total surprise that the quaint, colonial house nestled in the Berkshire Mountains contained a variety of often well-hidden antiques, paintings, and other valuables, including a bottle of rye whisky that had been casked in 1863 and bottled in 1913, and a landscape painting by renowned 19th century French artist, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.
The present coin was found in an old safe among a pile of coins, including a couple of Spanish gold cobs and American double eagles. Aunt Mary had never made any mention of the coins, so the executors of the estate brought the cache to a local coin shop for an appraisal. Having no idea what their coins were worth, they were delighted when the coin dealer jumped out of his chair and exclaimed that he had never handled a stella in more than 30 years. As it turned out, Aunt Mary's niece and nephew had inherited a significant rarity.
Unfortunately, nothing is known about the prior history of this coin. The current consignors believe it may have been accepted as payment from a client by their uncle, Mary's husband, who owned his own business.
The quality of this Premium Gem Stella is absolutely superb. Eye-catching Cameo contrast is the first thing that stands out, with frosted motifs set against profoundly reflective, mirrorlike fields. The richness of the deep yellow-gold color that dominates each side is interrupted only by a couple of attractive reddish-blue alloy spots on the cheek, within the lower curls, above the second G, and below the lowest points of star 13. Vertical planchet striations and a touch of softness occur across Liberty's portrait, as on virtually all 1879 Flowing Hair stellas.
Heritage Auctions is proud to offer this fresh-to-market representative, the "Stockbridge Stella." Its captivating, offbeat history parallels that of the issue itself, and the numismatic community will surely find as much to like about it as we do.
The Stockbridge Stella.(Registry values: P1) (NGC ID# 28B2, PCGS# 88057)
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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