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    Phenomenal 1879 Flowing Hair Stella, Judd-1635, PR67
    Only One Piece Certified Numerically Finer

    1879 $4 Flowing Hair, Judd-1635, Pollock-1833, R.3, PR67 NGC. The word stella means "star" in Latin. Although we do not use the noun form stella, we know the word from the English adjective "stellar." And, of course, a "constellation" means a "group of stars" or, by inference, a "brilliant, outstanding group or assemblage." The present coin is a simply stellar example of the stella. It would also form the centerpiece of a wonderful constellation of one of each of the four types produced in 1879 and 1880, including Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair varieties, if any collector is of a mind to begin or add to a set.
    There have been many attempts to create an international or universal currency, some moderate successes, some miserable failures. One could easily make a convincing argument that gold or silver has been the most successful universal currency, and (forgive another pun) one that still has much currency today. With the threats of inflation and U.S. budget deficits looming large, many commentators who are not normally "gold bugs" are recommending various precious metals-related investments. While we are neither making investment recommendations, nor yet do we necessarily subscribe to the belief that inflation (or deflation) is inevitable, we must observe that such sentiments have contributed to a strong, healthy, and buoyant market for rare gold coins as well.
    Gold and silver coins, by their very nature, are portable, fungible, and conform to a "set" value via a predetermined and known (or purported) content. This is precisely why the California Gold Rush, with its vast amounts of unassayed gold dust of varying purities (or fineness, in gold lingo), produced an immediate, severe need for assayers and gold coinage, in preference. Among the various Gold Rush assayers and coiners, those whose products survived and thrived were those who produced coins whose precious metals content approached its face value, without greatly exceeding or falling far below it.
    If a gold coin's metals content greatly exceeded its face value, it would be melted rather than circulate, a phenomenon that has happened again and again throughout history.
    If a gold coin's metals content was far below its face value, when the fact became known, the coin would only be accepted at a great discount. And again, rather than circulate, the coins would find their way into storage, or else be melted and recoined in a more acceptable form of currency. (The phenomenon known as "fiat money" is based on a government backing its currency, as the United States, with the "full faith and credit" of the government. Such fiat money was unknown in the California Territory, later State. It was either hard money or no money.)
    An early universal currency was the Maria Theresa thaler, which has been in circulation continuously since its first production in 1741. Containing 0.752 troy ounces of silver, the Maria Theresa thaler has been produced at various mints in the old Hapsburg Empire, as well as in Birmingham, Bombay, Brussels, London, Paris, Rome, and Utrecht. Over the past quarter-millennium, more than 400 million have been coined. Collector value aside, how much is it worth? Answer: 0.752 troy ounces of silver. The coin has seen widespread circulation, including much of Africa and throughout the Arab world, and was one of the early coins to see wide currency in the American Colonies.
    Another early success was a coin somewhat better-known to Americans, the Spanish pillar dollar, or piece of eight. With a nominal value of eight reales, the silver coins were first produced in the Spanish Empire after 1497, afterward in many mints in Spain, Mexico, and colonial Latin America. The coins were often cut into eight pieces, with a "quarter dollar" composed of "two bits." The pillar dollar was legal tender in the United States until 1857--but the practice of pricing securities on the New York Stock Exchange in eighths of a dollar persisted until the advent of decimal pricing in 1997. Between the Maria Theresa thaler and the Spanish silver dollar, they are largely responsible for the selection of the dollar as the U.S. unit of currency.
    There are many other examples of universal currencies--the British sovereign, the South African Krugerrand, the Canadian Maple Leaf, the euro, tetradrachms of Alexander, gold assay bars, one-ounce silver rounds. How much is a Krugerrand worth? One troy ounce of gold. How much is a tetradrachm worth? Four drachmas. How much is a gold assay bar worth? Whatever net gold content is stamped thereon. How much is a euro worth? It depends on what relative measure of value you choose.
    The crucial difference in those successful currencies and some of the notable failures--such as the 1879-1880 stellas, or the Dana Bickford eagle patterns of 1874--is that the failures tried to be too many things to too many people. There is an old proverb to the effect that "he who chases two swans catches neither." In trying to be simultaneously the international equivalent of 20 Spanish pesetas, eight Dutch (and Austrian) florins, 20 Italian lire, and 20 French francs, the stellas were doomed to failure.
    The stellas, although patterns, are often collected right alongside other nonpattern U.S. gold types. Fortunately for type gold collectors, the 1879 Flowing Hair stellas were produced in considerably larger quantities than the 1879 Coiled Hair or either 1880 variant. In several stellas we have cataloged over the last few years, we have steadfastly maintained our belief that there are no "original" stellas--those purportedly produced in an awkward metric composition, with no striations on the face--in existence. This is because we believe that the stellas were struck on ordinary .900 fine half eagle planchets that were first rolled down to about four-fifths of their normal thickness.
    The present PR67 NGC-certified coin has near-horizontal striations over the devices and into the fields that are somewhat more pronounced than usual. The coin has so much mint frost that it appears to be ice-encased, but the striations tend to subdue the contrast, denying a Cameo designation despite immense eye appeal. There is some strike softness on TY in Liberty's headband, another sign of the thinner planchets we believe these coins were made from. The preservation appears essentially perfect. The only ripple in the surface are a couple of minor planchet flaws on the reverse that did not strike out. There is also a threadlike strike-through in the field just above the O in DOL. The color is a beautiful, uniform orange-gold.
    This coin is one of five PR67 coins so certified at NGC, and among non-Cameo coins there are none finer at that service. That service has certified eight PR67 Cameos, with none numerically finer, and two PR67 Ultra Cameos; the only one numerically finer than this piece is a single PR68 Ultra Cameo.
    PCGS has certified no non-Cameo 1879 Flowing Hair stellas finer than PR66, although it has graded two PR67 Cameos and one PR67 Deep Cameo. Here more than normal, all of those "certification events" should be viewed with a sanguine eye; an "upgrade" at these lofty levels--either of one grade point, or from one contrast level to another--would mean many thousands of dollars. And even in the almost near-certainty that those are not all different coins, it is likely that most known examples in such high grade are in strong hands for many years to come. Census: 5 in 67, 0 finer (8/09).(Registry values: P1)

    Coin Index Numbers: (NGC ID# 28AZ, PCGS# 8057)

    Weight: 7.00 grams

    Metal: 86% Gold, 4% Silver, 10% Copper

    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    September, 2009
    10th-13th Thursday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 16
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 8,584

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