Famous 1879 Flowing Hair Stella in Gold
1879 $4 Judd-1635, Pollock-1833, R.3, PR67 ★ Cameo NGC.
There are five stella types, not four, although the fifth one -- a
design subtype of the 1879 Flowing Hair known as the Small Head --
is little-known even today.
Judd-1635, Elite PR67 ★ Cameo
As with so much else regarding the specifics of the stella production, there are few facts and much speculation. The year 1879 was one of major upheaval at the Mint. In June 1878 Congress accused Mint Director Henry R. Linderman, an avid -- too avid -- numismatist, with official misconduct. He remained in his post until resigning in December 1878, passing away in disgrace the following month at age 53, a cloud hanging over his reputation that continues to this day. The Mint received a new director, Horatio Burchard, in February 1879, but the parade of numismatic delicacies produced for Mint insiders and the well-connected would continue through the end of Burchard's tenure in 1885.
William Barber passed away on August 31, 1879, after serving as Mint assistant engraver from 1865 to 1869 and as chief engraver from then until his death. His son Charles appears to have been universally disliked but was still appointed to fill the post of his father more than three months later.
It is against this backdrop of change that the mysterious stellas were created. While the 1879 and 1880 Coiled Hair and Flowing Hair stellas are known by even the most casual numismatists, the differences in the Small Head and Large Head versions of the 1879 Flowing Hair have received scant attention in the numismatic press--nor have, as far as we know, the several interesting obverse design differences that become apparent on close examination. A short list includes these:
--1879 Flowing Hair, Large Head, Judd-1635. Date: Large, arcing, close to the rim (but further than on the Small Head), 1 higher than 879. Other obverse legends: Farther from the rim but tightly spaced (a star nearly touches the high-point ornament on the headband). Head: Slightly larger than the Small Head. Bust tip: Points to star 1.
--1879 Flowing Hair, Small Head, Judd-1636a. Date: Large, arcing, close to the rim, 1 higher than 879. Other obverse legends: Closer to the rim than on the Large Head. Head: Slightly smaller than the Large Head. Bust tip: Points to top of 1. The Small Head is known only from a unique copper striking in copper, dating to the Harlan P. Smith sale of 1906, lot 1447. It has been gilded since.
--1879 Coiled Hair, Judd-1638. Date: Large, arcing, 1 higher than 879. Other obverse legends: Closer to the rim but loosely spaced.
--1880 Flowing Hair, Judd-1657. Date: Small, nearly straight, and far from rim. The logo date punch is clearly different from the 1880 Coiled Hair, and by far the smallest of any of the stellas. Other obverse legends: Closer to rim but loosely spaced.
--1880 Coiled Hair, Judd-1660. Date: Large, arcing, and close to rim, 1 higher than 880. Other obverse legends: Closer to rim but loosely spaced.
A mere description of the minute but fascinating differences in these five obverse dies, unfortunately, leaves us with more questions and fewer answers. The Flowing Hair designs are traditionally attributed to Charles Barber, while the Coiled Hair designs are sourced to George T. Morgan. But there seem to be too many stylistic differences between the 1879 Flowing Hair and 1880 Flowing Hair to attribute the engraving of the 1880 design to the scrupulous, detail-oriented Barber. (Admittedly, he had just taken over the post of chief engraver, and his father had passed away recently. Did he tighten his standards later on?)
Note the many contrasts in the two Flowing Hair coins: The 1879 shows the large, arcing date near the rim, with the other peripheral legends brought in considerably and spaced awkwardly. In contrast, the 1880 has a small, stingy, straight date that is much farther from the dentils. The peripheral legends, however, are better-spaced and nearer the rim. It stretches the bounds of credibility to believe that Barber engraved both of these dies.
The 1879 and 1880 Coiled Hair stellas, however, are notable more for their similarity than for their dissimilarities. On both issues, the 1 in the date is higher than the remaining digits, and the peripheral legends are equally close to the rim. The tip of the bust is aligned over the 1 of the date on both of the Coiled Hair designs--as is the Small Head 1879 Flowing Hair. Could this design have been engraved by George T. Morgan for some unknown reason?
Even as the low-mintage designs intrigue, it is clear that the 1879 Flowing Hair, Large Head stellas are the most numerous of all and the best-represented in collections; in fact, there are as many Superb Gem certification events for that type as there are known examples for several others, though the usual caveat applies, that certification events do not necessarily correspond one-to-one with available examples. As might be expected from the designation, this is a coin of extraordinary beauty, appreciably contrasted with strong yellow-gold mirrors around. Striations are faint and appear mostly on the reverse. Census: 3 in 67 ★ Cameo, 1 in 68 Cameo, 0 finer (11/11).(Registry values: P1) (NGC ID# 28AZ, PCGS# 88057)
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