1880 $4 Stella Coiled Hair Cameo PF-67 NGC
George T. Morgan, designer (attributed)
Obverse: Head of Liberty facing left, wearing diadem inscribed LIBERTY, her hair braided and tightly coiled on top of her head; around, ★6★G★.3★S★.7★C★7★G★R★A★M★S★; below, 1880.
Reverse: Large five-pointed star inscribed in incuse: ONE / STELLA / / 400 / CENTS, in five lines; around outer rim: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA FOUR DOL.; around, within outer legend: E PLURIBUS UNUM DEO EST GLORIA.
Condition: NGC Proof 67 Cameo (Certificate number: 1963260-004 Photo Proof 10-07; previous Photo Proof 04-05 [number 1916321-002]: "NGC has certified just one other as PF67 Cameo and none finer").
A rich yellow-red color with exceptional frosting of the devices over deeply mirrored surfaces. A minimal lint mark to the right of the second 7 on the obverse, and a small (mint-caused) line ascending from the upper left point of the star between .7 and C are two hallmarks to identify this specimen. An amazing example which is virtually unimprovable.
References: This Coin Published: Breen (Proofs) p. 167 (8); Akers (1976) p. 82; Akers (Patterns) pp. 53, 104; Garrett & Guth (Encyclopedia) p. 170 ("One of the finest pieces known for the issue..."), 570; A Guide Book to United States Coins (The Red Book), 59th ed., 2006, pp. 233, 399; 66th ed., 2013, pp. 252, 423; this piece used to illustrate the type on the NGC Coin Explorer website. Other references: Judd 1660; Pollack 1860; Breen (Encyclopedia) 6411; Garrett & Guth, 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. (PCGS 88060)
Condition Census: Tied for finest known. NGC records only two other examples as Proof 67 Cameo, none finer; PCGS records none graded this perfectly preserved (Proof 64+ Cameo and Proof 66 without the cameo designation, the finest). (07-13)
Rarity: Exceptionally rare. One of the classic rarities of the entire United States series. Although the precise mintage records are thus far lost, the consensus of researchers is that no more than ten to fifteen were produced, with nearly ten surviving examples (though the Red Book cites only eight) having been confirmed (without duplication of listing); Teichman (U.S. Patterns website) lists nine confirmed examples including the Smithsonian example (the presently offered lot is his number 2). According to the PCGS records of auction appearances this is the finest certified piece ever sold at auction, and according to Guth & Garrett is finer than the Smithsonian coin by three full points. According to the 2006 Red Book, this coin when last sold at auction realized a price within the top-20 all-time U.S. coin prices ever realized up to that time, its price only exceeded by such iconic rarities as the 1933 Double Eagle, 1804 Dollar, 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, Brasher Doubloon, and 1894-S Dime.
Provenance: Gold Rush Collection, Heritage, January 12, 2005, lot 30044, PR66 Cameo NGC, "an exceptional cameo proof," (but incorrectly identified in the census as example 2 or 5 [Kern or DuPont]; it is example 3), ($977,500); Stack's Fixed Price List, Summer 1997 as part of a complete set ($875,000); Winner F. Delp Collection, Stack's, November 17, 1972, lot 792 ($35,000).
Note: The Coiled Hair design has long been attributed to George T. Morgan, and a close comparison of the two designs clearly defines the hands of two different engravers. Charles Barber, succeeded his father, William as the sixth Chief Engraver of the Mint in 1879. He was, by almost universal agreement, technically gifted but a lackluster artist. Morgan, an Englishman, by comparison, was recommended for the assistant engraver's post precisely because of his artistic gifts, which were amply displayed in his series of pattern half dollars in 1877 and 1878, and of course his well-known silver dollar.
Here the coiled hair design is not only treated with greater naturalism than Barber's flowing hair design (even the pupil of Liberty's eye is delineated), but the design itself is more sophisticated. The braided plait on top of Liberty's head is delicately and intricately engraved, and the portrait of Liberty is fully modeled and has a distinct individual personality. By contrast, the flowing hair design presents a more distant, cool effigy of Liberty with her hair more heavily engraved, both aspects of which are more in keeping with Barber's well-established use of classical sculpture for his inspiration.
David Akers also noted that there may be an aura of mystery surrounding the issue of 1880 Coiled Hair Stellas. In his extensive examination of examples during his long career, he noticed that the issue came with two distinctly different finishes. The first group (as displayed on this specimen and that in the Smithsonian, for example) has frosted devices and mirrorlike fields; those of the second variety are effectively brilliant proofs with little if any cameo contrast (indeed, Akers states that they appear polished). He suggested that one variety, probably the first group (as the Smithsonian's example bears these features) may be original strikes, and the other re-strikes, but there is no data thus far known which would support such a conjecture.
Suffice it to say, as Akers did, "this stella remains the rarest of the four." In fact, the 1880 Coiled Hair Stella has long been thought of as the 'great white whale' of the four coin series, and while the voracious collector Virgil Brand is known to have owned more than one example, it eluded even such great and sophisticated collectors as T. Harrison and John Work Garrett, the Norwebs, and Harry Bass.