1880 $4 Stella Flowing Hair PF-67★ NGC
Charles E. Barber, designer
Obverse: Head of Liberty facing left, wearing diadem inscribed LIBERTY, hair flowing in long locks; 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★ (Certificate number: 1963260-003 Photo Proof 10-07; previous Photo Proof 10-01 [number 1634634-001], PF-67 [without star]: "...this is the finest example of the rare 1880 Flowing Hair type certified by NGC...Perhaps the finest of an estimated two dozen survivors, this fabulous coin is a sheer delight.").
A spectacular, beautifully toned coin of medium red gold. This is an unusually well-struck example with the central strands of Liberty's hair well defined. Lightly mirrored fields with subdued, but frosted devices. The central striations seen on all examples are virtually invisible on this specimen. A small mint-caused 'comma' extending from the tail of the first 7 in the peripheral inscription (the Trompeter example has a similar feature), a thin reverse toning line from the right foot of the R of FOUR to the rim, and a tiny raised dot at the tail of the first S in the obverse inscription serve as an identifiers. A magnificent superb gem.
References: This Coin Published: Breen (Proofs) p. 167 (5); Akers (Patterns) pp. 53, 85; A Guide Book to United States Coins (The Red Book), 59th ed., 2006, p. 402; this piece used to illustrate the type on the NGC Coin Explorer website. Other references: Judd 1635; Pollack 1832; Breen (Encyclopedia) 6410; Akers (1976) pp. 80-81, 103-104; Garrett & Guth (Encyclopedia) p. 170; Garrett & Guth, 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. (PCGS 8059)
Condition Census: Tied for finest known. Perhaps the finest; while NGC records only two other examples as Proof 67 (cameo), this is the only example to bear the star designation for eye appeal. PCGS has graded a single coin at this grade, with the cameo designation. Neither firm has graded anything finer. As the Sotheby's/Stack's cataloguers of the H. Jeff Browning (Dallas Bank) Collection stated, "it is hard to imagine any of comparable quality." Garrett and Guth, noted it is one of the finest seen by them, and graded the Smithsonian's example as Proof 65, two full points lower than this exceptional coin. (07-13)
Rarity: Exceedingly rare. An underappreciated rarity, perhaps because it is the same design as the much more abundant 1879 flowing hair issue. Breen (Proofs) estimated only 15 struck, a figure that Akers agrees with (but notes that a second, smaller mintage, must have supplemented the original number). Garrett and Guth suggest a total mintage of only 25 coins and a survival of about 15 to 20 pieces (which Teichman's census appears to bear out). The PCGS census of auction prices (which is reasonably comprehensive back to 1979) lists no Proof 67 examples having ever been offered at auction (with the exception of this specimen, which was sold uncertified in 2001 and, by nearly $100,000, exceeded the highest price ever recorded to that date for an example of this variety). Nothing remotely comparable to this example has appeared at auction in more than a decade, but a Proof 66 (NGC) example was sold in January, 2013. Regardless of the total number known, as noted above, few, if any, can match this remarkable coin, superbly preserved and with a distinguished pedigree. Even five years after its 2001 auction appearance it ranked among the Red Book's (2006 ed.) top 250 auction prices realized.
Provenance: H. Jeff Browning Collection ("The Dallas Bank Collection"), Sotheby's/Stack's, October 29-30, 2001, lot 362, Gem Brilliant Proof, "... Monumental" ($241,500); Dr. John E. Wilkison Collection (via David W. Akers and Mike Brownlee prior to 1973).
Note: When Mint engravers approached the design of the international coinage, they had any number of challenges to overcome. As noted above, the issues of alloy, weight, and how to express the intrinsic value of the coin internationally were all cleverly and quite simply dealt with. But, it should be remembered that the Stella was also meant to circulate in the United States (where an understanding of the metric standard was not then, and is still not, commonplace) and it also had to meet certain legal requirements regarding various portions of its design; so, the obverse bore a head (and inscription) emblematic of Liberty, while the reverse bore the inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM. The use of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was optional at this time, and was replaced by the DEO EST GLORIA (the Glory is God's). The denomination was expressed in three different ways: 400 Cents, Four Dol., and finally One Stella (within the star for which the denomination was named). Despite the number of competing design elements, the Stellas are well-conceived, uncluttered and, like so many unadopted patterns, in many ways artistically superior to the designs ultimately accepted for circulation.
As also noted above, Congressional interest in the proposed international coinage caused that body to order more examples for the membership; according to Breen (Encyclopedia) many of the 1879 dated issues were in fact struck in 1880 (in January, April, and May). However, the concept of the international coinage was scuttled by legislators when no difference in the alloys could be readily distinguished (the standard circulating U.S. coins were .900 pure, and the Stellas .857 pure). Nevertheless, the concept of a Four Dollar gold piece did greatly appeal to numismatists as an oddity and the two issues of 1880 are widely accepted as having been produced for well-placed collectors of pattern coinage.