Rare $4 coin could sell for $1.5 million at Bonhams Los Angeles


Coins and Medals
23 Sep 2013
Los Angeles
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.

Los Angeles — Bonhams will offer an extraordinary 1880 $4 Stella Coiled Hair Cameo coin, estimated to sell for between $1,000,000-1,500,000, in the September 23 Coins and Medals auction. The coin is one of many highlights from the Tacasyl Collection of Magnificent United States Proof Gold Coins on offer, a 27-strong selection assembled by a private collector of nearly every major American gold coin design in proof between 1836 and 1915.

Stella coins were briefly produced between 1879-1880, in an ill-fated attempt to join the Latin Monetary Union (LMU), spearheaded by John A. Kasson, a former chairman of the United States House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures. The coins were meant to contain an equivalent amount of precious metal as the 20-franc Napoleon coin used throughout Europe. Congress eventually rejected Kasson's plan, but several hundred Stellas had already been minted. Rumour has it the coins caused quite a scandal when they began appearing in the jewellery of some of Washington's most notorious madams.

Only 425 Stellas were produced in total, and none were ever approved for circulation. Stellas are therefore "pattern coins," meaning that they were produced purely for the purpose of evaluation and not authorised for use as currency. Two different Stella patterns were produced, both featuring a profile of Lady Liberty and a star on the reverse. One type shows her with long, flowing hair while the other type features a tightly coiled updo.

The Tacasyl collection features no less than four outstanding Stellas, but it is only the 1880 Coiled Hair Cameo that commands a seven figure estimate. According to the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), the coin on offer is tied for the finest Stella example currently known, and is considered the best preserved. With its rich yellow-red colour, deeply mirrored surfaces, and naturalistic design, the extremely rare coin is virtually unimprovable.

"The $4 Stella Coiled Hair cameo coin is almost like the 'great white whale' for coin collectors, in that it has eluded so many of the best. Without a doubt, offering this coin and indeed the entire Tacasyl collection is the highlight of my career," said Paul Song, Director of the Rare Coins and Medals Department at Bonhams.

The Tacasyl Collection of Magnificent United States Gold Proof Coins will be offered on September 23 as part of the Coins and Medals auction at Bonhams Los Angeles. The auction will preview at the American Numismatic Association World's Fair of Money in Rosemont, IL, August 13-17 and Bonhams Los Angeles, September 20-23.

A complete catalogue will be available online at www.bonhams.com/auctions/20992-----------------------------------------------------------------------


NOTES FOR EDITORS

Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com

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