While the United States Mint struck both the Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stella types between 1879 and 1880, these pattern pieces were never intended for circulation. Instead, they acted as a failed experiment to bring the gold currency of the United States into line with that of the Latin Monetary Union. For example, one Stella (worth four dollars or four hundred cents) would be equal in bullion value to the Italian, French, and Spanish double denominations (20 lire, franc, and peseta). The brainchild of the then-U.S. Ambassador to Austria, John A. Kasson, these coins were intended to strengthen the overseas trade between America and Europe by setting an equivalent gold coinage.
Despite a number of later re-strikes, a practice that continued into the 1880s to fulfill collector demand, only an estimated 600 to 700 pieces were struck of both types and dates combined, with the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella responsible for the vast majority (roughly 600 pieces). Numismatist David Akers disagrees, and since there were up to 150 examples of the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella that were still available for purchase, it is unlikely that additional restrikes were actually produced.
The 1880 Flowing Hair Stella, despite being the second most common of the series, is quite rare. In his seminal work on U.S. Proof gold coinage, John Dannreuther estimates that there are only 18-20 known survivors. Even though the type is extremely popular and continually sought by collectors, Dannreuther’s estimate is necessarily vague, for, as he correctly states, “the pedigrees of the known examples are very confused.”
The example offered by GreatCollections is tied with two other PR-67s for the top population slot of this type/date. With provenance to the Bob R. Simpson Collection, this coin is one of the pinnacles of American Proof gold. This is no surprise, as Mr. Simpson was a “singularly astute numismatist” and put together one of the greatest collections of US coinage.
Also for sale on GreatCollections is another fascinating piece: an aluminum 1879 pattern Flowing Hair Stella. This piece not only ties in with the rare Stella gold pieces but also points to the once-extreme value of aluminum! Today, aluminum is considered ubiquitous and is one of the cheapest metals publicly available. This, however, was not always the case. Even after this trial pattern was struck in 1879, the metal was worth a small fortune. In 1884, when the Washington Monument was topped with a capstone of aluminum, the metal was selling for approximately $16 per pound (or $488 adjusted for inflation). It wasn’t until 1886 that a way to economically extract aluminum was developed. This trial strike was only one of many, with at least 11 other recorded varieties including gilt aluminum, gold, and copper types. There are only five to six specimens known to exist of this particular aluminum type, making it quite rare.
Despite the different metals used to strike the 1879 aluminum trial strike and the 1880 gold pattern, both Flowing Hair types have the same design and would be the centerpiece of any collection of U.S. coinage. Designed by Charles E. Barber, the obverse depicts a full-lopped and strong-jawed Lady Liberty, similar to the one that appears on the Morgan dollar. Her hair flows down past her neck, and she wears a headband with “Liberty” inscribed upon it. She is surrounded by “★6★G★.3★S★.7★C★7★G★R★A★M★S★”, which delineated the coin’s metal content. The date can be found below the bust’s neck truncation.
On the reverse is the eponymous five-pointed stella, or star, which reads “ONE STELLA – 400 CENTS”. Unusually, the pieces also bear the inscription of “Deo Est Gloria” (“To God is the Glory”), which is not found on any circulating United States coinage. The denomination “Four Dol.” and country of production “THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” ring the design.
Interested collectors should note that bidding for both of these pieces ends on Sunday, March 19, 2023. Specifically, the auction for the gold type ends at 7:07:45 PM Pacific Time (10:07:45 PM Eastern), and the sale of the aluminum type ends at 7:54:12 PM Pacific Time (10:54:12 PM Eastern). At the time of publication, the highest of 53 bids stands at $205,000 USD for the gold 1880, and the highest of 24 bids stands at $46,000 for the aluminum 1879.
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