Jeff Garrett: The Superstar $4 Stella, 1879-1880

These numismatic supernovas shine bright in the greatest collections

 

By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
 

Very few United States coins inspire the awe and fascination of the 1879 and 1880 $4 gold coins, otherwise known as “Stellas”. These enigmatic coins are far beyond the financial reach of most collectors. But that hasn’t stopped the Stella from becoming one of the most popular US coins ever produced. Wealthy collectors have created a demand that far outstrips supply so that even circulated examples now command a nearly six-figure price.

Indeed, the five-pointed star and the word STELLA have become iconic symbols in numismatics. Interestingly, however, the $4 Stellas of 1879 and 1880 are actually pattern coins and were not intended for circulation. Along with the 1856 Flying Eagle cent and the 1836 Gobrecht Seated dollar, the Stella is one of few such pattern coins that is commonly sought after by collectors of regular issue US coinage. Because of their popularity, all of these are listed along with regular coinage in A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Redbook).

From left, the 1879 Flowing Hair Stella, the 1879 Coiled Hair Stella, the 1880 Flowing Hair Stella and the 1880 Coiled Hair Stella
From left, 1879 Flowing Hair Stella, 1879 Coiled Hair Stella, 1880 Flowing Hair Stella, and 1880 Coiled Hair Stella. Image Courtesy of NGC.

A Star is Born

The story of the $4 Stella began in the 1870s when several countries advocated the establishment of a universal coin that would correlate to several international currencies. A few efforts were made early in the decade, hence coins such as the 1874 Bickford pattern $10 gold pieces, but the most serious attempts came in 1879.

That year, the United States Minister to Austria-Hungary, John A. Kasson, proposed a $4 gold coin with a metallic content stated in the metric system, making it easier for Europeans to use. Per Kasson’s proposal, this new coin would approximate in value the Spanish 20-peseta, Dutch 8-florin, Austrian 8-florin, Italian 20-lire and French 20-franc pieces, among other denominations.

The purpose of the $4 gold coin was to facilitate international trade and travel for US citizens. The euro over 100 years later was created with a similar intent for trade among member nations.

Congress became interested enough in Kasson’s suggestion to order the United States Mint to produce a limited run of the $4 gold pieces so that Congressmen could review the coins. Soon thereafter, Chief Engraver Charles Barber prepared an obverse design that depicted a portrait of Liberty facing left with long, flowing hair.

Image Courtesy of NGC.
Image Courtesy of NGC.

Meanwhile, George T. Morgan created a motif featuring Liberty with coiled hair. George T. Morgan designed the most famous and popular coin in all of numismatics, the silver dollars known simply as Morgan dollars.

The Mint’s quest for an international coinage eventually ended in failure, and none of the pattern coins produced around this time ever became a regular issue. Although these efforts were unsuccessful at the time, collectors then and for generations after have coveted the 1879 and 1880 $4 Stellas. The Coiled Hair examples are particularly desirable and usually only show when great collections are sold.

Now, based on prices realized at auctions over the decades, let’s look at just how desirable the Stella was and has become.

1879 Flowing Hair Stella

Estimated mintage: 425-725
Examples known: Less than 500

Prices realized at auction for NGC-certified 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas, categorized by grade:

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 68 Ultra Cameo

  • $411,250 – Stack’s Bowers, June 2012

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67★ Cameo

  • $299,000 – Heritage, January 2010
  • $264,500 – Heritage, January 2012
  • $305,500 – Heritage, April 2015

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67 Cameo

  • $230,000 – Heritage, January 2005
  • $402,500 – Superior, May 2008
  • $322,000 – Goldbergs, February 2008
  • $312,000 – Heritage, January 2018

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67

  • $333,500 – Superior, April 2004
  • $402,500 – Heritage, August 2006
  • $120,750 – Stack’s Bowers, July 2009

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 66 Ultra Cameo

  • $218,500 – David Lawrence, July 2004
  • $240,000 – Heritage, January 2018
1879 Flowing Hair $4 graded NGC PF 66 Ultra Cameo
1879 Flowing Hair $4 graded NGC PF 66 Ultra Cameo. Image Courtesy of NGC.

The 1879 Flowing Hair Stella is by far the most available of the four known issues, as this was the version produced for Congress. Although 425 pieces were supposedly struck, it is likely that as many as 725 were minted in total.

One numismatic legend is that some Congressmen gave their Stellas to mistresses as gifts, which could explain the large number of ex-jewelry examples known today. Collectors buying circulated Stellas should be very wary of repair and only purchase certified coins.

Nearly all 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas exhibit light roller marks regardless of grade. This was probably caused when the planchets were being produced by rolling down half eagle planchets to the proper thickness.

The surfaces of 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas can also vary greatly. Because of the relatively high mintage, later strikes can have striated and somewhat frosted fields and devices, which more closely resemble satin finish proofs of a later era. Thus, the most desirable 1879 Flowing Hair Stellas are early strikes with deeply mirrored surfaces and sharp cameo contrast.

Some numismatic references state that only 15 original coins were minted. This may be true, but so far numismatic researchers have been unable to prove an example was from this production.

The 1879 Flowing Hair Stella is probably the most available coin priced above $100,000. Its price is strictly due to its popularity. If a collector can afford one of these fascinating coins, there is a good chance they will try to acquire one, as they are perfect for collectors who like a small box of great coins. This is a collecting strategy that has gained popularity in recent years.

1879 Coiled Hair Stella

Estimated mintage: 20
Examples known: 12-15

Prices realized at auction for NGC-certified 1879 Coiled Hair Stellas, categorized by grade:

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67 Cameo

  • $80,000 – Stack’s Bowers, December 1981
  • $655,500 – Heritage, January 2005
  • $1,041,300 – Bonhams, September 2013

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 66 Cameo

  • $231,000 – Bowers & Merena, July 1997
  • $1,050,000 – Heritage, January 2019
1879 Coiled Hair $4 graded NGC PF 63
1879 Coiled Hair $4 graded NGC PF 63. Image Courtesy: NGC.

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 63

  • $29,000 – Bowers & Ruddy, May 1972
  • $61,600 – Sotheby’s, September 1982
  • $74,800 – Stack’s Bowers, October 1983
  • $137,500 – Bowers & Merena, August 1995
  • $161,000 – Heritage, September 1998
  • $299,000 – David Lawrence, July 2004
  • $287,500 – Heritage, January 2005
  • $402,500 – Heritage, August 2006
  • $316,250 – Heritage, January 2007
  • $414,000 – Goldbergs, May 2007
  • $304,750 – Goldbergs, February 2009
  • $336,000 – Heritage, August 2009

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 62

  • $138,000 – Stack’s Bowers, March 1999
  • $126,500 – Bowers & Merena, January 2000

The 1879 Coiled Hair Stella is one of the great rarities of American numismatics, extremely desired by collectors since the time of issue. They were distributed by the US Mint to favored collectors and dealers of the era, and because of the low mintage, most examples have deeply mirrored surfaces. A few mishandled examples are known to exist, but even these sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It should also be mentioned about this issue — and all four of the 1879-1880 Stella issues — that the US Mint also produced copper and aluminum examples. Some may have been gilded at the Mint or were later gold-plated. I assume it goes without saying that you should never buy one of these coins uncertified. Coiled Hair Stellas only show up at auction when great collections cross the auction block, and Gem examples have sold for over $1,000,000 in recent years.

1880 Flowing Hair StellaExamples known: 20-25

Prices realized at auction for top NGC-certified 1880 Flowing Hair Stellas, categorized by grade:

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67 Cameo

  • $132,250 – Stack’s Bowers, October 2000
  • $750,000 – Heritage, January 2018

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 66 Cameo

  • $488,750 – Heritage, March 2008

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 63 Cameo

  • $172,500 – David Lawrence, July 2004

The 1880 Flowing Hair Stella is many times rarer than its 1879 cousin of the same design. However, it lacks the “star” power of the Coiled Hair issues, and for many years, it was extremely underpriced for its rarity. More sophisticated collectors have driven the price up in recent years, and the coin now brings prices more in line with its availability.

Like the 1979 Flowing Hair, the 1880 issue is seen with deeply reflective mirror surfaces and with somewhat subdued surfaces. The ever-present roller marks are also common on most examples. Yet there are several amazing Flowing Hair Stellas known, including two in the Smithsonian National collection.

1880 Coiled Hair Stella

Estimated mintage: 15
Examples known: 10-12

Prices realized at auction for top NGC-certified 1880 Coiled Hair Stellas, categorized by grade:

Image Courtesy: NGC.

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67 Cameo

  • $35,000 – Stack’s Bowers, November 1972
  • $875,000 (as part of a complete, four-piece set) – Stack’s Bowers, Summer 1997
  • $977,500 – Heritage, January 2005
  • $2,574,000 – Bonhams, September 2013

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 67

  • $102,300 – Sotheby’s, September 1982
  • $440,000 – Superior, August 1991
  • $1,821,250 – Heritage, April 2015

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 65

  • $99,000 – Bowers & Ruddy, October 1982
  • $368,000 – Stack’s Bowers, October 2000

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 62

  • $74,250 – Stack’s Bowers, January 1984
  • $575,000 – Heritage, January 2009
  • $546,250 – Heritage July 2009

Coin(s) graded NGC PF 61

  • $67,500 – Paramount, February 1975
  • $126,500 – Heritage, January 2000
  • $379,500 – Bowers & Merena, March 2004

The 1880 Coiled Hair Stella is the rarest of the 1879-1880 $4 issues. It is an iconic numismatic rarity and usually makes headlines when offered at auction, as when the example graded NGC PF 67 Cameo sold for over $2.5 million in 2013. Most 1880 Coiled Hair Stellas are deeply mirrored with cameo surfaces.

Only the wealthiest individuals collect Proof US gold coins, and of these, a very select few attempt to procure a set of 1879 and 1880 Stellas. Completing such a set is truly a numismatic feat, as these coins only show up at auction every few years at most. One or two slightly mishandled examples are known, but even these sell for over $500,000 when offered.

An 1880 Coiled Hair Stella is the dazzling centerpiece for any collector, demonstrating that for him or her, the stars truly have aligned.

Ron Guth, Chief Investigator at the Numismatic Detective Agency, provided the auction appearance listings.
Jeff Garrett bio

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