From the Grading Room: NGC Certifies Unique Stella Variety

Posted on 4/9/2012

The single known example of a distinctive Stella variety has been authenticated and graded by NGC as PF 60, J-1636a.

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The Stella, or four-dollar gold piece, was coined solely as a series of pattern pieces dated 1879 or 1880 in two major types. Both show a left-facing bust of Liberty on the obverse and a five-pointed star on the reverse, from which the coins get their popular name “Stella.”

More often seen is the Flowing Hair type designed by Mint Engraver Charles Barber, with most examples bearing the 1879 date. This newly-certified specimen features that same basic design, but what makes it unique is that the bust of Liberty is positioned differently with respect to the supporting design elements, clearly identifying it as having been struck with a different obverse die than all other known examples. The reverse die is the same as that observed for other Stellas coined in gold, copper, aluminum and white metal. The coin was struck in copper and gilt—gold plated. Whether this gilding was done at the US Mint or sometime later is not certain.

This newly-certified coin has been known to advanced numismatists for decades, yet it has been off the market for many years and is largely unfamiliar to most hobbyists. On the normal die, Liberty’s coronet points to the star between numeral 7 and letter C of the peripheral legend, and the tip of her bust leads to the first star at lower left. On this unique specimen, Liberty’s portrait is rotated a degree or two counter-clockwise, so that these same two features point to the 7 in the legend and the 1 in the date, respectively. It’s not known for certain in which order the dies were employed, but it’s likely that this variety came first, since so many additional pieces were made with the other die.

This coin is listed and illustrated in both the Judd and Pollock reference books on United States pattern coins. Judd (United States Pattern Coins, 10th Edition) numbers it J-1636a and describes this as the Small Head variety, though any difference in size is imperceptible. The coin is described as copper with a reeded edge, but no mention is made of the sole known example being gilt, that is, gold plated. In fact, the illustration is copper colored, suggesting that the graphic designer may have altered its color to match the printed description. Pollock (United States Patterns and Related Issues) numbers this variety as P-1837 and acknowledges that it is gilt. Both references cite its most recent public appearance as being the Kagin’s auction of March, 1985, Lot 1591.

Unlike most gold impressions of the Flowing Hair Stella, this specimen displays an absolutely full strike. It is readily distinguishable by a shallow reeding mark at the junction of Liberty’s neck and jaw. Also of note is that the star between letters AM of GRAMS is distinctly repunched.

The unique J-1636a is from the estate of John Eshbach, longtime hobby stalwart, who passed away several months ago. It will be included in an upcoming Heritage auction which features the John Eshbach Collection.

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From the Grading Room is an occasional feature of the NGC E-mail Newsletter in which we highlight some of the more unusual or seldom seen items submitted for certification. Click to explore other special finds.