Monday, August 31, 2009

Coin Monday: “Hey, Stella!”

Aug. 31, 2009
Posted By John Dale

It’s a natural joke, I suppose…

Whenever a stella – or four-dollar pattern coin – comes through the cataloging department, a certain fellow will always crack wise, “Hey, Stella!” None of us catalogers will ever be mistaken for Marlon Brando, but I always chuckle when I hear it, mostly because I can easily appreciate a bad pun done in good fun. That, and it’s a Tennessee Williams joke. Those are impossible to resist…right?
There isn’t A Streetcar Named Desire here in Dallas (the throwback M-Line Streetcar is as close as we come…it’s worth a ride if you ever come down here on a visit to Heritage), but we do have plenty of stellas (not to be confused with Stellas) that pop up here in the office. In our August 2009 Los Angeles U.S. Coin Auction, a bidder paid more than half a million dollars for an extraordinary and extremely rare 1880 Coiled Hair stella.

This time around, in our September 2009 Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction, the stella we’re offering is not so rare as a type; the 1879 Flowing Hair stella is only scarce in an absolute sense, if far more in-demand than the supply could ever hope to satisfy. In terms of quality, however, this astounding PR67 specimen has few rivals.

Few patterns have the amount of associated lore that the various stellas enjoy: Andrew W. Pollock III, in his United States Patterns and Related Issues, notes that originally, just 25 of the 1879 Flowing Hair stellas were made, to be included in three-coin pattern sets to demonstrate the coinage concepts to Congress. The various members showed considerable enthusiasm for the unusual gold patterns, and according to Pollock, another 400 of the Flowing Hair stellas were made. (Other authorities suggest that the Pollock figure, if anything, understates the mintage figures for the restrikes, which were produced in 1880.)

However much the Congressmen of the time liked the stella as a pattern, they showed little love for it as a functional coin, and the bill that would make $4 an official coinage denomination never passed. Yet numismatists continued to show enthusiasm for the stellas, and some scholars believe that additional stellas were struck off at the behest of well-connected coin collectors.

The stellas met many fates; to some, they were interesting but merely decorative objects, as the numerous stellas that were formerly part of jewelry show. Others were lovingly preserved by numismatists. Certainly, a Superb Gem proof such as the stella Heritage is offering benefited from such guardianship in its century-plus of existence. Who will be next in its line of caretakers?
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-John Dale Beety

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