Once in a Blue Moon: Collection built over decades headed to auction

Rare 1794 Flowing Hair dollar and nine Gobrecht dollars among top offerings
By , Coin World
Published : 03/03/17
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A remarkable group of silver dollars that have been off the market for a generation will lead Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ offering of the Blue Moon Collection on March 30 as part of the Whitman Baltimore Spring Expo. 

As Lawrence Stack of the firm writes in the catalog’s introduction, “The collection was begun many years ago by a private collector, who worked with succeeding generations of the Stack family — earlier with Norman, Ben, and Harvey, and with me in more recent times. It is unique in that each and every item was placed into the collection by a member of the Stack family, either through private treaty sale or purchased from the firm’s auctions.”

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The name “Blue Moon” is taken from the popular 1934 ballad made famous through recordings across decades by Billy Eckstine and Mel Tormé, The Marcels, Frank Sinatra and others. Stack concludes, “Only once in a blue moon do we have the opportunity to make a presentation such as this — offering a veritable time capsule of rare coins that has been off the market for many years.”

Beyond the marquee rarities, the Blue Moon Collection includes a wide selection of 19th century Proof issues, including many acquired by T. Harrison Garrett and his family that were sold by Stack’s at auction in 1976. As Stack said in the introduction, “I remember admiring the coins then, and it is nice to see them once again.” 

A top 1794 dollar

A treasure in the collection is a 1794 Flowing Hair silver dollar graded About Uncirculated 58+ by Professional Coin Grading Service with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker indicating quality within the grade. Stack remarks, “The Blue Moon Collection 1794 silver dollar challenges Mint State and is among the top 10 finest known of this famous coin.” 

The auctioneer observes colorful surfaces that are “nicely lustrous, with a good deal of natural frost remaining in protected areas of the obverse and across the reverse. Golden and peach-tinted toning dominates the obverse, with hints of violet highlights near the rims, while the reverse is a more haphazard mélange of subtly blended light silver gray, gold, orange, blue, and violet.” 

Just one set of obverse and reverse dies struck the entire mintage of approximately 2,000 1794 dollars (of which 1,758 were issued), and this example is classified by Q. David Bowers as Die State II, with die clash marks evident on both sides (from the dies coming together without a planchet between them). Specifically, “Impressions from the eagle’s wings are seen in front of Liberty’s profile and behind her hair, matching the outline of her bust seen around the eagle on the central reverse,” with the cataloger adding, “This state is earlier than the die state seen on many specimens, giving the central devices crisper details.”

When offered in London on Nov. 22, 1956 — which happened to be Thanksgiving Day in the United States — as part of an auction of the Herbert Taffs Collection, the dollar had a modest description that simply read, “first year and very rare; fine to very fine.” Of course, to today’s collector this grade means something specific, but in the mid-20th century in Europe, “fine to very fine” meant that it was simply a nice coin. It sold for $1,288. 

Today, around 150 1794 Flowing Hair dollars are believed to exist, and many exhibit moderate wear or impairments such as improper cleaning or repairs. Among these survivors, several exceptional examples remain, including the one graded Specimen 66 — which some view as the first dollar struck at the U.S. Mint — that sold for just over $10 million in 2013. The subject example ranks among the top dozen, or so, examples known and has been off the market for nearly 40 years since its offering at a September 1978 Stack’s auction. 

Curious Gobrecht dollars

The Blue Moon Collection is also noteworthy for including nine interesting 1836 to 1839 Gobrecht dollars, named after designer Christian Gobrecht, who would also serve as the third chief engraver of the U.S. Mint. As Lawrence Stack notes, “In terms of combined rarity, diversity, and ultra-high grade, the Blue Moon Gobrecht dollars from 1836 to 1839 will be forever remembered in annals of numismatics. Incredible is a good description.” 

Among these is an 1836 Gobrecht dollar of the Name Below Base variety, listed as Judd 58 in Dr. Hewitt Judd’s reference to pattern and experimental piece series, and graded PCGS Proof 65 CAC. It is a restrike with a reeded edge, struck, decades after the coin’s date, at the Philadelphia Mint to sell to collectors. 

The cataloger observes, “This piece’s medallic strike drives this point home, with clear doubling visible on C. GOBRECHT F. and the date below on the obverse, as well as STATES on the reverse,” adding, “The dies for this variety were created in 1858 from the Seated Liberty hub with Gobrecht’s name effaced from the base of the rock; his name was added in the field below to create a delicacy for collectors.” 

There’s been a flurry of research in these complicated issues over the past decade and the catalog description explains that while the first restrikes can be traced to 1858, the subject coin was struck somewhat later, further observing, “the fact that this specimen is struck on a planchet the exact same weight as those used for Trade dollars (struck 1873 and later) is likely not a coincidence.” 

Even rarer is an 1838 Gobrecht dollar, Judd 88, graded Proof 64+ by PCGS. The plain edge restrike has the beautiful Starry Field reverse, and of the three known examples of the variety, one is in the permanent collection of the American Numismatic Society in New York. 

The catalog observes, “A scattering of tiny surface chips and lintmarks, both left behind by detritus on the die face, are most prominent in the right obverse field. As the placement of many of these striking defects are nearly identical on the known specimens, it is evident they were struck in quick sequence.” The reverse shows extensive cracks and current research indicates that it was struck in the early 1870s. 

Like the aforementioned 1794 dollar, both of these Gobrecht dollars came from Stack’s September 1978 auction and have been off the market ever since. 

The Baltimore Spring Expo is set for March 30 to April 2 at the Baltimore Convention Center. Stack’s Bowers Galleries will follow its offering of the Blue Moon Collection with its Rarities Night session later that evening. 

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