US Coins

Gold trophy pattern coin leads FUN auctions in Tampa

A $750,000 1880 Flowing Hair Stella gold $4 pattern graded Proof 67 Cameo by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. topped bidding at Heritage’s Jan. 4 Platinum Night auction at the Florida United Numismatists convention auction in Tampa. As of Jan. 9, Heritage’s Jan. 3 to 8 U.S. coin auctions held at the 2018 FUN show totaled about $41 million. 

The offering of any example of this rare pattern, of which Heritage traces 18 known examples, is a significant event and the one offered in Tampa is among the finest known. Patterns for the $4 denomination dated 1879 and 1880 were struck as a proposed international trade coin approximating the value of a French 20-franc piece. Although production was never authorized for circulation, at least 425 1879 Flowing Hair Stella patterns were produced and distributed by the Philadelphia Mint. Another design — the Coiled Hair Stella — was also struck in 1879, though in much more limited quantities, as were 1880 Coiled Hair Stellas. 

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Heritage writes that a small number of restrike 1880 Flowing Hair Stellas may have also been produced, and that a total surviving population of as many as 25 coins is possible. 

Collectors have long gravitated to these impressive coins, with demand well-established just a few years after their initial production. An 1885 auction calls an 1880 Flowing Hair Stella “Excessively rare” and priced it at $19. Heritage’s description states, “The 1880 Flowing Hair stella has been a sought-after rarity since it first appeared on the numismatic scene, and prices have risen accordingly over the years.” 

The subject coin is comparable in quality only to a Proof 67+ example graded by NGC that sold for $959,400 at a 2013 Bonhams auction.

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The example offered in Tampa has an ownership history that traces back 80 years, with its first recorded sale in March 1938 at B. Max Mehl’s sale of the Samuel H. McVitty Collection. There it was described as follows: “1880 $4.00. Flowing hair variety. Same type as the 1879. Excessively rare. According to records only from sixteen to twenty specimens minted. Seldom offered. Record at private sale over $500.00. Since 1879, of which over 600 were coined, brings about $200.00, this coin is certainly worth well into the four-figure mark. Perfect brilliant proof.” It was purchased from that 1938 auction by Philadelphia collector Floyd T. Starr, and it was last offered publicly at Stack’s 65th Anniversary Sale in October of 2000, where the pattern piece brought $132,250. 

The coin came to the FUN auction as part of the Burgess Lee Berlin, M.D., J.D. Collection of Important United States Rarities. The collector wrote in the catalog introduction, “I decided to collect coins that were difficult to acquire, otherwise known as keys, condition rarities, and coins I regarded as beautiful sculptures,” adding, “I especially enjoyed the hunt for these special coins, as many were elusive and evaded detection, or they were held in very strong hands.” 

The collector also consigned an 1879 Flowing Hair Stella, graded Proof 67 Cameo by NGC, that sold for $312,000. 

The demand for these Stella $4 patterns seems unending, as Heritage explains, “Technically a pattern (Judd 1635), traditionally the stellas have also been collected as trophy coins and type issues by a wide range of collectors from many different collecting interests. Despite a surviving population of several hundred pieces, there are never enough high-quality examples available to satisfy the intense collector demand.” 

Also offered was an 1879 Flowing Hair Stella graded Proof 66 Ultra Cameo by NGC with an NGC ? designation that sold for $240,000. 

The second most expensive lot in the 2018 FUN auctions was an 1838-O Capped Bust half dollar, graded Branch Mint Proof 63 by Professional Coin Grading Service and bearing a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker, that sold for $444,000. This was followed by another New Orleans Mint issue, an 1861-O Coronet double eagle graded PCGS MS-60 that realized $312,000. 

Much of the attention at the auction focused on some recently discovered 1943 Lincoln bronze cents, including a 1943 Lincoln cent struck on a bronze planchet that emerged from the estate of former Mint employee Albert Michael Pratt that sold for $180,000. The Pratt cent is distinguished by a major obverse die break and is graded MS-61 brown by PCGS. Another off-metal Lincoln cent, this one a 1943-S Lincoln cent struck on a bronze planchet that was originally discovered in circulation by a sharp-eyed 14-year-old collector in 1944, graded AU-53 by PCGS, sold for $228,000. When introducing the trio of 1943 rarities to a standing-room-only room audience at the Tampa Convention Center, Heritage auctioneer Bob Merrill told bidders, “These are the first coins you learned about since you started coin collecting.”

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