Guest Author - Raymond F. Hanisco
One of the scarcest and most unusual coins in the history of the United States is the four dollar gold Stella. This Stella is a coin that is not known to many coin collectors, and only the most elite collectors will ever have the opportunity to own one. While this elusive coin will not find its way into most of our collections, the Stella’s history is one that will intrigue and fascinate.
Most of us are familiar with the European Union and the new common denomination to all those countries that are members, the Euro. This is not the first time in history where a group of European countries came together to form a ‘Common Market’ with a common currency between them. In Paris, in 1867, representatives of 20 nations came together to do basically the same thing the current European Union has done. When this meeting was concluded and over the next 20 years, 12 countries manufactured coinage of the exact same size (21 mm) and actual gold weight (.1867 troy oz.) to facilitate trade between them. These countries and their coins were:
Most of the Nordic Countries formed their own trade agreement with a coin containing .2593 troy ounces of gold. Germany and Great Britain abstained from participating in either of the trade agreements. The formation of this Common Market fell apart with the advent of World War I.
In 1879, the Honorable John A. Kasson was serving as the United States minister to Austria. Kasson believed it would be advantageous for the United States to participate and proposed a metric coin, which would be compatible with those of Europe. The $3 gold coin was too light and the $5 gold coin was too heavy to comply with the European Standard, which was based on the French franc. Of course, with the world in economic flux over the then current gold market and the newly found silver strikes in Nevada, the lobbyists for both gold mining and silver mining, in Washington, D.C., began to battle over the proposed metric coinage. After a number of trial (pattern) metric coins were evaluated, the most palatable to Congress was that of a $4 gold piece.
Both, Charles E. Barber, Chief Engraver, and George T. Morgan, Assistant Engraver, for the U.S. Mint, were ordered to complete designs for the new $4 gold coin. Being both the Bald Eagle, and the Star were recognizable symbols of the United States, and since the Eagle was used on all domestic gold coins, it was decided the Star would be used on the U.S. $4 Coin for overseas trade. The Latin word for Star is Stella.
THE CHARLES E. BARBER DESIGN
The Charles E. Barber design for the obverse of the $4 gold piece was that of a flowing hair Miss Liberty. Beginning his father, William, had died the year earlier, and Charles inherited his position as Chief Engraver of the mint upon his father’s passing, the flowing hair Miss Liberty was almost an exact duplication of a proposed design created by his father for the 50˘ piece. At the 6 o’clock position of the coin appeared the date and encircling the image of Liberty was the inscription:
*6*G*.3*S*.7*C*7*G*R*A*M*S* (* represents a 5-point star)
THE GEORGE T. MORGAN DESIGN
The George T. Morgan design for the obverse of the $4 gold piece is of coiled hair Miss Liberty. This version of Liberty has her hair loosely braided and coiled on her head. Some experts believe the same model was used for this image of Liberty as used on the Silver Dollar designed by Morgan. The date and inscription is the same as used on the Barber piece above.
The reverse of the coin was common to both designs. The main devise was a five-point star. In the center of the star was the legend ONE STELLA 400 CENTS. One the outer perimeter of the coin the inscription reads UNITED STATES OF AMERICA with FOUR DOL. at the 6 o’clock position. Just inside the outer inscription are two other inscriptions reading E PLURIBUS UNUM (in many, one), and DEO EST GLORIA (God is glorious).
Original mintages of the two design types of $4 gold Stellas are as follows:
1879 Flowing Hair......15
1879 Coiled Hair.......10
1880 Flowing Hair......15
1880 Coiled Hair.......10
All of the above were struck as Specimen or Proof Coin. After the first 15 were manufactured, Specimens were made available to congressmen for $6.50 each (the cost of production). These became so popular that and estimated 400 were restruck from the 1879 Flowing Hair design, the following year. Some estimates go as high as 600 pieces. The problem with the restrikes is the mint could not seem to maintain the original weight of the coin (108 grains). The restruck pieces varied in weight from 103 to 109 grains.
Technically these coins are pattern or trail pieces that were only meant for consideration. The United States government never became part of the of the European ‘Common Market,’ and the coin was discontinued. Like most pattern coins, these coins never made it into circulation, yet by some odd twist of fate; they have been incorporated into the regular series of U.S. gold coins.
As an epilogue for the $4 gold Stella, everyone loves a good scandal. It seems to have been documented by several newspapers, that while coin collectors were unable to acquire the $4 gold Stella coins from the Mint at any price, congressmen were having these coins made into jewelry pendants. These pendants were not seen gracing the necks of their wives, but they were more commonly displayed as trophies for some of the more prominent madams of favored bordellos. There are several dozen coins, known, found with markings of the jewelry mountings.