By Bullion Shark LLC ……
In 1879 and 1880, the United States Mint struck two design types of $4 gold coin patterns that are known as Stellas. To understand why these coins were originally proposed and why they were never minted for circulation, one must understand what was going on in the United States and the world at the time.
In the 1850s and ’60s, Americans were focused on westward expansion, and those involved with coinage were absorbed with the California Gold Rush and the discovery of large silver deposits in Nevada. By the 1870s, once the continental United States was secure and the Civil War was over, the focus had begun to shift beyond our borders as international trade expanded. But there was a multitude of different coins and currencies being used for global commerce at this time, and growing calls for a worldwide coinage system.
In 1867, an international conference was held in Paris, where 20 nations agreed to use a gold standard begun in 1865 and based on the 20 Franc gold coin issued by Napoleon in France This agreement came to be known as the Latin Monetary Union, which lasted until 1927. It was actually a bimetallic system in which silver coins were minted at the ratio of 15 for each gold coin.
But back in the U.S., silver and nickel remained the main focus, especially with the price of silver continuing to decline after Germany adopted the gold standard and sold large amounts of silver. Since it was difficult at the time to export silver as other countries had plenty of it, Western mining interests needed the U.S. Mint to turn their silver into coinage, which helped pave the way for both the Morgan dollar and the Trade dollar. The silver-to-gold ratio that was originally set in 1792 at 15:1 had fallen to 17.5:1 and was drifting lower.
In the midst of this environment, suggestions for new coinage came from Dr. William Wheeler Hubbell, who proposed striking coins from an alloy that combined silver and gold that was previously known as electrum. He received a patent for what he called Goloid, and put forth the idea of a Goloid dollar, which also included a small amount of copper but whose value was mainly based on its silver content. Though the idea was widely derided, pattern Goloid silver dollars were struck.
$4 Stella Gold Coins
Hubbell then moved on to gold coinage. After initially proposing a gold double eagle that would weigh 35 grams instead of the current 33.44 grams, he proposed a $4 gold piece that is typically attributed to former U.S. Rep. John A. Kasson (R), who was serving as Minister to Austria-Hungary. While it’s unclear who first had the idea, it was definitely Hubbell who worked to see it become a reality.
The coins would be made of .857 fine gold rather than the 90% used at the time and weigh a total of seven grams, including six grams of gold with the other gram comprised of silver and copper.
The coins would be called Stellas – from stella, the Latin word for “star” — and were proposed as international trade coins that could be easily exchanged for European gold coins of the Latin Monetary Union like the Italian 20 lire, the Spanish 20 pesetas, and others. One problem: the value of a 20 Franc gold coin was $3.86, not $4. But the proposal had already been approved by Congress and moved forward.
Mint Director Horatio Buchard had the Philadelphia Mint’s superintendent, A. Loudon Snowden, prepare the dies needed for the new coin. So George Morgan and Charles Barber, the top engravers at the Mint at the time, were asked to prepare designs for the Stella gold coin and two Goloid silver dollars.
The one created by Barber, known as the Flowing Hair Stella gold coin, featured a left-facing profile of Liberty as a young woman with long flowing hair wearing a headband emblazoned with “LIBERTY” on it and is dated 1879. At the time, that style of hair indicated that the woman was unmarried. This type of the two is more common, but no Stella is truly “common” as very few were struck.
The design created by Morgan, known as the Coiled Hair Stella gold coin, showed the female bust with her hair in a coil also wearing the Liberty headband and is dated 1880. At the time, coiled hair typically meant the woman was married.
Both designs used the same reverse with a five-pointed star.
A small number of 1879 Stellas were also struck with the coiled design in 1880, according to numismatic researcher R.W. Julian. Today it is estimated that 12 to 16 of those coins exist, according to PCGS. Julian also believes that the total number of 1879 coins with Barber’s design is about 450.
Mintages and Values
Only Proof patterns of the Stella were struck in 1879 and 1880, and the idea was killed by Congress after that. The coins were popular with collectors at the time they were struck, but their mintages were so low that they were very tough to track down. Many of the restrikes were made for Congressmen and friends of the Mint, and collectors often asked their representatives for examples.
Precise mintage records do not exist for these coins. NGC says that only 15 original 1879 coins were made plus another 425 restrikes – the restrikes being the coins typically encountered today. PCGS has graded 365 of the 1879 Flowing Hair variety. Some experts, such as Q. David Bowers, think that about 700 were made with all the restrikes.
The 1880 coins are even rarer with PCGS having graded 27 of the 1880 Flowing Hair pieces and just 14 of the 1879 Coiled Hair coins.
A $4 Stella gold coin can be worth from about $100,000 to $3 million. An 1879 Flowing Hair Proof 60 is worth $135,000, $255,000 in PF65 and $375,000 in PF67. An 1880 Flowing Hair is more valuable being valued today at $180,000, $300,000, and $600,000 for those same grades.
An 1879 Coiled Hair – considered one of the great rarities of American coinage — in PF62 is worth $325,000, while the top graded PF67 examples are worth $1,350,000.
Finally, an 1880 Coiled Hair is the most valuable type with no more than 10 known, commanding from $1 million in PF64 to $2.75 million in PF67. In 2013, one of these coins in NGC PF67 sold for $2.57 million – the record for a Stella gold coin.
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Bowers, Q. David. A Guide Book of Type Coins. Whitman (2019)
Julian, R.W. “The Stella”, Numismatic News. (May 31, 2022)