A breathtakingly beautiful specimen that is as close to perfection as we have ever seen in a four-dollar gold Stella, both sides of this piece are essentially pristine. The surfaces are smooth and inviting with not so much as a single trivial blemish to report. Sharply to fully defined, with radiant yellow gold patina and strong Ultra Cameo contrast between softly frosted devices and deeply mirrored fields.
Among all of the rarities showcased in A Guide Book of United States Coins the $4 gold Stella of 1879 is a perennial attention-getter. There were four varieties made of this unusual denomination, all in pattern form, and in two styles -- Flowing Hair by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber and the Coiled Hair by Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan. Ironically, of the two men Morgan is the most remembered today, because of his iconic Morgan silver dollar design.
Of the four Stellas the 1879 Flowing Hair is the best known and is the only collectible version. It has been our pleasure to have offered many Stellas at auction, dating way back to the 1930s when Stack's started in business. Since then a nice 1879 Stella has been a signature item in every large collection of gold coins we've handled. The presently-offered Superb Gem Proof-68 Ultra Cameo is of extraordinary quality, surpassing in quality nearly all others in existence. It affords us the opportunity to give the history of this famous coin.
The Story of the Stella
Four-dollar gold pieces, or Stellas, so-called from the five-pointed star on the reverse, are patterns, not regular coins. Stellas were produced in 1879 at the suggestion of Hon. John A. Kasson, U.S. minister to Austria, who felt that a coin of this value would have been used by foreign travelers, as it could be readily exchanged for gold coins of approximate equivalent value in France, Germany, and other European countries. Indicative of its intended international nature, the obverse legend of the $4 piece expressed its metallic content in the metric system as follows: 6G, .3S, .7C, 7 GRAMS.
As chance would have it, the 1879 Stella was born in an era in which Mint officials had a lively business in the making of restrikes, limited-edition patterns, and other numismatic delicacies. Thus, while 1879 $4 coins of the Flowing Hair design, by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, were made for their intended purpose -- to illustrate the concept of a new denomination -- other varieties were struck to create rarities. The Coiled Hair type by Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan, in fact, was never made available openly to numismatists, congressmen, or anyone else. Instead, they were filtered out of the Mint over a period of time, by privileged officials.
On the reverse of both the Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair designs, the motto DEO EST GLORIA, or "God is Glorious," was used. This was a departure from the standard IN GOD WE TRUST motto seen on $5, $10, and $20 gold coins of the era.
The 1879 Flowing Hair $4 was the intended pattern. Several hundred examples were distributed to congressmen and others of importance to illustrate the concept of the new denomination. Conventional wisdom has it that 415 to 425 examples were struck, to which can be added a smaller number not recorded.
The Flowing Hair $4 by Charles E. Barber was a close copy of a pattern $5 made by his father, the late Chief Engraver William Barber, in 1878. The Coiled Hair motif by assistant engraver Morgan seems to have been made only as a numismatic delicacy. Probably, there was no consideration of its being used for distribution to congressmen in 1879, as the design by the chief engraver would have taken precedence over any motif by his assistant.
International Coinage Proposals
The story of the 1879 four-dollar gold Stella began in the previous decade. The new denomination was proposed in an effort to establish an international coinage, denominated in metric terms. Two previous attempts at establishing an international gold coinage had been turned down by Congress, in 1868 and 1874.
Convened in Paris under the auspices of the French government, June 17 to July 6, 1867, the International Monetary Conference attracted representatives from several countries. In the Report of the Director of the Mint for fiscal year ended June 30, 1867, Henry R. Linderman discussed the concept, stating that problems included some countries emphasizing gold and others silver. The three principal moneys of the world were the American dollar, the British pound sterling, and the French franc. Linderman observed that it would be necessary to bring them into harmony. He foresaw that a coin of about the $5 denomination would be useful, but that it would have to be made lighter or heavier in certain countries. As an example, if the weight of the British sovereign were to be used, then the American $5 gold coin would have to be made lighter, causing a legal problem in America with regard to the fulfillment of contracts payable in gold coins of specific standard. He recalled that this ground had been covered before, and that the Mint had written to the Department of the Treasury on December 31, 1862, and that nothing new had been learned since.
The Adams-Woodin 1913 text on patterns related:
"The President of the French Commission on Coins and Medals gave Samuel B. Ruggles, United States delegate to the convention, three specimens of this coin for presentation to the President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of the Treasury of the United States, and a fourth specimen to Mr. Ruggles. In July 1867, representatives of France and Austria provided for the issue of a gold coin of the weight and value of 25 francs for international use, by which plan the ten florins of Austria was to be made equal in weight to that of the twenty-five-franc piece of France, the coin of each nation to be stamped with the head of its respective Emperor. A specimen in gold of this coin, of the proposed weight, diameter, &c., bearing the bust of Napoleon III, was struck at the French Mint, and a duplicate was presented to the Emperor of Austria. On the reverse of this piece was inscribed 'Essai Monetaire,' and the wreath enclosed the inscription '25 Francs 10 Florins 1867.'"
"The delegates to the convention of 1867 agreed to take the French franc as a basis for their international coin, which would mean a reduction in the value of the five-dollar gold piece of the United States to the extent of about 17 1/2 cents and in the English sovereign of 4 cents. Twenty nations altogether were represented at the convention, and they stipulated in the event of the adoption of the coin that local terms should be retained, such as thaler, florin, ruble, franc, &c. The British delegate, however, objected to the reduction of the British coin standard, and suggested that the United States gold dollar be taken as a basis."
"About this time a bill was presented in Congress for the reduction of our five-dollar gold piece from 129 grains to 124.9 grains; to accommodate the piece to the value of twenty-five francs; that the gold coins thus issued should be legal tender in all payments except for those United States bonds as were payable in coin. It also specified that the emblems and inscriptions should be plainly distinct from those in use, and the value should be stated in dollars and francs, and whenever Great Britain conformed the pound sterling to the value of five dollars the British terms should be stated. The bill also provided that coins and denominations other than five-dollar pieces, of proportionate weight and fineness, be made, the value on the coins to be stated in dollars and francs. The above-mentioned five-dollar piece seems to have been the only one struck in this country as an example of the proposed uniform international gold coinage. The bill did not meet the approval of Congress."
In response to the 1868 coinage bill introduced in Congress, at the Philadelphia Mint, Engraver Anthony C. Paquet prepared pattern gold coins of $5 size that could be used in the international trade, being convertible into 25 francs. The subject was discussed briefly in the Senate in 1871-2. In 1878 another international conference was held in Paris.
In 1874 the concept of an American coin readily convertible into foreign currencies was advanced by Dana Bickford, a New York manufacturer and inventor, including of several varieties of knitting machines (some of which were best sellers worldwide, including in Russia). During a trip through Europe he came to believe that the usual inconvenience of changing money at the borders of different countries could be averted by a coin which would be accepted by multiple nations. He proposed a United States $10 gold eagle with several different denominations included as part of the inscription.
The fineness and weight of the coins were also part of the inscription, so that the value could be ascertained at any time by calculating the worth of gold in the coin. Patterns were struck in copper (primarily), gold, aluminum, and nickel alloy. In 1875, a related $10 pattern was made with the same obverse portrait, but with the reverse displaying seven (instead of six) panels, with as many different world currencies mentioned -- the added value being the Russian rubel (sic).
After Bickford's exit, the concept of a convertible coin refused to die. In August 1878, the International Monetary Conference was convened in Paris. Represented were Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, Sweden and Norway, Switzerland, and the United States. Attended for the United States as commissioners were Reuben E. Fenton, W.S. Groesbeck, and Francis A. Walker, with the assistance of S. Dana Horton as secretary, who was also given the rank of commissioner. Communications were presented from various Americans including Senator John Sherman and Mint Director Henry R. Linderman.
Among various proposals was one by Senator Sherman for an international gold coin worth $5 in United States funds, although its intrinsic value would be worth only $4.86. It was intended to convert to other world currencies and be equal to 1 pound sterling in British money, 8.9 reis in Brazilian gold coins, 4 pesos and 95 centavos in Mexican coins, etc.
Attendees from other nations felt that the American delegation was opposed to the use of gold as an international monetary standard, but preferred silver, this in view of much recent publicity in the United States concerning silver and legislation relating to it. The Americans sought to dissuade this, despite the fact that in the summer of 1878 gold coins had not been seen in commercial channels in the East and Midwest since the waning days of December 1861, while the country was awash in Liberty Seated silver coins and freshly minted Morgan-design silver dollars. Silver was the key word of the day -- and echoed throughout the halls of Congress.
The $4 Gold Stella Becomes a Reality
The $4 gold Stella, the focus of the present discussion, was the brainchild of Honorable John A. Kasson, who was associated with the Legation of the United States in Vienna, Austria. Formerly, he had served as chairman of the Committee of Coinage, Weights and Measures. Kasson focused upon the Austrian 8 florin gold coin, currently valued at just slightly less than $3.90. Kasson’s suggestions were communicated to Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman and to Alexander Stephens, chairman of the Coinage Committee.
The Coinage Committee considered the matter favorably. Members felt that the coin should have a specific name or nickname, and noted: "one suitable for the four-dollar coin would be 'One Stella,' in analogy to one eagle, both the star and the eagle being national emblems on our coins."
The Stella was coined!
Distribution of the 1879 Flowing Hair $4
It is likely that of the regular 1879 Flowing Hair $4 coins, 15 or 20 (accounts vary) were struck at the outset to include in a set of three metric designs, two being of the dollar denomination. Very soon, demand arose for additional examples of the $4 gold coin, and the Mint had a much larger quantity of approximately 400 struck from the same dies in 1880. So far as can be determined, this 400 figure is a guess -- thus forming an insecure foundation for any true mintage figure.
Congressmen were allowed to purchase sets of the three coins at the Mint's cost of $6.10 per set. It is likely that most if not all of the dollar coins in these restrike sets were not made in goloid or metric composition, but in the standard 90% silver alloy used to make contemporary circulating silver denominations. The $4 gold Stellas, of the Flowing Hair type, were intended to be of the gold, silver, and copper alloy stated in the inscription.
How many sets went to Congressmen and how many went into numismatic channels at the time is not known, but as quite a few of the pattern silver dollars as well as the 1879 gold Stellas show mishandling and wear, it is likely that most went to politicians.
Combined PCGS and NGC Population: just 1 coin in Proof-68 regardless of finish; and none are finer.