|Designer:||Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan|
|Precious Metal Content:||86% part gold, 14% parts copper and silver|
Stellas, the experimental $4 gold pieces minted in 1879 and 1880, have long been among the most coveted coins ever minted in the United States. Couple the Stella’s intriguing history with its miniscule mintages, and you will see that it is truly considered the crown jewel of collectors and investors alike. Prominent collectors going back to the early 1900s — including Virgil Brand, Will W. Neil, and Josiah K. Lilly — owned Stellas. In fact, it is rumored that Brand actually owned an unheard-of 30 Stellas at one time!
The Stella was the brainchild of the Honorable John A. Kasson, the U.S. ambassador to Austria. Kasson wanted a U.S.-minted gold coin that expressed its metallic content in the metric system — to make the coin more appealing to Europeans, to facilitate international trade, and to make international travel for U.S. citizens easier. International currency had actually been considered several times in the 1870s; however, Kasson’s idea was the first to gain Congressional support. In 1879, Congress ordered the Mint to produce a small number of experimental pieces.
Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber and Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan, who was famous for designing the Morgan Dollar, both immediately went to work on designing the Stella. Barber’s and Morgan’s designs were minted in both 1879 and 1880. The reverses of both designs are identical. A star is located in the center, and circling the star are the words “United States of America Four Dol.” These words surround the inscription “E Pluribus Unum Deo Est Gloria.”
Barber and Morgan created different designs for the obverse. Barber chose a portrait of Lady Liberty with loose, fluid locks described as “Flowing Hair.” Morgan chose braided hair and a coronet for Lady Liberty; this is called the “Coiled Hair variety.” The inscription “6G.3S.7CGRAMS” encircles Lady Liberty on both Barber’s and Morgan’s designs. This inscription represents the composition of the coin (6 grams gold, .3 grams silver, .7 grams copper) expressed in the metric system.
The 1879 Flowing Hair variety is considered the least difficult type to obtain; its estimated mintage is 425 coins. Of this mintage it is believed that most were actually minted in 1880 but bear the date of 1879. As pattern pieces, all were minted as proofs, and the minted examples were given to congressmen and well-connected dignitaries. Somehow, several of these pieces were spotted adorning the necks of madams in the most famous bordellos of Washington, D.C.; this likely explains why many Stellas in existence today are found to have been removed from jewelry.
The three remaining varieties, the 1879 and 1880 Coiled Hair and the 1880 Flowing Hair, were minted in much smaller numbers and are true treasures to obtain. Mintage estimates for these three designs are incredibly small: 15 for both Coiled Hair varieties and 25 for the 1880 Flowing Hair. While Congress eventually chose to pass on the idea of minting the Stella beyond the original experimental numbers, collectors immediately coveted the coins. Many were willing to pay over three times face value — $15 at the time — to own a Stella. This is akin to paying more than $60 today to own a newly minted $20 bill.
Those who own Stellas have always been considered members of a truly exclusive club. A collector today must know that if he holds a Stella, it has been treasured by every owner since its original minting over 130 years ago.