Stella coins, the experimental $4 gold pieces minted in 1879 and 1880, have long been among the most coveted coins ever minted in the United States. Prominent collectors owned Stella coins, dating back to the early 1900s, including Virgil Brand, Will W. Neil, and Josiah K. Lilly. What makes the coin most intriguing is its extremely mintage.
John A. Kasson, the U.S. ambassador to Austria, created the Stella. He wanted a United States minted gold coin that expressed its metallic content in the metric system in order to be more appealing to Europeans, facilitate international trade, and make international travel for U.S. citizens easier. International currency had been considered before several times, however, Kasson’s was the first to gain support from Congress. In 1879, Congress ordered the Mint to produce a small number of the pieces.
Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber and Assistant Engraver George T. Morgan, who was known for designing the U.S. Morgan Silver Dollar, both went to work designing the Stella. Both men’s designs were minted in 1879 and 1880. The reverses of both designs were identical – a star in the center, with the words “United States of America Four Dol” circling the star. These words surround the inscription “E Pluribus Unum Deo Est Gloria.”
For the obverse, Barber and Morgan created different designs. Barber chose a portrait of Lady Liberty with loose, fluid locks described as “Flowing Hair.” Morgan chose a coronet and braided hair for Lady Liberty, known as the “Coiled Hair” variety. The inscription “6G.3S.7CGRAMS” encircles Lady Liberty on both varieties. It represents the composition of the coin expressed in the metric system – six grams gold, .3 grams silver, and .7 grams copper.
The 1879 Flowing Hair variety is considered the easiest variety to find, with an estimated mintage of 425 coins. It is believed that most were actually minted in 1880 but were marked with the date 1879. As pattern pieces, all were minted as proofs, and the examples were given to congressmen and well-connected dignitaries. Several of these pieces were spotted mounting jewelry for madams in the most famous bordellos of Washington, D.C., which likely explains why many Stella coins in existence today were 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 therefore extremely rare. Mintage estimates for all three are very small: 15 for both Coiled Hair varieties and 25 for the 1880 Flowing Hair variety. At the time, many were willing to pay over three times face value to own a Stella, which is like paying $60 today to own a newly minted $20 bill. Coin collectors who own Stella pieces are considered to be members of a truly exclusive club.