This Friday, Stack’s Bowers Galleries will be selling a rare gold coin that invites a strong Stanley Kowalski imitation to say its name. The “Stella” was a ‘pattern coin’, a sample design minted in its intended form for the purpose of evaluating its monetary usage. The Stella came out in 1879, in the unusual $4 denomination, as a hope of improving international commerce.
Through the 19th century, currency had been slowly evolving from being valued by a coin’s weight in precious metals, to simply the denomination stamped on the front. Coins were still made of precious metals, of course, but as the ease of international travel shrunk the world, the wide variety of international currencies made it difficult to take your U.S. gold coins with to Europe and trust an easy or reliable exchange into the local funds.
The time was also one of other changes. The Metric Act of 1866 authorized the metric system as a legal system of measurement for transactions in the U.S., following the lead of many European countries. Ounces, rather than grams, were still how American money was measured, complicating things. About that same time, European countries were attempting to standardize their currencies in the proto-Euro Latin Monetary Union. Each country’s coins were close, but not quite a even trade, and some were silver, some gold, so the hopes were that a single common currency could help facilitate inter-country transactions.
The U.S. hoped to get in the game as well, by producing its own coins that overlap with the standardized European money. Through the 1860s and 1870s, a few varieties of coins were proposed, but in the mid 1870s Iowan John A Kasson, one of the promoters of the Metric Act of 1866, found a reasonable overlap between a European coin and the American dollar. The eight florin Austrian gold coin, the equivalent of twenty francs, was just under $4 U.S. in value. Kasson’s plan was to mint a $4 coin, whose value in precious metals would be listed on the coin’s face in metric weight, for the purpose of international trade.
Two designs were made of the Stella: a “flowing hair” version, like the one in the Stack’s Bowers auction, and the “coiled hair” design, which is rarer. The “flowing hair” Stella was designed by mint artist Charles E. Barber; the “coiled” by George T. Morgan. Both designs were quite similar, and both shared the same reverse. The reverse design is what gives the coin its name: the center of the coin is filled with a large star — a “stella” — thus giving the coin a casual name, like the “eagle” gold coins which came as portions of $10. Being worth $4 means it could be divided in fourths into smaller denominations, like a dollar and the $10 gold eagle were.
The Stella started out as a small mint run to show the size and weight of the coin to the officials who would evaluate approving the coin. The Stella never made it into production, in either design, but as was the custom of the time it was possible to request the U.S. Mint to produce pretty much any design it had dies for, for the cost of precious metals and seignorage. The Flowing Hair Stella was used to produce about another four hundred coins at the request of various politicians, and those are the most commonly seen Stellas today.
Identifying the difference between the pattern Stellas and the collectible-run Stellas is difficult for the non-expert, but there are a few clues. The pattern Stellas are much more exact in weight, and are of a much higher quality striking than the second run of coins. The second run coins vary in weight a bit, and many have some visible striations, a ‘grain’ in the metal, left from the manufacturing process of the original planchette that was struck. The Flowing Hair Stellas also often have a bit more wear, because they were passed around by the politicians who purchased them (and legend has it that many of the coins found their way into the jewelry boxes of D.C. madames). The Stack’s Bowers coin is of very high quality, but they do not specifically say whether it was one of the original pattern strikes or a later minting.