Description and Analysis

Four Dollar Stella

Description & Analysis

The background of the stella is rooted in the attempt of 19th century America to solve the silver/gold relationship as well as create an international coinage. While some of Walter Breen's research has been repudiated in the years since his death, his grasp of the two issues that drove the mint to create the stella bears repeating: 'This silver/gold 'rivalry' was to become subject matter for thousands of learned papers and books exhibiting mostly their authors' ignorance, reams of futile congressional debates, and eventually the main issue of the 1896 and 1900 presidential campaigns, inspiring William Jennings Bryan's obfuscatory 'Cross of Gold' speech. Underlying all the rhetoric were official policies only partly concealing the real issue, which was subsidies to wealthy mine owners while people starved in the streets.'

After Prussia went on the gold standard and dumped 8,000 tons of silver on the international metals market, the situation worsened for mine owners and silver proponents. New outlets were needed. The internationally accepted Trade dollar promoted Comstock silver abroad with an extra grain of silver in each coin to help guarantee acceptance of these coins (mostly in China). Also, the Bland-Allison Act was passed in 1878 and led to the creation of the Morgan dollar and the government requirement to purchase between two and four million ounces of silver per month of 'new' silver. Additionally, an international coinage was proposed in 1879 by Rep. John Kasson for a metric gold coinage that would contain both gold and 10% silver. These are the coins that we know today as stellas.

As Mark Borckardt pointed out, it is doubtful that such planchets were actually produced. It would have been more expedient for the purposes of pattern coinage to simply cut down half eagle planchets that were alloyed with 10% copper. After all, the purpose of pattern coinage was to give an idea of what such coins would look like, rather than be technically correct, and the difference between a 10% copper alloy and 10% silver alloy would be visually imperceptible. The difference would only have been important if the denomination had actually been adopted. In that case, a 10% alloy of silver in a widely circulating gold coin would have absorbed a significant amount of Comstock ore.

Two designs were executed for the proposed four dollar gold piece. The design that is usually seen is by Chief Engraver Charles Barber and depicts Liberty with flowing hair curls. The other design, and the one that we see in this lot, was designed by Barber's assistant, George Morgan. His design shows Liberty's hair tightly coiled on top of her head. Numismatists and art critics may debate the relative merits of each design, but it is clear that Morgan had more to lose with a so-so design than Barber did. Morgan had been stung by public criticism of the eagle on the adopted 1878 dollar design. Some said it more resembled a turkey, and others said it was just plain ugly. Apparently Morgan took the criticism to heart. In 1879 he created the 'Schoolgirl' series of patterns, and ten years later the 'Shield Earring' dollars. Both designs are unquestionably among the most artistically accomplished patterns of the 19th century. The Coiled Hair stella was also created during this highpoint of creativity for George Morgan.

More than 400 pieces were struck of Charles Barber's Flowing Hair design and dated 1879. However, George Morgan's Coiled Hair design is so seldom seen that it is one of the premier gold rarities of the 19th century. Mintages for the four stella issues (Flowing Hair 1879, 1880 and Coiled Hair 1879, 1880) vary from one expert to another. The 1879 Coiled Hair has a reported mintage between 20 and 25 pieces. However, what is most important are the number of survivors. It is generally believed that 13 to 15 individual coins are known today.

George Morgan's design for the proposed international coinage of four dollar gold pieces was short-lived and soon forgotten by mint personnel, and by those in the circles of influence in Washington who briefly considered John Kasson's idea for a gold coin that could be accepted throughout Europe. Nevertheless, for those who pursue U.S. numismatics it provides an enduring legacy of a 19th century gold 'euro' and has remained one of the most famous and popular of all U.S. denominations.

Description and Analysis courtesy of Heritage Auctions and may not be republished without written permission.