The four dollar gold “Stella” is one of the most enigmatic, valuable and coveted rarities in American coinage. Intended for use in international commerce, the coin was struck in extremely limited quantities and technically never left the prototype phase. Fewer than 1,000 pieces were made over the span of two years before the concept was abandoned. This article will cover the circumstances leading up to the coin’s creation and why it never entered mass production.
As the United States became a more powerful player in world commerce, the federal government felt its coinage should become more readily accepted internationally. This sentiment led to the introduction of the Trade dollar, a silver piece designed specifically for use in Asia. Similarly, proposals were floated for a gold coin that could circulate in Europe as well.
One example was the 1874 Bickford Eagle, a gold $10 eagle that also displayed its value in francs, pounds sterling, marks, kroners and guilders on the reverse. The idea was that the coin would be readily accepted in Europe if its exact weight (and value in other currencies) was clear and easy to understand. Only two of these “Bickford Tens” were struck in 1874, but the concept was revisited in 1879.
The most commonly traded European gold coins often contained between .18 and .22 ounces of the yellow metal. This was slightly smaller than the United States $5 half eagle. In an effort to “compete” with the prevalent European coins, the United States Mint considered striking a four dollar gold piece of the same approximate size.
In order for the coin to reach fruition, an act of Congress was required. In an attempt to sway senators and representatives, a total of 425 “flowing hair design” gold stellas were struck and distributed to congressmen. Unfortunately this did not sway the lawmakers and the coin was never officially adopted. Technically, thus, all of the stellas are actually pattern coins since they were never approved for circulation.
In total, stellas were struck in two designs over the span of two years. The two motifs are the coiled hair and flowing hair stellas, which were produced in 1879 and 1880. The most available variety is the 1879 flowing hair version, which is worth anywhere from $40,000 in low grades to $150k-$250k in Proof 60-65. The other three varieties are wildly rare; specimens are worth in the hundreds of thousands minimum. Some of the finest examples have traded hands for sums in excess of $1,000,000.