SANTA ANA, CA.-
Numismatic auction powerhouse Stacks Bowers Galleries
just sold an ultra-rare 1879 400 cent piece known as the $4 Gold Stella at the Whitman Baltimore Winter Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center for $204,000.
The Gold Stella was produced to the standards of the Latin Monetary Union established in Europe in the mid 19th Century. This Union instituted a bimetallic gold and silver standard at a fixed ratio of 15-1/2 to 1, using the Napoleonic franc of 1803 as its basis.
The Latin Monetary Union (LMU) was initially established between Belgium, France, Italy, and Switzerland, but was soon joined by many other continental European nations. Through the Union, one franc would be equivalent to one lira, peseta, leva, or drachma and easily exchangeable within the member nations. The Union proved to be successful and lasted until its dissolution in 1927. In many ways, the LMU was a precursor to the modern European Union founded in 1957.
At the time of the establishment of the LMU, the United States was still reeling from the devastating effects of the Civil War, as well as the Panic of 1873. Fortunately, the economy proved resilient and by the later 1870s international trade increased at a steady rate. More and more Americans traveled abroad for both business and pleasure and found that the easy convertibility of the various currencies within the LMU made commerce more fluid.
In 1877, Congressman John Kasson of Iowa was appointed by Rutherford Hayes as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where he was exposed to the difficulties in converting American dollars into Austrian florins and back again. When he returned, Kasson used his experiences - as well as influence as past chair of the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures - and submitted a proposal for a four-dollar coin that would be closer in weight to the Austro-Hungarian 8 florin piece, which was equivalent to the French 20 franc coin. Thus, the 1879 $4 Gold Stella was born.
Two designs were prepared, the Flowing Hair design by Charles E. Barber, as here, and the Coiled Hair design by George T. Morgan, both of which became known as Stellas. Recent past Stacks Bowers Galleries sales of the Flowing Hair and Coiled Hair Stellas garnered $400,000 and $646,000, respectively. Barber's Flowing Hair design was the first selected for production and an estimated 25 - though this may be a few as 10 to 15 - three-piece pattern Proof sets were prepared. These sets were distributed to Congressional leaders who took a liking to the unusual coins. Other government officials who encountered the coin pressed the Mint for more examples. To satisfy the demand, the Mint struck more examples in 1880 but all bearing the 1879 date. The precise number struck remains unclear, ranging from the traditionally quoted figure of 425 pieces to some estimates as high as 800 coins. Despite the interest in the coin, the denomination never received enough Congressional support to proceed with regular full-scale production. The denomination had no exact European counterpart due to the ratio of metals used not precisely matching LMU standards, was an unusual denomination, and seemed to have no real specific commercial use.
In fact, many of the Stellas ended up being used as jewelry pieces and were the center of a scandal when, according to renowned researcher John Dannreuther, a number of them were found being worn by madams in Washington D.C. bordellos.
The Stella represents an attempt to integrate the worlds money as one, said Brian Kendrella, President of Stacks Bowers Galleries. We still havent been able to do this even today but this coin represents the closest we likely ever came.