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Patterned for International Use
stella coinBy Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
January 20, 2010
stella coin

Before we look at any specific U.S. pattern coins, the first order of business will be to define the term “pattern.” Surely the most complete definition is that proposed in Q. David Bowers’ preface to the 10th edition of J. Hewett Judd’s classic work, United States Pattern Coins: “A pattern coin is one that was struck at the Philadelphia Mint (with a few exceptions) for purposes of testing a design or concept, or perhaps from unusual die pairs, or in unusual metals, or to create delicacies for collectors, but which differs from normal circulating coins of standard design, date, and metal.”

In other words, a pattern coin is something different, a harbinger of possible things to come. In many cases, pattern coins that preceded the final accepted design would have been superior to the design chosen. For example, the Shield nickel design was not held in high regard at the time it was introduced and is still considered homely, at best. Patterns preceding its adoption included one with Lincoln’s portrait on the obverse and another with a high-relief portrait of Washington. Either would have been preferable, in my opinion.

Pattern coins have typically been made in small numbers, which means that they’re scarce and expensive. A few exceptions to this rule spring to mind, patterns that were struck in abundance to satisfy contemporary collectors. Unfortunately for today’s collector, because of the number available, enough people collect these errant patterns that high demand has pushed their prices out of reach of most of us.

The first example that springs to mind is the 1856 Flying Eagle cent. An estimated 2,500 were minted of this pattern coin, according to 2010 U.S. Coin Digest. In fact, so many were made and they were distributed so widely that many actually circulated. Values start at $6,250 in Good-4 and top out at $65,000 in Mint State-65 ($28,500 in Proof-65).

Another example is the gold $4 piece, or Stella, particularly one of the two types minted in 1879, as the mintage is estimated to be more than 425 pieces. As it turns out, 1879 was a great year for patterns. As Judd expresses it, “A panorama of patterns was produced in 1879, highlighted by the misnamed ‘Washlady’ silver denominations, the elegant ‘Schoolgirl’ silver dollar, and the $4 gold Stellas in two styles.”

In 1879, the United States already had six different denominations of gold pieces, ranging from the gold $1 piece to the gold $20. In this range, there were already three different denominations from $2.50 to $5, counting the gold $3 piece, so why was another denomination needed?

The simple answer is that another denomination wasn’t needed, but that didn’t stop the Honorable John A. Kasson, the U.S. envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Austria-Hungary, from dreaming of one. Kasson had previously been the chairman of the Committee of Coinage, Weights, and Measures in Congress.

As Kasson saw it, the problem was that an international coinage was needed, something that would be worth the same amount across international borders. Think of the euro, and you can get an idea of what Kasson envisioned, at least for Europe.

Kasson looked at the coinage of several European nations and decided that an American $4 coin would approximately match the value of coins of several European countries: Austrian eight florins, French 20 francs, Italian 20 lire, Spanish 20 pesetas, and Dutch eight florins. As Judd puts it, “The entire idea was absurd at the start, as approximate values would never satisfy the needs of commerce, and such pieces would eventually be valued on their gold content and would not come out in even units of foreign currency.”

Kasson’s former committee was in favor of the idea and came up with the notion that a suitable nickname for the $4 piece would be “one Stella” to contrast it with the gold $10 piece or “one eagle.” The coin would have a star on the reverse (stellar means of or pertaining to the stars) as a national emblem like the eagle as a national emblem on other U.S. coins.

Mint assistant engravers Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan were asked to devise obverse designs to be paired with a common reverse design featuring a large five-pointed star. The center of the star reads “ONE STELLA 400 CENTS.”

Barber’s design shows a bust of Liberty with flowing hair, hence the Flowing Hair design. According to Judd, “It is said that in 1879 the ‘originals’ were made to the extent of 15 pieces, followed by an unknown number of restrikes, perhaps 700 or so, in 1880.”

Morgan was responsible for the Coiled Hair design, which shows Liberty with braided hair. Mintages for this and the other Stellas are unknown, but according to A Guide Book of United States Coins (Red Book), 12 are known of this variety.

The same two varieties were produced in 1880 as well. Of these, 17 are known of the 1880 Stella with flowing hair and 18 of the Stella with coiled hair.

According to the Red Book, “The only issue produced in quantity was the 1879 Flowing Hair. The others were made in secret and sold privately by Mint officers and employees. The Coiled Hair Stella was not generally known to the numismatic community until they were illustrated in The Numismatist in the early 20th century.”

According to United States Patterns and Related Issues, by Andrew Pollock III, in 1879, “The Mint produced three-piece pattern sets for distribution to Congress. These sets included 1879 metric dollar, 1879 goloid dollar, and 1879 Flowing Hair Stella, or four-dollar gold piece.” Only 25 sets were produced initially, but demand was so strong that many more were put together in 1880.

The distribution of the three-piece sets, sold for the Mint’s cost of $6.10, became the subject of some contemporary commentary. According to S.K. Harzfeld in a letter to Numisma in September 1880, “…the Stella gold coins may already be seen…as ornaments in possession of women of the ‘demi-monde’ [polite way of saying “mistress”] at Washington…. Will anybody deny that this is a shame and a disgrace? Has any honest Numismatist not the same right than a concubine, who happens to have an influential friend?”

Values, of course, depend on the state of preservation. In the Professional Edition of the Red Book, values for the “common” 1879 Flowing Hair variety range from $77,500 for a coin in PR-40 (an impaired proof; it’s hard to see how this odd denomination could actually have circulated) to $375,000 in PR-67. The auction record listed is for the variety in PR-67 Cameo, sold by Superior Galleries in May 2008 for $402,500.

For the 1879 Coiled Hair version, values range from $250,000 in PR-60 to $850,000 in PR-67. The auction record of $655,500 bought one in PR-67 Cameo at a January 2005 sale conducted by Heritage.

Values for the 1880 Flowing Hair variety start at $150,000 (PR-60) and end at $550,000 (PR-67). The auction record was set at a May 2008 Heritage sale, where a PR-66 Cameo specimen realized $488,750.

The 1880 Coiled Hair variety, with 18 known but the fewest number certified by the major services, has the highest values from start to finish. In PR-60, the Red Book says it’s worth $500,000, and it climbs to $1,500,000 in PR-67. The auction record cited is for a PR-66 Cameo that sold for $977,500 at a Heritage sale in January 2005.

In addition to the beauty of the designs, the reason for the popularity and demand for the Stellas is that they are listed in the Red Book, sandwiched appropriately between gold $3 pieces and gold $5 pieces. “As such, they have been adopted by collectors of regular gold coins, vastly multiplying the demand for them. Indeed, ever since the 19th century, just about every gold specialist has hoped to own a Stella.”

Fortunately, I don’t consider myself a gold specialist, even though I have quite a few gold pieces in my “collection.” Thus, I don’t feel my collection is incomplete because I don’t own a Stella or two. Of course, the only way I could ever afford to buy one of them is by winning a lottery, and we all know how unlikely that is. (It’s even more unlikely because I’ve never entered one!)

Fortunately, not all patterns are as expensive as the storied Stellas. If you get a chance, take a look at the new edition of Judd’s book on patterns. I suspect you can find interesting patterns for less than you might spend on an MS-63 common-date Saint-Gaudens double eagle.

One problem with buying patterns, of course, is that they’re not nearly as common as MS-63 Saints. Still, I don’t think there’s much downside risk in buying significant patterns. Check them out. You may be glad you did.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition



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