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    Spectacular PR66 Cameo 1879 Flowing Hair Stella

    1879 $4 Flowing Hair, Judd-1635, Pollock-1833, R.3, PR66 Cameo NGC. The successful introduction of a more unlikely coin is difficult to conceive. The 1879- and 1880-dated four dollar gold coins, or stellas, were a pet project of the Hon. John Adam Kasson (1822-1910) of Des Moines, Iowa, "envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary" to Austria-Hungary from 1877 to 1881. Kasson's international background in the multicultural Hapsburg empire undoubtedly played a large role in his proposal for an international coin. (Kasson would later, in 1884 and 1885, serve as foreign minister to Germany. His record also includes various terms as U.S. Representative from Iowa between 1867 and 1884, as well as his 1878 attempt to enlist U.S. support for equal rights for various underprivileged classes of society in Romania and Serbia).
    It helped that Kasson was the former chairman of the House Committee on Coinage, Weights, and Measures. At the beginning of 1879 Kasson, through his ally Alexander H. Stephens, then-chairman of the same committee, contacted Treasury Secretary John Sherman, asking that the Mint supply pattern pieces:

    Will you please have a specimen or specimens, say five, of this coin struck? The obverse design similar to that of a double eagle = 6G. .3S. .7C., 7 grams -- 1879.
    The reverse -- "United States of America. Four Dollars. E pluribus unum. Deo est gloria," and a large star emblazoned, in the words, 'One stella, 400 cents' ... .
    All over the world this will show the intrinsic measure and value of the coin, and exhibit its remarkable adaptation to use as an international coin.
    (Pollock, United States Patterns and Related Issues).

    A chief aim of Kasson was to recommend international coinage that would assist Americans in foreign trade and travel, by alleviating inconveniences in making transactions in various currencies. The proposed four dollar coin would approximate the value of eight Austrian (and Dutch) florins, of 20 French francs, of 20 Italian lire, and of 20 Spanish pesetas.
    But facilitating international travel was not Kasson's sole purpose. Kasson was closely connected with Western silver mining interests in the United States and their congressional allies, including Reps. Richard P. "Silver Dick" Bland and William Darrah Kelley, all of whom were highly desirous to see expanded domestic and international uses of silver. Kasson's proposal included a "quintuple stella" or twenty dollar gold piece, along with the stella, both of which were to be in "metric gold," and a silver dollar made of Dr. Wheeler Hubbell's "goloid" alloy--silver with about 4% gold content. Mint personnel also abetted Kasson's cause, remembering his help in overcoming objections in 1864 to introduction of the bronze cent.
    And so was born the most unlikely of numismatic curiosities: a four dollar coin with a five-pointed star, with six nominal grams of gold and a seventh of alloy, not exactly worth eight florins. A fatal flaw was that the value of the stella was not precisely that of any of those international measures, so that transactions made in stellas would require change to be made. Another flaw is that the above-mentioned foreign currencies, just as today's, fluctuate against one another. With no fixed reference point (other than the nameplate value of four U.S. dollars and its content, purportedly six grams of alloyed gold), the stella offered no particular advantage in international commerce over the half eagle or any other U.S. gold coin.
    Breen's Complete Encyclopedia lists "originals" without planchet striations, but comments that none have been offered in many years. Pollock lists two different metallic compositions--one of standard 90% gold/10% alloy, and another so-called "metric alloy" consisting of 6/7ths gold, 1/7 alloy. Some researchers have professed their belief that the "original" 1879 Flowing Hair patterns were struck in the metric alloy, with the larger number of restrikes of standard composition. The Pollock pattern reference under the "1879 metric dollar" says, "Tom DeLorey notes that 'the term 'metric alloy' refers to the awkward alloy necessary to make a coin of 25 grams, the weight of a French 5 francs, rather than an alloy that was 'metric' or base 10 in nature." Presumably the stella, purportedly an even 7 grams in weight, also was considered "metric," as were the quintuple stella and the "metric goloid" dollars, all supposedly struck in even gram weights.
    Despite all the hullabaloo about metric coinage, it is highly doubtful that these proposed stellas were ever struck on anything other than the standard 90/10 gold coinage planchets. The planchet striations seen on all known gold stellas serve as virtual confirmation that the stella planchets, almost the same diameter as a half eagle, were produced by rolling out planchet stock 80% of the thickness of a half eagle planchet. The striations or "roller marks" in the center highpoints remained unstruck, due to the planchet thinness.
    The four dollar stella is one of the most desirable of U.S. coins, and is featured in Garrett and Guth's The 100 Greatest U.S. Coins. The "original" mintage of the 1879 Flowing Hair stellas was supplemented, likely in 1880, by "restrikes." As far as is known, the so-called originals and restrikes are indistinguishable one from another--although the originals are reputed to lack die striations, and/or to feature the "metric" alloy--and the total mintage is estimated variously from 425 to as high as 800 pieces. The present PR66 Cameo piece is one of 20 pieces so graded at NGC, with eight Cameo pieces finer. Adding the PCGS Cameo pieces brings the total to 27 coins at both services, with 10 pieces finer (10/06). This is a spectacular, deeply mirrored coin that shows a significant amount of mint frost over the devices, which yields strong cameo contrast. The surfaces are a rich orange-gold, and there are no noticeable contact marks on either side of this remarkable specimen. One of the most attractive and eye appealing stellas extant of this curious and widely sought-after issue.
    From The Freedom Collection.(Registry values: P1)

    Coin Index Numbers: (NGC ID# 28AZ, PCGS# 88057)

    Weight: 7.00 grams

    Metal: 86% Gold, 4% Silver, 10% Copper


    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

    View all of [The Freedom Collection ]

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    January, 2007
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