Take, for example, the $4 gold piece, minted in 1879 and 1880.
Also known as a Stella, the $4 coin was produced to explore the possibility of the US joining the Latin Monetary Union.
It was meant to contain a quantity of gold similar to that of the standard LMU gold piece, the 20-franc Napoleon minted in France, Switzerland, and other countries that belonged to the Latin Monetary Union.
The Stella was a pattern coin, which means it was proposed and produced in small numbers but never received approval for public circulation.
Even though just a few dozen Stellas are known to exist, four will go up for sale on Sept. 23 in Los Angeles when auction house Bonhams puts the spectacular Tacasyl Collection – 27 American gold coins in all – on the block.
The 1880 Coiled Hair Stella, featuring the image of Liberty with a braided plait on top of her head, could fetch $1.5 million or more.
“Liberty’s head is delicately and intricately engraved, and the portrait of Liberty is fully modeled and has a distinct individual personality,” according to Bonhams.
“The 1880 $4 Coiled Hair Stella is one of the so-called white whales of the coin collecting world,” Paul Song, director of rare coins at Bonhams, told Reuters. “They are so rare, they come on the market maybe once or twice, at most, every decade … That particular coin, there are only 10 or 12 now, and most of these are in public institutions or private collections.”
In addition to the Coiled Hair design, some $4 gold pieces were produced featuring Liberty with flowing hair.
The other $4 gold pieces to be put up for sale include 1879 and 1880 Flowing Hair Stellas, and an 1879 Coiled Hair Stella. All are nearly as rare as the 1880 Coiled Hair Stella, according to Bonhams.
It features a star with the inscriptions “ONE STELLA” and “400 CENTS,” while the reverse rim has the legends “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “FOUR DOL.,” and circling the star but between its points is the legends “E PLURIBUS UNUM” and “DEO EST GLORIA” (“To God is the glory”).
Ultimately, there wasn’t public support to go forward with regular production of the Stella, which is why it ended up in the numismatic dust bin of history.