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The 1794 No Stars Flowing Hair dollar in copper, obverse (all images courtesy Heritage Auctions)

A rare copper prototype for the first United States dollar coin, described as the “first dollar — copper, silver, or otherwise — struck at the United States mint,” sold at Heritage Auctions in Dallas for $840,000, more than twice its low estimate. Minted in 1794 in Philadelphia, the US capital in the early days of the nation, the experimental “No Stars Flowing Hair” dollar laid the groundwork for the first silver dollars, which were coined the same year.

Prior to the Coinage (Mint) Act of 1792, the US lacked a standardized national coinage system. During the Revolutionary War, both Congress and the states had the right to mint money or issue banknotes; bartering and foreign coins were also viewed as acceptable forms of payment. Continentals, the paper currency issued by Congress to fund the costly war effort, quickly became worthless — too many were printed, and they weren’t backed by a tangible asset — and the US found itself in a currency crisis. The US Constitution, drafted in 1787 and fully ratified in 1790, put the creation of a national coinage system in the hands of Congress.

Two years later, the Mint Act established a national US mint and laid out the designs and denominations of the new currency. The dollar or “unit,” which was minted in silver, was the basic unit of currency. The highest-value coin, the $10 “eagle,” was minted in gold, while the least valuable, the half-cent, was made from copper. The early coin designs, which were largely conceived by Robert Scot, a Scottish immigrant who became the Chief Engraver of the US Mint in 1793, were trialed in copper, which would leave a clearer impression.

The 1794 No Stars Flowing Hair dollar in copper, reverse

Among other design specifications laid out by Congress, each coin was required to have “an impression emblematic of liberty” on one side and “the figure or representation of an eagle” on the other. While the final design issued in 1794 featured Lady Liberty encircled by decorative stars, the earlier “No Stars Flowing Hair” dollar depicts Liberty, her locks flowing, on a barer coin without stars. As the Mint Act did not stipulate that stars were to be a design element, coin expert Michael Hodder wrote in the August 1989 issue of The Numismatist, it may be starless copper rarities like this one that “represent a literal interpretation of the wording of the Mint Act of 1792” and are “the only survivors from 1794 that show the originally intended appearance of our very earliest silver coinage.”

“It’s all in the stars,” Jacob Lipson, a coin specialist at Heritage Auctions, said in a statement from the auction house. “Similar ‘starless coins,’ such as a copper half dime, are held in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection and this copper dollar is considered the companion piece to the half dime.” The 227-year-old copper coin is not in perfect condition; a combination of corrosion and collecting lore indicates that it was buried at the first Philadelphia Mint before being unearthed in 1876.

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is an NYC-based writer and cultural critic with bylines at publications including Artforum, BOMB, frieze, and Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.