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Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Steven Cochran
By Steven Cochran
Published August 23, 2019

The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is an American $20 gold coin. Produced between 1907 and 1933, many people consider it the most beautiful U.S. coin ever made. The St. Gaudens were the last double eagles minted in 1933. This was due to the United States Gold Confiscation Act.

Saint Gaudens 20 gold

The Saint Gaudens high relief proved impossible to mint with regular coin presses. It required high-pressure medal presses to get a full strike on the coins. These first Ultra High Relief trial pieces are called patterns. They are some of the most sought-after U.S. coins in history. The finest 1907 Ultra High Relief examples can sell for more than $2 million when they come to auction.

The first high relief version of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle proved impossible to mint with regular coin presses. It required high-pressure medal presses to get a full strike on the coins. These first Ultra High Relief trial pieces (called "patterns") are some of the most sought-after U.S. coins in history. The finest 1907 Ultra High Relief examples can sell for more than $2 million when they come to auction.

This doesn't mean that a Saint-Gaudens double eagle gold coin is out of your reach. A "Gem Uncirculated" business strike Saint-Gaudens double eagle can be had for around $2,000. Circulated versions are available for a modest premium over spot price.

Modern fascination with the Saint-Gaudens double eagle led to a revival of the design in 1986. The American Gold Eagle also debuted as the official gold bullion coin of the U.S. in 1986. The obverse of Saint-Gaudens' timeless design now appears every year on this 22K coin.

The Origin of the $20 Double Eagle Coin

The invention of the $20 double eagle gold coin was a direct result of the 1849 California Gold Rush. The unprecedented amount of gold coming from California was more than the U.S. Mint could handle. To ease the situation, the government authorized a new gold coin called the double eagle. The double eagle was twice the weight of the largest gold coin at that time, the $10 gold eagle. This new coin allowed the U.S. Mint to convert twice as much gold into legal tender coins with one strike of a coin press.

The double eagle did not see heavy use in daily commerce. It was instead used to pay for large transactions, such as real estate deals and imports from Europe. International trade of the day was only conducted in gold. Double eagles were also used to back paper gold certificates from 1865 to 1933. These certificates were redeemable for gold coins upon demand.

The Liberty Head Double Eagle

The first $20 double eagle gold coin was the Liberty Head design by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver James Longacre. The Liberty Head double eagle was minted from 1850 through 1907.

The original 1850 design is known as the Type 1 Liberty Head double eagle. The Type 2 introduced the Motto "In God We Trust" in 1866. The Type 3 was the last version of the Liberty Head double eagle, minted from 1877 through 1907. The Type 3 replaced the original "Twenty D." face value with a spelled-out "Twenty Dollars."

liberty-double-eagle

Liberty Double Eagle

Liberty Head double eagles were struck at five different U.S. Mints:

  • Philadelphia (no mint mark)
  • Carson City, NV (CC mint mark)
  • New Orleans (O mint mark)
  • San Francisco (S mint mark)
  • Denver (D mint mark)

Liberty Head Double Eagle Types
1. No Motto - "Twenty D." (1850–1866)
2. With Motto - "Twenty D." (1866–1876)
3. With Motto - "Twenty Dollars" (1877–1907)


The Evolution of Saint-Gaudens's Double Eagle Design

The $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagle is one of the few coins known by the name of its creator. It was designed in 1907 by America's leading Beaux-Arts sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt convinced Saint-Gaudens to redesign every U.S. coin. He referred to the effort as his "pet crime." He called existing coins an "atrocious hideousness," unfit for a great nation.

Saint-Gaudens' death from cancer two years later cut this grand plan short. The only completed designs were the double eagle and $10 gold eagle coins.

The design of the double eagle wasn't actually finalized until after his death. Chief Engraver Charles Barber at the U.S. Mint delayed the production of the coin for two years.

Barber was upset when Roosevelt decided to hire Saint-Gaudens. He viewed this decision to design the new coins as a personal affront. Saint-Gaudens had been a vocal critic of Barber's talents for some time. That this opinion was a common one did not lessen the sting to the Chief Engraver's ego.

Roosevelt's condemnation of the currently circulating coin designs heightened Barber's sense of persecution. After all, most of them were his designs. That the President not only wanted to replace them all but make him do it, felt like a slap to the face to Barber.

Saint-Gaudens's First Double Eagle Designs

The Saint-Gaudens double eagle coin design originally went through several changes. Once completed, the models were sent to the U.S. Mint. Saint-Gaudens's first version was designed in 1905 and featured a full-figure winged Liberty. The figure strode toward the viewer with open wings, her gown billowing in the breeze. She held an oval American shield aloft in her left hand and a flaming torch in her right. Saint-Gaudens described the design to President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1905 letter. He said, "My idea is to make it a living thing and typical of progress."

The second iteration of the design exchanged the shield for a laurel branch. Although it did keep the wings. The Phrygian cap Liberty wore in the initial sketches gave way to an Indian headdress. But, the front view of the headdress was too small to be recognizable and was soon omitted. Removing the wings was the last significant change that Saint-Gaudens made to his design. This opened up the field of the coin, and put more focus on the figure of Liberty herself.

Finalizing the Design of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The figure of Liberty was finished at this point, other than a reworking of the folds of her gown. All that remained was the arrangement of the inscriptions that must appear on every U.S. coin.

Saint-Gaudens decided to design his double eagle with as much free space as possible. The deletion of the Indian headdress allowed more room for the word LIBERTY across the top of the coin. He used 46 six-pointed stars, one for each state in the U.S., to make a decorative rim on the obverse. This arch of stars reached from the ground in the lower left of the scene, over Liberty, to the rock on the bottom right.

The reverse of the coin was dominated by an eagle flying before a rising sun. The sun took up the bottom of the coin. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and TWENTY DOLLARS were also included. Saint-Gaudens replaced the vertical grooves (reeding) with the Motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. He also included the 13 stars. These represented the original thirteen colonies of the United States.

Two final design decisions were not Saint-Gaudens's to make. First, he wished to express the date on the new gold double eagle in Roman numerals. He wrote Roosevelt in early 1906, asking if this was possible. The President replied that there was no law forbidding it. If Saint-Gaudens thought his coin looked better with Roman numerals, he was free to use them.


REQUIRED INSCRIPTIONS ON U.S. GOLD COINS IN 1907

Obverse (front):

  • LIBERTY

  • mint date

  • an image "emblematic of liberty."

Reverse (back):

  • denomination

  • UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

  • an image of an eagle

Either side or edge:

  • E PLURIBUS UNUM

  • 13 stars for the original colonies

  • 46 stars, one for each state

NOT LEGALLY REQUIRED: The Motto "IN GOD WE TRUST."


In God We Trust

The final design decision for the $20 Saint-Gaudens involved the Motto IN GOD WE TRUST. The prevailing thought was that the inclusion of this phrase was mandatory on U.S. coins. But, this mandate was changed in the Coinage Act of 1873, the same law that abolished the silver dollar.

Saint- Gaudens desire was to leave the field of the coin uncluttered. He decided to write to Roosevelt for guidance. Roosevelt replied that putting the Lord's name on money was "akin to sacrilege." Saint-Gaudens was free to leave the phrase out of his design.

teddy roosevelt silver medal

Teddy Roosevelt silver medal

When the Saint-Gaudens $10 and $20 coins were released in late 1907, the public was outraged. Roosevelt unsuccessfully defended his decision to the public. Congress quickly moved to make “In God We Trust” mandatory on all gold and silver coins in early 1908.

The Struggles Of Turning The Saint-Gaudens Design Into a Coin

Augustus Saint-Gaudens expected the hostility from Charles Barber. His anger was due to Saint-Gaudens ground-breaking high relief coin design. But, he was wholly unprepared for the technical shortcomings of the mint.

Saint-Gaudens was an award-winning medallist. Thus, he was familiar with the production capabilities of private American medallist firms. These firms included Tiffany and Gorham. He had also spent much of his artistic career in Paris. While there, he took for granted the talents of the many small engravers. These engravers turned sculptors' models into dies ready for striking. During his stays in Paris, the abilities of the French Mint were on constant display. He only had to look at the coins in his pocket. Thus, he expected no severe problems with the U.S. Mint striking his new double eagle design.

The Decision To Make The Saint-Gaudens The First High Relief Coin

Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens knew that mass-producing high relief coins was impossible. They still decided to make the $20 St. Gaudens Double Eagle America's first high relief coin. This was the genesis of the famous struggles between the sculptor and the U.S. Mint.

Augustus Saint Gaudens

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

It was Roosevelt who first proposed making the new gold double eagle in high relief. He wrote Saint-Gaudens asking his opinion:

November 6, 1905

...I was looking at some gold coins of Alexander the Great today, and I was struck by their high relief. Would it not be well to have our coins in high relief, and also to have the rims raised? The point of having the rims raised would be, of course, to protect the figure on the coin. And if we have the figures in high relief, like the figures on the old Greek coins, they will surely last longer. What do you think of this?

Saint-Gaudens replied to the President on November 22, saying:

  • ...I think that something between the high relief of the Greek coins and the extreme low relief of the modern work is possible. And as you suggest, I will make a model with that in view.*

The mint's outdated equipment proved incapable of striking coins at the pressure necessary. The machines were unable to bring out the details of the new high relief double eagle design. The problems with obtaining a full strike were made worse by Charles Barber. He lacked the skills of the engravers that Saint-Gaudens was used to working within New York and Paris.

On Barber's part, he had a vested interest in the failure of the coin. If the coin was a success, it was likely that Barber would not be involved in the redesign of other coins. (He was correct.) Barber took every opportunity to emphasize Saint-Gaudens's ignorance of the design constraints. His goal in striking the ultra high relief was to prove that the coin couldn't be minted on a regular coin press.

Saint-Gaudens knew that his initial model could not be struck on a coining press. The purpose of sending this first model to the mint was to learn what their presses were capable of. Also, to figure out how many strikes it took to get certain features to transfer to the coin blank. He would then change the design and ask for another set of strikes.

This was customary practice when designing a medal or medallion. This was not how coins were made. It was necessary to keep the relief on coin designs as low as possible, to extend the life of the dies. Charles Barber had no known artistic training before being hired as a coin engraver. He was hired by his father, William, who was Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint at the time. Thus, his entire career was focused on keeping designs as shallow as possible.

Striking the First (Ultra High Relief) Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The first ultra high relief trial strikes were struck on February 7, 1907. Saint-Gaudens's assistant, the sculptor Henry Hering, was present to observe the results. Saint-Gaudens's cancer had advanced to where he could not stand or walk. As a result, he had entrusted the actual modeling work for the double eagle design to Hering.

Hering had been upfront with Barber that this first model was experimental. The goal was to assess how the design could be modified without losing details. The coin was again placed on the die for another strike. Again it showed a little more of the modeling, and so it went on. On the ninth strike, the coin showed up in every detail."

This was not a matter of pressing a button nine times to get nine strikes. The coin blank had to be removed from the medal press after each strike and reheated glowing hot. It was then quenched in a solution of weak nitric acid. It was then reinserted in the press and struck again.

The first four Saint-Gaudens double eagles were struck between February 7 and 14, 1907. As this was an experimental design, Barber used the "collar" from his 1906 pattern double eagle. It is interesting to note that Barber had come to the same design conclusion as Saint-Gaudens. But he came to this decision a year earlier. Barber had also moved the Motto E PLURIBUS UNUM to the edge in his 1906 experimental piece.

The procedure for striking a medal that required many blows was to use a plain collar until the last strike. When the lettered (or decorative) collar was used. The high pressure used on the Saint-Gaudens double eagles led to the reverse die cracking. This occurred before the fourth coin could be struck the final time. That left this unique coin with a plain edge instead of a lettered edge.

The Second Minting of the Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Barber continued to experiment with the original Ultra High Relief design. A new die was created, and several Ultra High Relief double eagles struck on the mint's medal presses. It is believed that between 3 and 18 Ultra High Relief double eagles were struck during this period. This included two that were destroyed during testing of the results.

Unlike the original Ultra High Relief coins struck in February, these coins had a new collar. The sans-serif edge lettering had been replaced with a new serif font. Also, the thirteen stars were now arranged between the words, then in a long line to fill up the rest of the edge:

⁎E⁎PLURIBUS⁎UNUM⁎⁎⁎⁎⁎⁎⁎⁎⁎⁎

as compared to ⁎E⁎P⁎L⁎U⁎R⁎I⁎B⁎U⁎S⁎U⁎N⁎U⁎M in san serif.

The Last Three Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

In December, the mint was working around the clock. They were trying to make enough High Relief double eagles for public release. At the same time, Barber was asked to make three last 1907 Ultra High Relief double eagles.

One for himself. One for the new Secretary of the Treasury George Cortelyou One for the widow of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Federal law mandated that all coin dies be destroyed immediately after the new year. As a result, time was short. Barber requisitioned one of the medal presses and its crew. He proceeds to strike three 1907 Saint Gaudens Ultra High Relief coins on December 31st.

Shortly after, affairs became more complicated. Roosevelt inquired if there were any Ultra High Relief coins left as he desired another one. Leach presented the President with the one earmarked for Mrs. Saint-Gaudens. It was supposed to be a secret that one last coin had been struck for her. But word about the coin reached her. The widow Saint-Gaudens was upset that she would not be getting one of the coins.

When Roosevelt got wind of the controversy, he commanded that new 1907 Ultra High Relief dies be made. Leach was able to forestall this drastic and possibly illegal measure. He offered to send one of the two Ultra High Relief coins from the Mint Coin Cabinet.

The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle Enters Production

It still took to the end be the year before the public was able to see a Saint-Gaudens double eagle. The surviving Ultra High Relief coins can command millions of dollars. The Type 1 High Relief coin is the closest one can get to the gold coin that the famous sculptor envisioned.

1921 saint gaudens double eagle

1921 Saint-Gaudens double eagle

The High Relief Augustus Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The $20 High Relief Saint Gaudens was the first version of the coin released into circulation. As the first circulation design, the High Relief Saint-Gaudens is labeled Type 1. The previous Ultra High Relief coins are not considered Type 1. They were experimental patterns and unavailable to the public.

These high relief double eagles were struck from the second set of models. Saint-Gaudens sent these models to the mint in March 1907. The height of the features on this model was not as extreme as the original ultra high relief design. Saint-Gaudens and Henry Hering both expected this version to work on a coin press, but this was not the case. It still took three strikes on a medal press to bring out the details of the coin.

Charles Barber had rejected these high relief models out of hand. He was later forced by his new boss, Mint Director Frank A. Leach, to reverse this stance. Leach had been Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint during the 1906 earthquake. His role in saving the mint there had led Roosevelt to name him to replace George Roberts as Director of the Mint. He was summoned to the White House by an irate Roosevelt as soon as he arrived in Washington. Once there, he received "some details of action of a drastic character for my guidance. Many assume this suggestion was to fire Charles Barber. The director agreed to have enough $20 Double Eagles struck for distribution.

Leach forced Barber to cut dies from the models he had rejected. The Philadelphia Mint began production of the high relief coins. They used every medal press in their possession. By working extra shifts, 12,367 High Relief coins were delivered to the U.S. Treasury by the 30-day deadline.

The need to strike each coin three times on medal presses exposed a defect in some of the lettered collars. The extreme pressure with which the hot coins were struck forced the collar apart. This was enough for some of the gold to squeeze into the gap. This led to a sharp, tiny ridge along the rim on both sides of the coin. Known as "Wire Rim High Reliefs," they commanded premiums from excited collectors.

Barber corrected the "wire rim" defect late in the production run. The coins that resulted are known as Flat Rim High Reliefs. It is unknown how many Wire Rim versus Flat Rim High Relief double eagles were minted. The great majority of surviving High Relief samples are Wire Rim.

Few 1907 High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagles saw circulation. They were snapped up as soon as they arrived at banks, both by collectors and speculators. Within days the new $20 coins were being hocked in the secondary market for $35 or more.


The Stacking Myth

U.S. Mint officials originally commented that the High Relief coins "would not stack." This was thought to mean that the features protruded above the rim. This made little sense. Saint-Gaudens was one of the best medallists in the world, and would not have made such an obvious mistake.

Research has revealed that the "stacking problem" did have to do with the rims. They were raised on the High Relief coins so that they would not wobble when stacked together. These raised rims cause the real "stacking problem". A stack of 20 High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagles was as high as 21 Liberty Head double eagles. Since banks stacked coins to count them, it was impossible for the coins to be released. The height of the rims (and features) had to been lowered.


The First Low Relief (Arabic Numerals) Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

Augustus Saint-Gaudens died from complications from cancer on August 3, 1907. Henry Hering was responsible for the physical modeling of the double eagle designs. He continued the struggle against Charles Barber and the inadequate presses at the U.S. Mint. Hering delivered the third set of double eagle models to Barber in late September. This was before Frank Leach's arrival in Washington, D.C., to take the Mint Director job.

As usual, Barber rejected the models without attempting to use them. The results were a coin that had lost most of its details, appearing weak even when struck. The most noticeable difference was the change from Roman numerals to Arabic numbers. The MCMVII, while it may have been artistic, did nothing but confuse the public.

Barber's low relief dies were ready in December 1907. For the first time, the $20 St. Gaudens double eagle was struck on high-speed coin presses. Although, the image bore a weak resemblance to the sculptor's original vision. 361,667 of the 1907 Type 2 "No Motto" Saint-Gaudens double eagles were struck in the last weeks of the year. These are known as the Arabic Numerals No Motto version. This design would be replaced in 1908 with the Type 3 "With Motto" version.

A Common practice in the numismatic community is to call the 1907 low relief coins "Saints." Many of these were saved, being the first widespread issue of the iconic coin. But, they did actually enter circulation to some extent. The previous High Relief double eagles vanished into coin collections.

The 1908 No Motto "Wells Fargo" Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle Hoard
The 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagle was infamous for poor eye appeal. This changed in the 1990s when 9,900 beautiful Mint State 1908 No Mottos were found in a Nevada bank vault. This became known as the "Wells Fargo Discovery.” These bags contained thousands of pristine 1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens double eagles. They had remained untouched since 1917.


The Type 3 "With Motto" Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Congress passed a law in May 1908, restoring the Motto "In God We Trust" to all gold and silver U.S. coins. The new coins with the Motto were a major improvement over Barber's earlier attempt. The Type 3 "With Motto" double eagles would be the last major change to Saint-Gaudens's design. Two stars were added to the 46 on the obverse of the coin in 1912, mark the addition of New Mexico and Arizona as states.


Types of Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles

PATTERN = All Ultra High Relief coins, MCMVII No Motto (1907)
Mintage (1907): ~20

TYPE 1 = High Relief, MCMVII No Motto (1907)
Mintage (1907): 11,250

TYPE 2 = Low Relief Arabic Numerals No Motto (1907-1908)
Mintage (1907 "Saint"): 361,667
(1908): 4,271,551
(1908-D): 663,750

TYPE 3 = With Motto (1908–1933)


The Famous 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The most famous coin of the series is the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. None of these coins were supposed to have been released to the public. In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered all gold coins from circulation. But, several of them made it into the hands of prominent coin dealers and collectors. This had gone unnoticed by the government. That was until a newspaper reporter contacted the Treasury Department. The reporter was looking for background information ahead of an auction. In this auction, was a 1933 double eagle. Until this time, the coins had been traded freely and openly.

1933 saint

The Secret Service was now on the case. They tracked down and confiscated every 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle they heard about. Several prominent collectors surrendered the ones in their possession. This was despite the large financial loss in doing so. (The government only reimbursed the patriotic coin collectors the $20 face value.)

The King Farouk Double Eagle

The U.S. government has impounded every 1933 double eagle that has appeared in public. This is except for the coin from King Farouk of Egypt's collection. This was the only 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle that the government knew about. In 1944, Farouk was visiting the US. He asked the State Department for an export license. He wanted to take the newly-purchased 1933 double eagle back to Egypt. The State Department, of course, knew nothing about the coin and issued the license.

The government soon learned about the 1933 double eagle and asked Farouk to surrender it. As he was a king, he decided not to. Egypt was an important player in WWII and the immediate post-war geopolitical scene. And so, the U.S. government declined to press the matter. In 1952, Farouk was deposed in a military coup. His extravagant possessions, including his world-class coin collection, was put up for auction. The 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle appeared in a 1954 London auction catalog. When the government demanded that the coin be surrendered, it disappeared.

It was next seen in 1996 when British coin dealer Stephen Fenton. He attempted to sell the coin to an American buyer. The supposed buyer was a federal agent. Fenton was arrested, and the coin seized. After a 2001 court settlement, the Farouk double eagle became the only 1933 Saint that is legal to own. It was sold at a special Sotheby's auction in 2002. It broke the world record price for a coin, at $7.59 million, including the buyer's premium. The proceeds were split, with half going to the U.S. government and half to the owner of the coin.

The Langbord 1933 Double Eagle Hoard

Aside from vague whispers, all 1933 double eagles were thought to be accounted for.

But, in 2003, Joan and Roy Langbord came forward. They were the heirs of famous Philadelphia coin dealer Israel Switt. In their possession were ten 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles. This was the year after the Farouk/Fenton case. The Langbords were hoping to get the same 50/50 split of auction proceeds. Instead, they found themselves caught up in a 14-year battle with the government. They submitted the coins to the U.S. Mint, asking if they could be authenticated. The mint replied that they were genuine, but were also stolen property. The government seized the ten double eagles. And they offered no compensation to the Langbords.

The government asserted that Switt had obtained the coins illegally. The claimed he did so with the help of a cashier at the Philadelphia Mint. The Langbords countered that Switt went to the mint each year. This was to exchange previous-date coins for new ones. They maintain that the ten coins found in one of Switt's safe deposit boxes in 2003 were purchased by him. This was before Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 6102. This order forced citizens to give up their gold.

The Langbords lost their lawsuit against the government in 2011 and appealed. The three-judge appeals panel ruled in favor of the Langbords. But, the government appealed the verdict. The full court reversed the previous ruling, siding with the government. The Langbords appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case.

The Timeless Beauty of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Gold Eagle Coin

American Gold Eagle Coin

In 1986 The US Mint started to produce Gold Coins again and need inspiration. They could find no more fitting design for America's official gold bullion coin. They chose the Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Since 1986, the American Gold Eagle has been available in BU and Proof versions. The coins are available in sizes ranging from 1 troy ounce to 1/10th troy ounce.

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Steven Cochran

Steven Cochran

Precious Metals Market Analyst | BS University of South Florida (2002)

A published writer, Steven's coverage of precious metals goes beyond the daily news to explain how ancillary factors affect the market.

Steven specializes in market analysis with an emphasis on stocks, corporate bonds, and government debt.