“I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?”. So wrote President Theodore Roosevelt to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortier Shaw in December, 1904. The drama of Roosevelt’s interaction with Saint-Gaudens and Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber has been many times retold, in part because the coin has been a favorite of both collectors and the general public since its release in 1907. The first examples were produced in what is described as Ultra High Relief, extraordinary pattern pieces of which it is likely fewer than 20 survive today. A revised design, labeled High Relief, had a greater mintage, more than 11,000 coins. This version was most likely a pattern that, through Roosevelt’s insistence that the coin be released, effectively became a regular issue.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
Roosevelt was enamored of high relief designs. In a letter to Saint-Gaudens, he noted that “I was looking up some gold coins of Alexander the Great today, and I was struck by their high relief”, and then posed a question to the renowned sculptor: “Would it be well to have our coins in high relief É?” Saint-Gaudens eagerly took up “our scheme”, as he phrased it, developing models both for the double eagle and the eagle. Mortally stricken with cancer, Saint-Gaudens lived long enough to see only the Ultra High Relief double eagle patterns minted. As the coin entered production, technical concerns became paramount for Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, who lowered the relief on the design to enable high-speed minting of the issue. Barber has been much maligned for his efforts (and his temperament, for which the criticism has apparently been deserved), but as scholar Q. David Bowers points out “a mint is a coin factory, not an artist’s studio.” Nonetheless, even in lower relief the Saint-Gaudens double eagle is acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and artistic U.S. coin designs.
The 1907-1908 double eagles do not have the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, which became another issue even though the Coinage Act of 1890 did not include that motto in the list of required wording to be placed on U.S. coins. Some attribute the lack of the motto to a Presidential order, Roosevelt of the belief that inscribing God’s name on a coin was a blasphemous act; a coin could for example be used not only for the offering plate but also for criminal and other nefarious purposes. Regardless of the reason for the omission, the motto was restored (it was on the previous Liberty Head type) later in 1908 by Congressional action, which brought the double eagle into compliance with the Act of March 3, 1865.
The obverse features a full-length image of Liberty, facing forward with an olive branch in her left hand and a raised torch in her right hand. Draped in a long, flowing gown, her hair is swept to the left. Some describe her as striding forward, but she appears instead to be in a pose; the foot of her left leg rests on a large rock (in front of which are oak leaves), difficult terrain through which to be walking. To Liberty’s right, at the bottom of the coin, the sun is visible behind a depiction of the U.S. Capitol building. Rays from the sun extend upward from behind the Capitol and Liberty, to about the level of Liberty’s waist. At the top of the coin is the word LIBERTY, the torch separating I and B. Forty-six tiny six-point stars (representing the number of states) are arrayed just inside the flat rim, forming a circle broken only by the rock and oak leaves.
The date, in ‘Arabic’ numerals rather than the original Roman style, is at the right bottom, above the rock, and a monogram of the designer’s initials ASG is below the date. Without Motto Saints were minted in Philadelphia and Denver; the D mintmark is located above the date. The crest of the sun appears again on the reverse, at the bottom with rays extending upward nearly to the top of coin behind a majestic left-facing eagle, wings uplifted in flight. At the top is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in a concentric arc next to the flat rim, with TWENTY DOLLARS just below in another arc. The words of both phrases are separated by centered triangular dots, and the text is also in front of the sun’s rays. E PLURIBIS UNUM in raised letters, with thirteen separating raised stars, is on the edge of the coin.
Thousands of Without Motto Saint-Gaudens business strike double eagles have been certified, the greater number of the 1908 Philadelphia issue. Prices are modest for pieces through MS62, often trading not much above bullion value, while coins graded MS63 and finer are expensive to very expensive (MS67 and finer). The 1908-D is very expensive as MS65 and finer. Fewer than seven proofs of the type have been certified, all dated 1907, and designated by some as having either a satin or matte finish; all are extremely expensive.
Designer: Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Henry Hering (Saint-Gaudens’ collaborator), with modifications by Charles E. Barber
Circulation Mintage: high 4,271,551 (1908), low 361,667 (1907)
Proof Mintage: 40-50 (1907 only, estimated)
Denomination: $20.00, Twenty dollars, Double Eagle
Diameter: 34 mm, edge with raised text and symbols- E PLURIBUS UNUM, the words separated by thirteen stars
Metal Content: 90% gold, 10% copper
Weight: 33.436 grams
Varieties: A very few die varieties have been identified for both business strikes and proofs.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
Friends of Saint-Gaudens: www.sgnhs.org
The Coinage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens as Illustrated by the Phillip H. Morse Collection. James L. Halperin, Mark Van Winkle, Jon Amato, Gregory J. Rohan. Heritage Auctions, Inc.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins, 1795-1933. Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. Whitman Publishing.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Ron Guth and Jeff Garrett. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.