Double Eagles – 1907 $20 High Relief, Wire Rim
Frank A. Leach was superintendent of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco from 1897 to 1907. He assumed the title of Mint director in Washington in 1907 after the resignation of George E. Roberts from the post, and moved there in time to assume his new duties by Oct. 1, 1907. As the following excerpt shows, Leach was a crucial figure in the production of the Saint-Gaudens coinage. Leach wrote his memoirs titled Recollections of a Newspaper Man–A Record of Life and Events in California, published in 1917 by Samuel Levinson of San Francisco. Bowers and Merena Galleries republished a portion of that work in 1987 as Recollections of a Mint Director. Some excerpts from that text follow, dealing with the circumstances surrounding production of the High Relief issues:
“Another very important matter was in hand in the bureau when I arrived at Washington, which was soon to cause me some anxiety, and that was the perfection of President Roosevelt’s scheme for new designs for all the gold coins of our country. There were a number prominent people in the East, especially in New York and Boston, who some time before began an agitation for an improvement in appearance of all our coinage. The President quickly became the leading spirit of the movement. The prevalent idea in this undertaking was that the design and execution of our coinage were inferior and inartistic when compared with those of ancient Greece; and as the coins used by a nation are one of the most enduring records of the art and mechanical skill of its age, our government should make an issue of coinage that would leave to future generations and ages something that would more truthfully and correctly reflect the artistic taste and mechanical ability of our day than the coinage then in use, unchanged for so many years.”
Leach then makes a surprising comment concerning what he considers to be the derivative nature of the Saint-Gaudens coinage–at least in their relief, if not in their design–and expresses his concerns with the practicability issues involved in producing the Ultra High Relief and High Relief designs:
Photos and descriptions used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
“The admiration for the ancient Greek coins unwittingly influenced those gentlemen to suggestions that were imitative rather than original. They wanted the designs for the proposed coinage to be brought out in high relief, or with medallic effect, like the designs on the ancient coins. The commercial use and requirements seemed to have been lost sight of in the enthusiasm of producing a highly artistic coin; but in all probability none of the leading spirits in the movement was familiar with the use of metallic money, and did not understand that the proposed high relief would make the face of the coins so uneven that the pieces would not ‘stack,’ which was a condition fatal to the practicability of the idea.
“It was early in the year 1905 that President Roosevelt authorized the Director of the Mint to conclude a contract with the famous sculptor, Saint-Gaudens, to supply designs in high relief for the $20 and $10 gold coins. This was accomplished in July, but no designs were finally perfected that met the approval of the President until the early part of 1907. … Dies from the model were made at the Philadelphia mint. On trial, the dies gave such a high relief to the figures on the design that all efforts to produce a perfect or satisfactory coin on the regular coining presses were ineffectual. A medal press was then resorted to, that the beauty of the design might be studied and preserved in the shape of a coin, but even by this process it required about twelve blows or impressions in the press for each piece, with an annealing process between each stroke of the process. … Nineteen pieces only from this model were struck on the medal press, and these were subsequently given to mint and Washington officials connected with the work.
“There were some who thought that by reducing the diameter of the piece to about the size of a ‘checker,’ with a corresponding increase in the thickness, the much desired high relief might be struck on the ordinary coin press; accordingly dies were made and several pieces struck, when it was discovered that the coinage act, passed in 1890, prohibited the change of the diameter of any coin. Thirteen pieces were struck from this small die for the thick or checker pieces, but with the exception of two coins placed in the cabinet or collection of coins at the Philadelphia mint, all of these pieces were melted and destroyed on account of the improper or illegal dimensions.
“Saint-Gaudens then attempted to facilitate the work of coinage by supplying another or second set of models with the relief reduced to some extent, but satisfactory results were not obtained on the regular coinage presses. He then made a third model with still further and greater reduction of the high relief. The failure gave rise to considerable friction between the artist and the mint authorities. The President had become impatient and began to think that the mint officials were not showing a zeal in the work that promised results. It was at this stage of undertaking that I came into the office of Director. Before I had become familiar with my surroundings the President sent for me. In the interview that followed he told me what he wanted, and what the failures and his disappointments had been, and proceeded to advise me as to what I should do to accomplish the purpose determined upon in the way of new coinage. In this talk he suggested some details of action of a drastic character for my guidance, which he was positive were necessary to be adopted before success could be had. All this was delivered in his usual vigorous way, emphasizing many points by hammering on the desk with his fist. This was my first interview with the President, and it was somewhat embarrassing for me to oppose his views, but I felt that it was essential to my success that I should be untrammeled by any interference in the plans that I should adopt to secure the production of the new coinage. I determined then and there that if I could not have free rein in the matter I would not attempt the work. In my reply to the President I finally made the wisdom of my position clear to him. I explained to him how I had not yet had time to look into the matter and locate the causes of failure, consequently could not say what was necessary to correct them. At any rate, I would have to insist that these were matters of details that should be left to my judgment.
” ‘All you want, Mr. President,’ I said, ‘is the production of the coin with the new design, is it not?’
” ‘Yes,’ said he.
” ‘Well, that I promise you.’
“He said he guessed I was right in my attitude in the matter, but I think he was not very confident of my getting results, for when a few days later I laid upon his desk a sample of beautifully executed double eagles of the Saint-Gaudens design, he was most enthusiastic in his expressions of pleasure and satisfaction. I certainly believed him when he declared he was ‘delighted.’ He warmly congratulated me on my success, and was most complimentary in his comments.
” ‘Now,’ he said, ‘I want enough of these coins within thirty days to make a distribution throughout the country, that the people may see what they are like.’ I replied that we would be able to meet with his desire, although I explained that the issue would have to be struck on medal presses from the second design model, but that in a few weeks later, we would have dies completed from model No. 3 with lower relief, so that the coins, when made, would meet the requirements of the bankers and business men in ‘stacking,’ etc., and these could be struck on the regular coin presses in the usual way. The pleasure of the President was manifested in the heartiness of his thanks. I had every medal press in the Philadelphia mint put into operation on these coins with an extra force of workmen, so that the presses were run night and day. The officers of the mint entered into the spirit of the work cut out for them, putting zest into the operations which assured me that the issue of the new double eagles, so greatly desired by the President, would be made on time. In fact, we delivered to the Treasurer of the United States 12,153 double eagles, representing $243,060, which was considerably more than asked of us, several days ahead of time.”
As the fascinating and historic Leach account makes clear, the MCMVII Ultra High Relief coins were an instant rarity, and those coins today are all but unobtainable, as only 19 or 20 pieces were struck. In this way the Ultra High Relief coins are in the same class as other legendary rarities, say 1894-S Barber dimes or 1804 silver dollars. But the High Relief coins are in quite a different class. While retaining much of the original relief desired, the MCMVII High Relief coins are not particularly rare as a type, and nice specimens are within the means of many collectors. And while the Ultra High Reliefs are pattern pieces, the High Reliefs are regular-issue coinage. Mint Director Leach had the pieces struck to satisfy President Roosevelt’s desires for high relief coinage that would emulate Classical Greek coinage, all the while fully realizing that the design was still impractical for modern, one-blow circulation coinage.
“Modern” circulating coinage of the era was produced on high-speed steam-powered coin presses, not the hydraulic medal presses used for the Ultra High Relief and High Relief coinage. The High Relief coins required only three blows of the medal press, not the seven or more blows required to fully articulate the Ultra High Relief design. Although the estimates for the number of pieces coined vary (and estimates for the number of blows required), Leach’s documentation of more than 12,000 pieces appears essentially correct, according to modern research.
A so-called “Wire Rim” protruded around the outer extremity of the coins, which resulted from excessive metal flow between the die face and collar during the striking process. Unlike today’s collectors who consider the Wire Rim to be a highly collectible variety, Mint officials considered it to be a striking deficiency. This “flaw” in the striking process was corrected around mid-December, and subsequent High Relief double eagles possessed what became known as a Flat Rim.
Designer: Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Mintage: 19 to 22 pieces
Diameter: ±34 millimeters
Metal content: Gold – 90% Copper – 10%
Weight: ±516 grains (±33.4 grams)