Is it any surprise that some of the rarest and most valuable coins in U.S. history began as the “pet baby” of President Theodore Roosevelt?
This is, of course, the same President who was shot in the chest at close range but proceeded to deliver a 90-minute speech before letting doctors attend to his wounds.
Surly a President who earned the nickname, “Bull Moose” would be able to handle a coin design. However, this was not just any coin. It was the double eagle $20 gold coin. And Theodore Roosevelt knew if he was to pull of something really spectacular, a coin designed in the spirit of the ancient Greeks, he would need assistance from the best artist and sculptor he could possibly find.
Who Designed the Double Eagle Coin?
In a memo to his Secretary of Treasury in 1904, Roosevelt said, “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.”
If you need help deciphering the President’s disapproval, I can translate. He thought U.S. coinage design was boring, bland, and lacked the inspiring message he wished to extend to American citizens.
What transpired over the next three years was an amazing tale of the President and his chosen artist, working together to redefine American coinage.
And the President had the perfect man for the job in mind.
He continued his memo to the Secretary of Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw –
“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?”-President Theodore Roosevelt, December 27, 1904
Augustus Saint-Gaudens received an official request from the president communicated through the Director of the Mint, George E. Roberts. After receiving the request from the President for assistance in coin design, Saint-Gaudens promptly replied.
“I am extremely interested in the matter of the new designs for the coinage and am honored by your desire that I should give thought and advice on the subject. It will I assure you give me great pleasure to assist in the procuring of good work…”Augustus Saint-Gaudens – response to President Roosevelt, January 20, 1905
The Greatest Coin of All-Time?
The memo from the President in December of 1904 began the creation of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle. One of the most popular, valuable, rare, and beautifully designed coins in history.
There are so many fascinating aspects of this amazing coin. You could spend, as many have already, an entire lifetime studying the history, varieties, and finest details of these world-famous coins.
While there are entire books written on double eagle coins, it’s my attempt to focus on the link between President Roosevelt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and twenty-dollar gold coins produced between 1907 and 1933.
For coin collectors, gaining an understanding of the origin story, key dates, rarities, and intricate details of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle will help you build a truly amazing and historic coin collection. There is arguably no coin finer than the $20 Saint-Gaudens double eagle gold coin.
Theodore Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens Team Up
Now we know that President Roosevelt wanted an epic coin design, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens was all-in on the task at hand.
But what followed was one of the greatest one-two punches in U.S. Mint history. So many things had to fall into place before Roosevelt could actually see newly designed coins rolling off the Mint presses.
The back-and-forth letters between the President and Saint-Gaudens paint a picture of enthusiasm, patriotism, and almost a child-like giddiness at times. Reading the letters exchanged between the two, you can almost hear the excitement jumping off the page.
“How is the gold coinage design coming along? I want to make a suggestion. It seems to me to be worthwhile to try for really good coinage; though I suppose there will be a revolt about it. I was looking up some gold coins of Alexander the Great today, and I was struck by their high relief…”Letter from President Roosevelt to Saint-Gaudens, November 6, 1905
The letters between Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens are fascinating for any historians, but for hardcore coin collectors, they will make the hair on your arm stand straight up. For example, Saint-Gaudens responded to the President’s high-relief inquiry with, “You have hit the nail on the head…”
Then, Saint-Gaudens continues to describe his design. “…on the other side some kind of a figure of Liberty striking forward as if on a mountain top… holding aloft on one arm a shield… in the other hand perhaps a flaming torch… drapery would be flowing in the breeze… make it a living thing and typical of progress.”
Can you imagine Theodore Roosevelt reading that initial description of the coin from Gaudens? I can picture him making the largest mustached-grin he ever made while pounding his fist on the oval office desktop with excitement. What a great scene to imagine.
Saint-Gaudens Battles Barber
As the first prototype of the newly-designed double eagle found it’s way to Roosevelt’s fingers, the President was elated. He wanted the coins minted as soon as possible so the American public could see the brilliant design.
But Saint-Gaudens had a rival at the U.S. Mint, Charles E. Barber. His rival was non-other than the Chief Engraver, a position that would typically handle all coin design. After being stepped-over by the President, and tangling with Gaudens for at least a decade on other artistic matters, Barber resisted the new double eagle coin design at every turn.
One of Barber’s biggest objections was the high relief desired by the President and Saint-Gaudens. Barber insisted it would be impossible for the machinery at the U.S. Mint. If not impossible, Barber maintained coins could not be produced with such deep cuts and fine detail.
Roosevelt swiped back at the Mint Director after hearing the news that Mint equipment could not produce coins with such high relief. Gaudens and his team consulted Tiffany and Gorham, two of the best known jewelers in New York City.
The President then challenged Barber to proceed. He said Tiffany and Gorham could cut the coin design with a single stroke, and Barber was to consult them if he couldn’t find a way to produce the high relief they desired. The President didn’t mix his words to Barber. If the Mint couldn’t produce the high relief coin, he suggested, “…I should regard it as rather a black eye for the Mint and a confession of inferiority on their part to Tiffany and Gorham…”
Minting Double Eagles
In the end, the ultra high relief desired by Gaudens and the President was not realistic for the Mint presses. Millions of coins had to be made, and the hydraulic equipment could not possibly produce the desired results at the scale required for the entire country’s coins.
As for Barber, he did whatever he could to obstruct progress. But it’s hard to say how much of the high relief was indeed impractical for the Mint equipment, or if Barber played up that reasoning to an extreme. It was the first time a Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint was not selected to design coins. A slap in the face to Barber, who even proposed his own double eagle design at one point. It was simply ignored and dismissed.
When word spread of Barber planting several critical articles about the newly designed coins in the Philadelphia newspapers, Roosevelt lashed out. In a meeting with newly appointed Director of the United Sates Mint, Frank Leach, the President slammed his fist to his desk with anger knowing that Barber was sabotaging his efforts to revitalize U.S. coinage.
Just days later, Leach presented new molds with slightly lowered relief. Roosevelt was “delighted.” He ordered production at full capacity for the next thirty days. Mint presses ran around the clock, seven days a week.
Roughly 12,000 coins were struck in December of 1907. Roosevelt had accomplished his goal, and honored Saint-Gaudens who passed away just months before. He said, “Saint-Gaudens gave us for the first time a beautiful coinage, a coinage worthy of this country…more beautiful than any coins since the days of the Greeks…”
Design Types and Variations
Over the next 26 years, the U.S. Mint struck an estimated 77 million $20 double eagle gold coins. Even with the lowered relief, the original artistic vision by Gaudens remained intact. The coins gained the respect of Americans, and powered commerce through the Gilded Age.
As double eagle collectors, it’s vital to understand the variations of design over the 26 years of production. There are four main types to understand, and each type includes characteristics that impact current-day values.
1907 Ultra High Relief
Only 18 to 22 coins were produced in ultra high relief, or as most referred to them in the days of minting, “extreme relief.” After the handful of coins were struck, two were melted, leaving only 16 to 20 to exist.
The 1907 ultra high relief coins that remain are some of the most valuable and sought-after collectible coins in the world.
1907 High Relief
Relief was slightly lowered after the realization ultra high relief double eagle coins were nearly impossible for the Mint to produce on a mass scale.
12,367 examples of high relief coins were struck in 1907 featuring “MCMVII” roman numerals indicating the year. Today, over 5,000 coins still exist, and are extremely valuable in high grades.
1907-1908 No Motto
In late 1907, relief was lowered once again to increase production. Exact figures from the Mint documented 5,296,968 coins stuck without the “IN GOD WE TRUST” motto. That would be added to the coin just a year later.
The figure of 5 million coins include production from the Philadelphia Mint in 1907 and 1908. Plus the addition of the Denver Mint in 1908.
With production in the millions, many 1907 & 1908 No Motto coins were shipped to foreign countries where they rested in vaults for decades.
1908-1933 With Motto
Mint records indicate 64,981,428 double eagles were produced and recorded during 1908-1933 including the motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
President Roosevelt didn’t see the need for the motto on the original coin design, and he went even further to suggest including the motto on U.S. money might be, “dangerously close to sacrilege.” After intense debate, Congress voted to reinstate the, “IN GOD WE TRUST” motto on coins in 1908.
The Saint-Gaudens double eagle didn’t escape the mandate for the motto, and all coins struck after August 1, 1908 included, “IN GOD WE TRUST.”
The addition of the motto opened the door for other small changes to the design, and Chief Engraver Charles Barber didn’t miss the opportunity to alter the coin, even if just slightly. In 1908, the number of tail feathers on the eagle went from eight to nine, and 34 thin rays of light shining from the sun decreased to 33 thicker rays.
Because of the large quantity of “Type 6” double eagles with motto minted from 1908 to 1933, the coins were sent to foreign banks, stored at the Treasury Department, or purchased by investors. Years later, the plentiful Type 6 coins were popular with gold “stackers” and hoarders searching for a hedge against inflation or worried about an impending U.S. monetary crisis.
Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle Key Dates
When asked for the key date of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle, there’s only one correct answer. And that correct answer is 1933. With only one single 1933 double eagle in private collector hands, the coin deserves it’s own dedicated article. But along with 1933, there’s several important dates every collector should understand.
1933 Double Eagle
Like we already discussed, there’s only one privately owned 1933 double eagle. The other two rest in the Smithsonian and will never be sold. In 2021, the only coin anyone will legally ever own sold for $18.8 million, breaking the record for highest price ever paid for a coin.
The 1933 double eagle deserves it’s own in-depth article. The full story of this coin is a jaw-dropping suspense thriller that any coin collector will love to hear.
1927-D Double Eagle
Some experts say only six to eight 1927-D double eagle coins exist, others will argue they’ve witnessed at least eleven. Some say fifteen. Regardless, if there’s six or fifteen, it’s as rare as the 1907 Ultra High Relief series. After the 1933 double eagle, you could argue the 1927-D is the second rarest coin of all double eagles, since the 1907 Ultra High Relief coins were technically used as patterns, and the 1927-D coin was a true regular issue coin.
So how did there get to be maybe only fifteen coins from the Denver Mint in 1927? First off, there was only 180,000 originally struck. Secondly, experts dug up gold coin transfer journals and concluded that every coin of this series was kept in Denver Mint vaults until 1931.
Nearly every single 1927-D double eagle was then melted down when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102 in April 1933, forbidding hoarding gold and requiring all citizens to return gold coins to the Federal Reserve.
1907 Extremely High Relief
As we discussed, the idea of a high relief coin was President Roosevelt’s idea, which Augustus Saint-Gaudens almost instantly agreed with. The sculptor’s design was based on action, movement, “flowing in the wind,” and attempting to, “make it a living thing and typical of progress.” High relief made the coin come alive.
There’s no better way to describe this other than glancing at the 1907 Extremely (or some say “Ultra”) high relief coins next to the flattened-out “Barber modified” high-production coins. The difference is stunning. The extremely high relief coins have a life of their own, and jump out at the viewer.
Only 16 to 18 ultra high relief coins exist, and not only are they stunning creations, they are also worth millions. A PR-69 example sold for $4.3 million in August of 2023.
1921 Double Eagle
Originally, 528,500 double eagle coins were struck in 1921, but most were melted. What remains is an unbelievably difficult coin to find in MS-64 condition or better. PCGS lists only 1 coin graded at MS-65, one graded at MS-65+, and two 1921 double eagles with an MS-66 grade.
For comparison, in 2006 a 1921 double Eagle MS-63 coin sold for $1.5 million. Imagine what one of the MS-66 coins would bring in today if sold?
If you have a 1921 double eagle in excellent condition, I would sure like to discuss that coin with you!
1924-S Double Eagle
For some time the 1924-S double eagle was considered to be one of the rarest coins in the series. However, in the 1950s and 60s a small batch of coins was found in Europe, making availability a bit easier.
Even with the added supply from the overseas hoard, the coins were heavily bagmarked. About 60 coins received an MS-62 grade. Out of all the San Francisco struck coins from 1924, there’s only one with an MS-65+ grade, and just one single coin with an MS-67 grade. The MS-67 example sold for $930,000 at Heritage Auctions in 2022.