The Most Beautiful Coin the US Mint ever Produced
The Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle Gold Coin is considered by expert numismatists to be one of the most beautiful coins the US Mint ever produced, and varieties of high-relief strikes among the most expensive coins ever sold at auction.
The story of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle begins in 1848 with the California gold rush. Though a number of Congressional Acts had mandated the production of gold coins of varying denominations up to $10 as early as 1799, the increased supply coming out of California allowed for a much larger quantity, and larger denomination of $20, containing almost a full troy ounce of gold, to be produced. Gold US coins have featured a number of different designs, but the Gold Liberty design had been used on $20 gold pieces since their inception in 1850.
The assassination of William McKinley and subsequent inauguration of his Vice President, Teddy Roosevelt, would change things.
In 1904, Roosevelt commissioned famed sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to design a new $20 Double Eagle, intent on producing a true artistic masterpiece. Saint-Gaudens had a rocky history with the US Mint, having clashed with head engraver Charles E. Barber over Barber's poorly received designs for nickels, dimes, quarters, and half dollars in the early 20th century.
Another of Saint-Gaudens' designs for a medal given to winning exhibitors at the Chicago World's Fair was deemed as obscene for its depiction of a naked male youth on its reverse, which was censored with a replacement designed by Barber himself.
Despite these slights, Roosevelt was able to successfully recruit Saint-Gaudens, the first non-mint employee to ever design a US coin.
Saint-Gaudens drew inspiration from the coins of ancient Greece, the most beautiful of which were struck in high relief to draw deep contrasts between negative space and design elements.
The mint and its team of engravers doubted whether the technological capabilities of their equipment could produce high relief coins at scale, but the artistic fortitude of Saint-Gaudens and the support of the President made him press on anyway. After a few other quibbles, including obtaining permission for the use of Roman numerals as dates instead of standard Arabic ones, Saint-Gaudens produced dies for his new design in 1906, which Roosevelt loved.
By that time, Saint-Gaudens was reaching the end of a terminal illness, delegating much of the final work of producing the dies to his assistant, so implementing the dies and producing coins from them was left to experts at the US Mint, namely Charles E. Barber. Despite their personal animosities, or perhaps because of them, Barber was only able to produce 24 pattern coins from the high-relief dies. Each coin needed to be struck up to nine times by a medal press for complete strikes. These coins, often termed "Extra High Relief" or "Ultra High Relief" by collectors, are among the most valuable coins ever sold at auction. One graded PR-69 sold at Stacks and Bowers in 2012 for $2.82 million.
Once put into normal production, high relief mint strike varieties, struck from a set of dies only slightly altered from the originals, still needed up to five strikes to be fully struck, and in high grades, even these coins can sell for up to $500,000. Due to these production difficulties, and reaching an impatient Roosevelt's deadline for a mass-producible die shortly after the death of Saint-Gaudens, Barber was forced to redesign a low-relief version of this coin from Saint-Gaudens' design from scratch, switching the date back to Arabic numerals. These coins went into production in December of 1907 after around 12,000 high relief varieties had been struck.
The low-relief varieties, though easier to produce, were considered far inferior to Saint-Gaudens' original design. However, this design proved popular enough that the US Mint decided to use the obverse design on their primary gold bullion coin, the American Eagle, issued since 1986. So admired was the high-relief design that the US Mint decided to widely release an unused Saint-Gaudens high-relief version of his design for a new $100 gold bullion coin in 2009.
These coins proved so popular that the mint sold them well over the spot price of gold, and collectors still seek them out today. The mint released a completely new high-relief gold coin in 2015, proving that though difficult to mint, high-relief designs provide a beautiful picture-window quality to coins, and it's an innovation we will continue seeing in our coinage for years to come.