Double eagles or gold $20 coins, the subject of my recent columns,
are very appealing. An ideal way to collect them is to form a set of
the six different design types.
The three subtypes of Saint-Gaudens coins are the focus of this
week’s narrative: (1) the 1907 High Relief, Roman Numerals coin; (2)
the 1907 and 1908 Low Relief, Arabic Numerals, Without Motto coins;
and (3) the 1908 to 1933 Low Relief, Arabic Numerals, With Motto coins.
There are 53 dates and Mint marks in the Saint-Gaudens double eagle
series, of which slightly more than a dozen cost more than $2,000
each. Today, with the price of an ounce of gold being cheaper than in
recent years, double eagles are very affordable in lower Mint State
grades, up to about MS-63. Of course, at $2,000 more or less, the
price of admission is not for everyone.
On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of newly minted 1-ounce
gold bullion coins are sold every year, sometimes over a million,
reflecting the strong market for gold. As a double eagle contains 0.97
ounce of gold, forming a collection by date and Mint is an interesting
pursuit, seemingly more intellectually challenging than accumulating
bulk modern coins in quantity. Of course, the new bullion coins are a
convenient way to store gold for those who have no numismatic
inclination, and the margin between buying and selling is lower than
on numismatic coins.
The first of the Saint-Gaudens subtypes is the 1907 High Relief,
Roman Numerals coin, with the date appearing as MCMVII. Only 12,367
were struck. The coining process was complicated as it required three
strikes on a medal press to bring the relief details up properly. The
design was soon replaced with the low-relief style modified by Chief
Engraver Charles Barber. These could be struck at high speed on a
regular production press.
The High Relief coins have been consistently voted as the most
popular design for any coin made for circulation. Upon their release
in December 1907 there was a mad scramble, and the price quickly rose
to $25, then $30, as bank tellers paid them out. The fortunate result
is that probably about half were preserved. While they are readily
available today, an example costs multiples of the $2,000 or less
needed to buy one of each of the other five designs.
The modified 1907 Low Relief design omitted the motto IN GOD WE
TRUST as President Theodore Roosevelt felt that naming the Deity on
coinage was sacrilege. Congress disagreed, and beginning in the summer
of 1908 it was added to the reverse. Both 1907 and 1908 Without Motto
coins were struck.
By 1907 very few gold coins were in general commerce. Their place
was taken by paper money of various types including silver
certificates, United States notes, gold certificates, and national
bank notes. Anyone who felt that holding gold was a comfort could
acquire gold certificates, easy to store and readily exchangeable for
coins. By 1915 and 1916, the only places that double eagles were seen
in general commerce were northern California and some cities in the
Rocky Mountains. In 1917 nearly all disappeared from circulation due
to uncertainty about the war. In 1920 they were available again at
banks, which continued through early 1933.
The vast majority of $20 coins from 1907 onward were stored in bank
and Treasury vaults or exported (foreign banks did not want U.S. paper
money). Years later, many overseas vaults were tapped to yield
millions of Uncirculated double eagles, furnishing most of today’s supply.
Each double eagle has its own personality, its own story, and the
enjoyment of forming a collection is enhanced by reading about
American and numismatic history of the early 20th century.