Collecting Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagles: Q. David Bowers

Three subtypes offer different relief and numerals, and Without Motto and With Motto coins
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 11/20/15
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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. 

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