US Coins

Why a 1922-S double eagle has file marks on obverse

The Saint-Gaudens gold double eagle series is replete with date rarities but few die varieties or coins with interesting die stages, which makes a new discovery — a 1922-S gold $20 coin with heavy “filing lines” on the obverse — of interest to collectors of the series.

Numismatic historian Roger W. Burdette first identified the 1922-S Saint-Gaudens double eagle in January 2015 during detailed research for a pending Saint-Gaudens double eagle book. It took almost two years to locate a second example and have the variety certified by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., according to a press release from Burdette.

About the piece christened the “Filed Die” variety, Burdette states, “This is possibly the most spectacular non-overdate die variety of the entire double eagle series, 1850–1933.”

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The “Filed Die” variety has deep parallel grooves across parts of the obverse field. In places these are nearly as prominent as the rays. Deep file grooves extend across the central part of the coin and also are boldly apparent above the letters RT of LIBERTY and at the left base of Liberty’s skirt. 

The coin joins the other significant die variety for the series — the 1909/8 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. According to Jeff Garrett, co-author with Ron Guth of Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1785–1933, “This overdate was created when the Mint engraver used a 1908 hub and a 1909 hub to create at least one die.” That makes the coin a form of doubled die.

Saint-Gaudens double eagle

Saint-Gaudens double eagle: The early 20th century was a golden age of U.S. coin designs, and perhaps the most memorable of these classic designs is the contribution made by the famed sculptor-engraver Augustus Saint-Gaudens. How much are Saint-Gaudens double eagles worth?

Several other, lesser known, doubled die varieties have been identified for the Saint-Gaudens double eagle series, including for the 1922 and 1925 coins (both involving the reverse die), and a tripled die obverse for the 1926 coin. Repunched Mint marks have also been identified for the 1909-S and 1911-D gold $20 coins, adding to the series’ roster of die varieties.

What happened?

According to Burdette, “This coin was made from a working die that evidently was defaced using a flat metal file. The file appears to have been harshly scraped across the obverse, leaving behind deep, parallel cuts in the working die. Liberty and the balance of design relief is affected only to a limited extent.”

He speculates, asking, “Was this a deliberate attempt to deface a die and prevent its use? Was it a wanton act of vandalism by a disgruntled employee? Was there some other reason that we can’t imagine? We’ll probably never know. My examination of San Francisco Mint records for 1922 disclose nothing unusual, so the best we can do is speculate.”

Burdette found the coin while working on a detailed research project involving Saint-Gaudens double eagles, which he began in 2014 and continued into 2015. “The goals were to identify as many die varieties as possible while also determining the quantities of each date and mintmark that were released,” he writes “Further, I wanted to make reliable estimates of the quantities remaining after accounting for attrition, and assign a relative abundance to each coin in the series.”

Burdette said that the process was to examine as many coins and high quality photos of coins as possible for every date and Mint mark combination. “This involved thousands of coins and in some instances, nearly every known specimen of very rare dates. Among the rare dates was 1922-S. With a mintage of 2,658,000 but an estimated survival of 2,100 pieces, most of which were low-end uncirculated, the coin is considered scarce except in MS66 condition.”

Burdette adds: “Ninety pairs of dies were used for double eagles at San Francisco in 1922 resulting in an average of 29,500 good coins per pair. Thus, the number of pieces from a single die pair was very modest.”

Burdette identified the first piece approximately two years ago while searching through more than 300 individual coins in auctions and in-hand, though it was identified only through a photograph. “Without the physical coin, I did not consider this a true ‘discovery piece’ although the variety was illustrated and described in my research notes.”

He identified a second, unattributed specimen in September 2016 in Heritage’s Sept. 11 Internet auction as Lot No. 23744. He purchased the coin, which was graded by Professional Coin Grading Service as Mint State 64, and immediately asked that it be reviewed by NGC. “This became the true ‘discovery coin.’ It was not until December 2016 that NGC was able to examine the coin and record the variety. At this point the coin had been authenticated and was graded MS63 — a grade which I felt was reasonable.”

Burdette does not believe that the die was filed after being placed into use to fix a problem such as die clashing. He told Coin World, “The reverse die for both coins appears to be the same. I presume that this was a stable pair of dies, and that someone scraped the obverse before it was first used. That is, it was not a badly bungled attempt to repair damage, but more likely a deliberate act of vandalism or attempted destruction. Further, the obverse of both specimens shows no attempt to smooth or otherwise soften the deep filing. The reverse appears entirely normal.”

“The second piece, known only from old auction photos, is from a much earlier die state. On that coin, there is no die crack at the top and very few other signs of die deterioration.”


“Double eagles dated 1922-S of this variety show deep, parallel grooves with the obverse field,” Burdette writes. “These prominent grooves are diagonal and extend across the central portion of the coin from approximately the 10 o’clock position to the 4 o’clock position. The rim, stars and other peripheral devices are also affected largely at the 1 o’clock and 7 o’clock positions.”

Burdette adds: “The deep parallel grooves and their location primarily in the central field portions of the coin, are consistent with use of a mill- or flat-file rubbed across the center of a working die. Since the die is slightly convex, and relief is inverse in relation to the coin, scraping a file across a die would affect principally the central field (highest part of the die). This part of the die — called the ‘field’ by coin collectors — is known as the ‘die table’ by U.S. Mint specialists.”

Speculating about the changes to the die, Burdette states, “Given the deep and very prominent grooves in the coin, it seems impossible that this would have been missed by die sinkers at the Philadelphia Mint. In fact, this dramatic variety is so unusual that the only points of comparison are with early U.S. gold and silver coinage where planchets were manually adjusted by filing across the face of the disc. There is no known mechanical, die production or handling reason for filing a working die in this manner. Thus, it must have been performed deliberately, possibly in an attempt to condemn a defective die, or as act of vandalism by an employee.”

How rare is the variety? Burdette notes that San Francisco Mint production records show that the smallest delivery quantity for 1922 was 8,000 pieces on Aug. 15 and the greatest was 75,000 on Sept. 8. “The modern estimate of the total surviving 1922-S double eagle is 2,100 pieces. With a total annual mintage of 2,657,729 coins, most of which were believed melted, the data suggest that only one coin out of every 1,266 pieces struck survives,” he writes. “If these 1922-S ‘Filed Die’ coins were part of a delivery of 8,000, then we can expect approximately six (6) to have survived. On the other hand, if the ‘Filed Die’ survived for 75,000 coins, there might be up to fifty-nine (59) surviving in all conditions.”

However, he notes that a search of more than 300 unique auction lots and dealer holdings has failed to reveal another coin. Given the inability to find another example among approximately 15 percent of the estimated total population, “it is likely that very few of this major die variety exist,” he concludes.

Burdette’s discovery coin is being offered in Heritage’s Long Beach Expo U.S. Coins Signature Auction of Feb. 16 to 19. 

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