As collectors know, coins are not only coveted for their intrinsic
value and rarity, but because they are works of art as well. One of
the most beautiful coins still being minted today is the American Gold
Eagle. Created from gold mined solely in America, its two sides
feature reliefs designed by highly skilled artists whose names are
famous in the world of art and coin design.
The front, or obverse, side of the coin displays a rendering of a
full-length figure of Lady Liberty, her flowing hair caught by a
breeze, with her right hand holding aloft a torch while her
outstretched left hand holds an olive branch. The image is adapted
from a relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for what is known as the
Double Eagle coin commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt in the
Artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Saint-Gaudens himself was born in Dublin in 1848, but raised from
infancy in New York. After a teenage apprenticeship as a cameo cutter,
he spent the next years studying sculpture, art, and architecture.
His first major commission, while still in his twenties, was for a
bronze memorial to U.S. Navy Admiral David Farragut, the great
Civil War leader maybe best known today for commanding "Damn the
torpedoes, full speed ahead!"
The statue of Farragut was unveiled in 1881 in New York's Madison
Square Park on a pedestal designed by famed architect Stanford White,
and it still stands today, considered one of the finest monuments in
Saint-Gaudens' larger than life Abraham Lincoln: The Man (also known as the
Standing Lincoln) in Chicago's Lincoln Park was an especially
significant commission for him. At the age of thirteen, the sculptor
had watched Abraham Lincoln riding on the train to his inauguration in
Washington, D., and four years later he had joined the immense crowd
paying its respects as Lincoln lay in state following his assassination.
In creating the statue, Saint-Gaudens used the life mask and the
casts of Lincoln's hands that had been made by sculptor Leonard Volk
in 1860, shortly before Lincoln received the nomination for the
presidency. The statue was unveiled in 1887, and many public
commissions followed, including Saint-Gaudens' Abraham Lincoln: The
Head of State, which shows a seated Lincoln in the throes of the war,
created for the Lincoln Centennial.
At the start of the new, 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt
chose Saint-Gaudens to redesign the nation's coinage. The sculptor
created an ultra high-relief $20 gold piece in 1907, of which only
about twenty were minted because it took up to eleven strikes to bring
up the details and the coins didn't stack well, making them unfit for
commerce. One of these coins sold at auction in 2005 for just under $3 million.
The U.S. Mint then adapted the coin into a high-relief version,
which took three strikes to complete and were also deemed unsuitable,
although 12,317 of the now sought-after coins were minted. Finally,
the coin was modified to a standard relief version, and was produced
from 1907 to 1933. Its beautiful Lady Liberty was brought back to life
in 1986 for the American Eagle gold bullion coin.
The American Eagle's reverse side came into being in an entirely
different way. Self-taught artist Miley Busiek (now known as Miley Tucker-Frost) had been commissioned in
1980 to create a small sculpture as a souvenir for Ronald Reagan's
first inaugural, based on her rendering of a family of eagles. Soon
after, the artist saw a Wall Street Journal article reporting that
there was a move afoot to gain approval from Congress for a new U.S.
gold bullion coin.
Artist Miley Busiek
Busiek wanted to offer her "Family of Eagles" design for
the coin, and mounted a years-long effort to campaign for it. She
began by approaching civic, political, religious, and business leaders
in her Dallas hometown, enlisted Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, and
made trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and testify at
hearings on coinage legislation.
Finally, in 1985, after President Reagan imposed a ban on
importation of the Kruggerand, South Africa's one-ounce gold bullion
coin, Congress decided it was time for an American bullion coin. The
legislation creating it stipulated that the coin carry the image of a
male eagle "carrying an olive branch and flying above a nest
containing a female eagle and hatchlings." The bill didn't
mention Busiek by name, but there was no doubt it referred to her design.
Craftspeople at the U.S. Mint created the relief and engraving from
Busiek's drawing, and she and her sons were given the opportunity to
strike examples of the coin when it was first minted in 1986.
"The spirit behind this design was to honor our family and
America," she says, and views the donation of her work as "a
gift to my fellow Americans."