Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt: the inaugural medal that spawned a renaissance

1905 Theodore Roosevelt inaugural medal realizes $28,200 in Stack’s Bowers auction
By , Coin World
Published : 08/02/17
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Although their official relationship may have been brief, the artistic collaboration between Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens gave birth to what collectors today call the Renaissance of American Coinage. And it all began with the master sculptor’s medal for the 1905 inauguration of the youngest president in U.S. history. An example of that classic medal in bronze was offered as one of the first lots in Stack’s Bowers Galleries’ official auction of the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money.

Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens were already friends when the newly elected president (who had been elevated to the office in 1901 following the assassination of President William McKinley) asked the sculptor to create his officials inaugural medal. Saint-Gaudens was one of the most celebrated sculptors in the United States, known for his many public memorial and private sculptural commissions, and for various medals. 

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Saint-Gaudens in 1905 was not well medically. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1900 at the age of 52. Nonetheless, he accepted the commission from Roosevelt. The result was what Stack’s Bowers calls “ among the most prized of the Inaugural medals not only for its subject matter and rarity, but just as much for the artist who designed it, the firm that cast it and its influence on American coinage.” The catalog adds, “Just 150 examples of this medal were authorized to be produced by Tiffany in bronze. Today, Saint-Gaudens’ Roosevelt inaugural medal is recognized as one of the most historic of all American medals”

The peak of Olympic gold coins: Another column in the August 14 weekly issue of Coin World also profiles a rubber token that promotes a commonplace object we all use.

The obverse captures Roosevelt’s head in profile, with the reverse showing a strong eagle predictive of Saint-Gaudens’ later design for the reverse of his 1907 Indian Head gold $10 eagle. The sculptor had help from an up-and-coming talent, his assistant sculptor Adolph Weinman, who would later design the 1916 Winged Liberty Head dime and Walking Liberty half dollar.

The medal is renowned not only for its high artistic quality but also because this artistic collaboration led to Roosevelt’s orders to begin a redesign of U.S. coinage that would emulate classic Greek coinage. Saint-Gaudens began the process despite his worsening illness, and was able to create new designs for the gold eagle and $20 double eagle before his death in the summer of 1907 (before either coin went into general production for circulation). Between 1907 and 1916 (and again in 1921), all the other U.S. coins would also be given new designs by some of the nation’s top sculptors, in a continuation of Roosevelt’s plan to improve their artistry.

In writing about the medal in the Aug. 1 auction, the Stack’s Bowers cataloger writes, "The surfaces exhibit lovely deep brown patina with nuances of lighter chestnut blended throughout and very minor highlights on the highest points of the relief. Upon close inspection, the surfaces are finely granular as typical with trivial handling imperfections and one small area of gentle roughness beneath Roosevelt's truncation. One small area between the letters HIN of WASHINGTON and the upper left wing of the eagle shows evidence of micro-tooling, clearly done in the shop of Tiffany & Company where this piece was made. Other medals seen have a raised imperfection in this area that was removed on this piece.”

The medal realized $28,200 in the Aug. 1 session in the Stack’s Bowers Galleries auction in Denver.

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