US Coins

Saint-Gaudens art with coinage links offered by Sotheby’s

Items offered in the Sotheby's sale of Augustus Saint-Gaudens work included a bronze sculpture of a head of Victory on a green marble base sold for $171,450 on April 20 and a handsome “Victory Relief” conceived by Saint-Gaudens in 1905 and produced in bronze at a later date.

Images courtesy of the author.

American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens is best-known to numismatists as the designer of the Indian Head $10 eagle and his famed double eagles of 1907 to 1933.

He had an active studio and produced larger-sized works for commissions and more modestly sized works for collectors, though many of his most popular sculptures today were cast after his death in 1907.

Sotheby’s recent offering of the Wolf Family Collection included some magnificent examples of his work. Sotheby’s wrote, “The Wolf Family Collection is further distinguished by the incredible layers of generational involvement that uniquely deepen the bonds between categories and make this offering a once in a lifetime occasion.” Included in the family was Diane R. Wolf, who served on the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts from 1985 to 1990 and who advocated for coinage redesign during her term.

Most impressive, and introducing viewers to “The Spirit of America: The Wolf Family Collection” at Sotheby’s New York City showroom was a full-standing figure of Victory that realized $1,168,400 on April 19. It was a study for the large-scale figure of Victory used in the Sherman Monument, unveiled in 1903 in the Grand Army Plaza in New York City. While the standing figure was conceived in 1892, this example was cast around 1912, making it a posthumous cast. The gilt bronze sculpture measures 42.5 inches high and had been on long-term loan to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The first of the reduced versions of the standing Victory was presented in 1908, and ultimately copyrighted in 1912. The offered lot was one of eight known reductions of this size.

In the Sherman Monument, the winged figure is placed before the equestrian statue, serving as a symbol of triumph with a palm frond in her hand, wearing an eagle on her chest and striding forward. Saint-Gaudens called it “the grandest ‘Victory’ anyone ever made,” and Sotheby’s called it “the physical manifestation of progress and achievement.”

Sotheby’s writes: “The commission to execute the Sherman Monument was a great honor for Saint-Gaudens. In an undated letter from the sculptor to his friend Charles Keck, he wrote, ‘I have such respect and admiration for the heroes of the Civil War that I consider it my duty to help in any way to commemorate them in a noble and dignified fashion worth of their great service’ (Burke Wilkinson, Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, Orlando, 1985, p. 96). The thoughtfulness and esteem with which Saint-Gaudens regarded the Sherman Monument is reflected in the triumphant posture of Victory in particular.”

The firm adds: “Arm outstretched, eyes focused on the future, Victory is the physical manifestation of progress and achievement. Saint-Gaudens worked tirelessly to perfect the figure of Victory, amending every detail until the last possible moment. ... He studied the figures flanking the Boston Public Library among others in an attempt to successfully master her effortless drapery, writing to a friend of the ‘always complicated and terrible question of how to arrange flowing draperies.’ ”

Kevin Lipton of Kevin Lipton Rare Coins in Beverly Hills, California, purchased the sculpture in the April auction.

He will exhibit it for the public to see at the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Pittsburgh, Aug. 8 to 12.

“Owning one of these specially-made, century-old Saint-Gaudens statues has been on my bucket list since I was a teenager and saw one for sale at an antiques show in New York in 1977. It was priced at $60,000 back then, well beyond the budget of a 17-year-old aspiring coin dealer from New Jersey,” explained Lipton, who added that he“first saw the full-size Central Park monument statue when I was a child. ... Now, it is time to share this masterpiece with the public,” he stated.

Victory relief and bust

A bronze Victory relief plaque was offered on April 24 with no reserve, carrying a high estimate of $7,000, and bidders chased it to $24,130. The head was also used on the sculptor’s proposed but unused design for the cent, and the plaque was produced at an unknown date after an original design from 1905. The profile can be seen in the Indian Head $10 eagle and relates to the head of Victory from the Sherman Monument.

The provenance of the Wolf family’s example starts with Carlotta Saint-Gaudens Miller, and it was acquired by descent through the artist’s family. Along with other works in the Wolf Collection, it was on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it was on display in the sculpture galleries. It retained its original frame and mounting hardware.

The head of Victory motif was used in several different aspects of the artist’s work, including a bronze sculpture that soared past its high estimate of $60,000 on its way to $171,450 on April 20.

According to Sotheby’s, it was conceived as an independent sculpture in 1902 to 1903 and cast by Gorham Company at a later date (the name of the foundry is stamped along the base). The bronze sculpture sits on a marble base and was also on long-term loan at the National Gallery.

The offered head was part of the Wolf Family Collection alongside the larger standing figure for four decades.

Sotheby’s wrote, adding details about the artist’s intention to use the designs for coinage: “While the present iteration of Victory’s head was Saint-Gaudens’s favorite, it ultimately did not make it into the monument. Instead, it became the source material for the artist’s designs for the obverse of a one-cent piece and a ten-dollar gold piece. ... These designs were commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.

“These coins were never actually circulated due to Saint-Gaudens’ disagreements with the United States Mint; they were opposed to the level of high relief that Saint-Gaudens desired in the coins, as it was not conducive to mass production and use.”

 Even though he was in declining health in his final years, Saint-Gaudens wrote to his studio assistant, “If the head of Victory is not cast, I should like the laurel leaves made a little bit more pointed on the head,” evidence of the artist’s proclivity toward reworking his sculptures.

Sotheby’s adds: “Sherman Monument was the sculptor’s final great work. It was unveiled in New York on May 30, 1903, before a parade of veterans and the city’s mayor. Saint-Gaudens died shortly after in 1907.

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