?The 1907 Indian Head gold $20 double eagle is arguably one of the greatest U.S. patterns ever struck. The coin bears a variation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Liberty portrait eventually adopted for the 1907 Indian Head gold eagle married with a version of the artist’s Flying Eagle design used on the adopted reverse of the 1907 double eagle. The date appears in Roman Numerals at the bottom of the reverse (not the obverse), and LIBERTY is the sole inscription on the obverse, boldly positioned below the portrait. The pattern is unique, entered the marketplace from the estate of Charles Barber (chief engraver of the U.S. Mint when the pattern was struck), and today is in a private anonymous collection. It last sold at auction in 1984 for $467,500.
So is this 1907 pattern permitted to be in a private collection? After all, the sole 1974-D aluminum cent was just returned to the U.S. Mint by a coin dealer and a second man whose father was given the cent as he retired from a long-held position at the Denver Mint; even the son agreed the Mint made a compelling case. Similarities between the two pieces are striking. Both are unique, both were struck during a period of experimentation at the Mint, and both surfaced in the marketplace from the estates of U.S. Mint employees.
To many outside the collector community and even for some within it, Barber’s keeping of a historic pattern would not pass the smell test. A current Mint employee would be prosecuted for keeping a modern pattern, justifiably so. Remember, also, that just a few years after the 1907 pattern was struck, the Mint fought hard and successfully to force a private collector to return two unique 1877 gold $50 half union patterns (today, they’re national treasures).
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Well, according to the U.S. Mint in a March 23 statement in response to my inquiry, the 1907 pattern could be a target for its return. The Mint’s Tom Jurkowsky said this: “If at some point we become aware of specific conclusive information that the 1907 Indian Head Double Eagle experimental piece is United States Mint property that came to be in private hands without proper authority, we will take the appropriate next steps to retrieve it as well.”
Hobby leaders have worried for years that cases like the Langbord 1933 double eagles could spread unwanted attention to other great rarities. It is a fact that some great coins fall into a gray zone of legality. For example, the five 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins were unknown to the hobby until some years later when they surfaced in the hands of a newly retired Philadelphia Mint employee. Collectors have long speculated that this employee struck the coins without authority and then spirited them out of the Mint, waiting until after his retirement to reveal their existence (he even bought an advertisement seeking these coins in The Numismatist, and — surprise — a few months later he announced that he had acquired five examples through his ad).
Now, new light is being shone on some questionable coins. Some collectors and dealers are certain that requiring certain rare coins to be turned over to the government is wrong, and it is easy to take that point of view. But again, these are gray areas.
How many would disagree today that those 1877 half union patterns, now in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, are national treasures that should be owned by the American people, especially given their background? They were thought destroyed by the Mint for their gold content, but Col. A. Loudon Snowden, superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint from 1879 to 1885, apparently spirited them out of the Mint and sold them to a dealer, with the coins eventually sold to the collector who revealed their existence in 1909.
Interestingly, that collector, pattern specialist William H. Woodin, would become secretary of the Treasury in the early administration of President Franklin Roosevelt and thus in charge of the Mint. While Snowden deserves credit for apparently saving the patterns from destruction, can anyone honestly say that as the man in charge of the Philadelphia Mint, he had the authority to take the patterns from the government and presumably profit from them personally?
We likely have not seen the last of Mint action similar to that involving the 1974-D aluminum cent. We will watch with great interest in the months and years ahead, as other great rarities surface and draw attention, some of it unwelcome.