Striking Coins in 2009 Using Technology Unavailable in 1907
In early 1905, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was charged by President Theodore Roosevelt to beautify America’s coinage. This revolt against the status quo was characteristic of the energetic head of state, who leaned into America’s emerging role as a global power. The president’s intention to have Saint-Gaudens design ultra high relief coins in the fashion of the coins of the ancient Greeks, was laid out in a November 1905 letter.
Saint-Gaudens was not eager to work with the United States Mint or have outsiders interfere with his design process. The artist’s prior experience with the Mint regarding the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition medal had permanently spoiled the relationship. Roosevelt, who dubbed his coinage rejuvenation project as his “pet crime”, conferred with Treasury Secretary Leslie Shaw, in order to find a way to pay for the new coin designs without involving Congress. Shaw pointed to $85,000 that was earmarked for the Mint’s General Fund.
When Saint-Gaudens got the commission, he was one of the most in-demand artists in America, a master of the French Beaux-Arts style. The Beaux-Arts heavily referenced classic Greek and Roman art. If American coins styled after the coins of ancient Greece was Roosevelt’s goal, then Saint-Gaudens was a logical choice to carry out the work.
Unfortunately, the artist was running out of time. First diagnosed with and treated for intestinal cancer in 1900, the artist’s health was in serious decline by 1906, when much of the design work for the gold $10 and $20 coins was underway.
The U.S. Mint, at this point having no choice but to honor the wishes of the president, reluctantly worked with the artist, but technical and artistic difficulties persisted. Roosevelt’s wish dream to create a new coinage based on the high relief coins of Ancient Greece discounted the technical realities of modern coin production. The United States Mint was America’s money factory, and coins made for circulation had to be designed so that the complete impression could be imparted on a planchet with just one blow of the coin dies.
Saint-Gaudens had his assistant Henry Herring work with the Mint to make the necessary adjustments to the coin designs. After a series of revisions, test strikes of the Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens design were delivered to Mint Director George Evan Roberts on February 15, 1907. Additional impressions were made, but soon the reverse die cracked. Each finished coin took a total of seven strikes to complete.
Over the course of the artist’s final months, the work to modify the design to make it suitable for production continued. Herring took the lead, as Saint-Gaudens was barely able to move. Chief Engraver Charles Barber continued to be critical of the design, but approached the mandate with professionalism. Eventually, the design was modified to lower relief and put into production. Augustus Saint-Gaudens did not live to see his work completed, and likely would not have approved of the result.
For the 2009 release, then-Mint Director Edmund C. Moy tasked the Mint to use 21st-century technology to realize Saint-Gaudens’ vision. The original coin plasters were digitally mapped by the United States Mint, and digital design tools were used to create new ultra high relief dies. Four additional stars were added to the design to reflect the admission of the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii to the Union. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST, not present on either the 1907 issues or the original design, was added to the reverse (where it appeared from 1909 onward). A small border was also added.
The Mint also leaned on the expertise of the Perth Mint, which had experience striking coins in such ultra high relief. Perth Mint prototypes struck during the development phase of this project were donated to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.
In November 2008, the entire mintage of 2009 Ultra High Relief $20 gold coins was struck at the West Point Mint. The finished product was the closest approximation of the original design and is considered by many to be the most beautiful coin struck by the United States.
Immediate Aftermarket and Prices Today
The 2009 Ultra High Relief went on sale on January 22, 2009 with an issue price of $1,189 USD. The gold spot price at that time was close to $860 an ounce, meaning that the coins were selling at a 38% premium over spot. The Mint sold 115,178 coins, strict order limits meaning that most of the coins were purchased by collectors.
But before collectors took delivery of their coins, certain dealers already had standing orders to purchase coins from them at premiums of up to $1,650 per coin. Once dealers had sufficient stocks of coins on hand, they began the process of submitting the 2009 Ultra High Relief in bulk to NGC and PCGS.
Demand for the 2009 Ultra High Relief at the time of release was quite strong and an immediate aftermarket developed–helped, in large part, by third-party grading service label programs and the industry’s leading coin marketing companies. The third-party grading companies through everything at this series: First Strike and Early Release labels, novelty inserts, signature label inserts, et cetera.
Coins immediately began to be marketed for prices over $2,000, depending on the grade, label, and time of the sale. Sellers were even seeing prices routinely eclipse $2,500 for 70s. Unlike in most instances when a popular sell out turns into a resale market, these initial buyers actually did alright. By 2011, the Ultra High Relief was selling for $3,000 to $4,000.
Is the 2009 Ultra High Relief $20 Gold Coin Worth Collecting Now?
In a word: absolutely.
The 2009 Ultra High Relief represents the pinnacle of Beaux Arts coin design and is the closest approximation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ vision for his eponymous double eagle gold coin.
Demanding coin collectors may prefer the benefit of having a certified coin graded “70”. To this point, be mindful of the premium.
Of the 24,000 coins graded by PCGS, roughly 50% of the coins certified have earned a 70 grade. NGC has graded more than 22,000 examples and has given the 70 grade to more than 60% of them. CACG has yet to have certified a sufficient number of coins as of February 2024 for us to make a comparison.
More scarce than 70s are coins marked Prooflike (PL). Roughly 20% of the coins submitted to NGC earned the designation, while fewer than 2% earned the Deep Prooflike (DPL) designation. PCGS has also designated a number of coins from the issue has having Prooflike surfaces. The PCGS population in PL represents 17% of the total number of submissions. At both grading services, PLs are more likely than coins in the general population to earn the 70 grade.
A fair price for PL 70s, based on recent auction data, is about 50% more than the non PL.
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