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Classic U.S. Coins – The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle $20 Gold Coin

Saint-Gaudens’ high relief double eagle obverse

By Ron DrzewuckiModern Coin Wholesale …..
The great Gold Coin Saint-Gaudens!

It’s only fitting that the masterpiece of American Coin Art–the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagle–started production just a few years after President William McKinley officially put the country on the gold standard. With the battle between the gold bugs and silverites now largely consigned to the past, the “Golden Age” of federal coinage could now issue forth.

No other coin exemplifies this timeless era in our nation’s money than the Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle.

Much like the Morgan dollar on the silver side of things, the Saint-Gaudens double eagle (or “Saint”, as they’re known) was the vanguard of an attempt to beautify and elevate American coinage. It came about through the fortuitous meeting of two men: President Theodore Roosevelt and renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Roosevelt sat for Saint-Gaudens as he created the President’s inaugural medal. Teddy was impressed, and the two struck up an ongoing conversation about coin art. Both men were enamored with the high-relief coinage of ancient Greece and Roosevelt, happy to have found a kindred spirit, wasted no time imposing his vision of a lofty aesthetic on the U.S. Mint. The President referred to this radical new design program as his “pet crime”, emphasizing the singular and controversial nature of his ideas.

HRSaint_revSaint-Gaudens produced striking designs for both the obverse and reverse of the coin. If you spend any time at all looking at numismatic media, you’ve no doubt seen countless images of the obverse. It features a full-bodied depiction of Liberty carrying both a torch and an olive branch. She is setting out from the United States Capitol building, the bold rays of the sun looming large in the distance. The inscription LIBERTY arcs gently above her head. She symbolizes an America confident, proud and direct as it takes a leading role on the world stage. That the coin was created under the auspices of the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize (1905) is surely no coincidence.

Collectors of a certain age may remember 45 rpm singles. Usually they contained an a-side and a b-side. Sometimes they contained a double a-side (like the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” c/w “Penny Lane”). The Saint-Gaudens double eagle is most certainly a numismatic double a-side, as the reverse features one of the most spectacular renderings of an eagle found on all of American coinage.

Rarely has an eagle had such presence on a coin. You practically swell with national pride just by looking at it. The sun’s rays bathe it in magnificence. The inscriptions UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and TWENTY DOLLARS are judiciously placed atop the bird, and IN GOD WE TRUST crowns the sun itself.

Which brings up an interesting story. President Roosevelt believed that putting the motto IN GOD WE TRUST on something so vulgar and common as a coin was blasphemous to the name of God. For that reason, the motto was omitted from the first run in 1907. Congress didn’t quite see things that way, and in 1908 passed legislation that required IN GOD WE TRUST be placed on all United States coinage.

But that wasn’t the only reason it was controversial. To Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens, it was about art and ideals. To Chief Engraver Charles Barber, however, the design was problematic from an engineering standpoint. Saint-Gaudens and Barber fought back and forth over the coin until Saint-Gaudens’ death in 1907. President Roosevelt then tired of Barber’s incessant delays and forced the Mint to start production.

The Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle ran from 1907-1916, and then again from 1920 through 1933. Production stopped when Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued his infamous gold recall.


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