The Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagle is one of the most famous of all American coin types, acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and artistic numismatic designs ever realized in the United States. Its existence came only at the insistence of President Theodore Roosevelt, who sought for years to beautiful America’s humdrum coin designs.
Saint-Gaudens’ involvement in the process was meant to be more far-reaching than it turned out to be. The artist set out to redesign every denomination of America’s circulating coinage but fell seriously ill before this plan could come to fruition. In fact, what we have in the form of the Saint Gaudens-designed $10 and $20 gold coins were made possible only due to the work of Saint Gaudens’ assistant Henry Hering.
The Mint’s first strikings of this $20 design came in the form of two dozen Proofs struck in March of 1907, each coin requiring nine impressions to realize the full detail of Saint-Gaudens’ high-relief design.
The Mint’s engraving department, led by Chief Engraver Charles Barber, was adamant that the high-relief models were completely impractical for use in striking circulating coins. Barber is often slandered in numismatic circles as being entitled, hard to deal with, and unprofessional to his peers in the U.S. Mint engraving department and to outside artists.
This could not be farther from the truth. And in the case of the double eagle design, he was absolutely correct! After a few versions of the double eagle proved too difficult to strike, Barber modified Saint-Gaudens’s design, lowering the relief so the coin could be struck with only one blow.
When the coins were finally released in 1907, they proved controversial as they lacked the national motto “In God We Trust“, which President Roosevelt objected to on religious grounds. Even though the Coinage Act of 1890 did not include that motto among the mandatory legends and inscriptions to be placed on U.S. coins (perhaps an unintended omission), both Congress and the public nevertheless wanted it there. The motto was restored (it was on the previous Liberty Head type) later in 1908 by Congressional action, which brought the double eagle into compliance with the Act of March 3, 1865, the original mandate for the text.
There was one more significant modification of the double eagle before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended circulating gold coinage in 1933. In 1912 the number of stars encircling Liberty on the obverse was increased from 46 to 48, marking the addition of New Mexico and Arizona to the Union.
The 1923 Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle in Specific
The 1923 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle has a mintage of 566,000. In a series where so many key issues have been lost to government seizure and the melting pot, mintage totals are inefficient predictors of overall rarity. As it stands, the 1923 sits amongst a run of Philadelphia Mint issues starting in 1920 and continuing through 1928 that comprises the core of the generic Saint-Gaudens market.
The term “generic” may be offputting to some but in the rare coin industry, “generic” is routinely applied to a coin that has but a basic value over the coin’s intrinsic worth. In the raw, an About Uncirculated or Brilliant Uncirculated example would routinely trade at the prevailing spot price. In certified grades of MS63 and MS64, these generic Saint-Gaudens issues carry a premium of approximately 15% over spot price.
The market values for 1923 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles radically depart from this percentage at the grade MS65 and above. In MS65, the 1923 Saint sells for about $3,000. This is a 20% decline in value for the issue in this grade since 2009. A strong premium is offered for CAC-approved examples at MS65. In lower grades, this is not necessarily the case.
The top certified grade for the 1923 is MS66 and as of the date of publication of this article, only PCGS reports examples at this grade in its census. PCGS reports a population of six pieces with three discrete examples illustrated on Coinfacts. The record price paid for one at this level is $48,875, which was paid for the Dr. Steven Duckor specimen (which we have used to illustrate this article). At the time of this sale, the Duckor piece was one of only two graded at this level. The Duckor example has since sold two more times: for $36,800 in February 2008 and for $40,250 in January 2012. More recently a different MS66 specimen brought $33,600 in a June 2019 Heritage Auctions sale.
One major factor driving up the cost of the 1923 Saint Gaudens double eagle in MS66, is not necessarily its rarity but is actually the comparative ease of acquisition for the most affluent registry set participants. Whereas each grading point helps these collectors acquire position in the set leaderboards, generic issues tend to provide a more affordable and more frequent opportunity to better the set. Contrast the ease of acquisition of the finest 1923 to any Mint State example of the 1927-D and you will see this factor at play.
Doubling back to an earlier part of this analysis where we mentioned the term “generic”. It’s true that no two coins are alike and that coins with exceptional eye appeal excite collectors regardless of rarity. The 1923 is a good example of a coin that is traded in a variety of ways and is to be considered differently depending on a number of factors that may seem obtuse to beginner collectors. It is a common date for telemarketers and late-night coin shows, but at the highest levels of the grading spectrum, where examples are few, it is also an issue that draws significant interest in national auctions.
The obverse features a full-length image of Liberty, facing forward with an olive branch in her extended left hand and a raised torch in her extended right. Draped in a long, flowing classical gown, her hair is swept to the left. Some describe her as striding forward, but she appears instead to be in a pose; the foot of her left leg resting on a large rock (in front of which are oak leaves). To Liberty’s right, at the bottom of the coin, the sun is visible behind a depiction of the U.S. Capitol building. Rays from the sun extend upward from behind the Capitol and Liberty to about the level of Liberty’s waist. At the top of the coin is the word LIBERTY, the torch separating I and B. Forty-eight tiny six-pointed stars are arrayed just inside the flat rim, forming a circle broken only at the bottom.
The date in ‘Arabic’ numerals is near the bottom on the right; a monogram of the designer’s initials ASG is below the date.
The crest of the sun appears again on the reverse, at the bottom with rays extending upward nearly to the top of coin behind a majestic left-facing eagle, wings uplifted in flight. In an arc above the sun is IN GOD WE TRUST, the words separated by centered triangular dots. At the top is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in a concentric arc next to the flat rim, with TWENTY DOLLARS just below in another arc. The words of both phrases are separated by centered triangular dots, and the text is also in front of the sun’s rays.
The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, in raised letters that alternate with 13 raised stars, is on the edge of the coin.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was a European-educated American sculptor, notable for numerous public monuments and other works in the Beaux Arts style. Working with President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, he is responsible for some of the most beautiful numismatic designs in American history, such as the gold $10 eagle and the gold $20 double eagle.
|Year Of Issue:||1923|
|Denomination:||20 Dollars (USD)|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|OBV Designer||Augustus Saint-Gaudens|
|REV Designer||Augustus Saint-Gaudens|
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