Acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and artistic numismatic designs ever realized in the United States, the Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagle is also one of the most famous of all American coin types. Its existence came only at the insistence of President Theodore Roosevelt, who, over Mint objections, sought for years to beautify America’s humdrum coin designs.

Saint-Gaudens’ involvement in the process was meant to be more far-reaching than it ultimately turned out. 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, Saint-Gaudens’s designs for the $10 and $20 gold coins were only completed because of the valuable contributions 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. This, of course, was a major problem.

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 United States Mint engraving department and to outside artists.

But this could not be farther from the truth.

And, in the case of the double eagle design, he was absolutely correct! After a few early versions of the double eagle proved too difficult to strike, Barber modified the design, lowering the relief and modifying other elements so the coin could be fully 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.

The 1908 No Motto Saint is a popularly collected issue in the series for two simple reasons. The first is that the coin’s lack of the Motto “In God We Trust” makes it a type coin; the second is that the coin has always been readily available for collectors in uncirculated condition.

In the mid-1990s, the coin would take on new life with the unexpected appearance of an enigmatic hoard.

The Wells Fargo Hoard

The availability of the 1908 No Motto Saint increased even more when a hoard of 19,900 pieces turned up in the 1990s. Coin dealer Ron Gillio purchased the hoard in 1996, from individuals who had had control of the coins since 1917. Who these individuals were has never been publicly disclosed. One rumor circulating in numismatic circles is that the coins were exported as an overseas payment and were held in Russia before returning to the United States. The coins came in plain canvas bags (which were replacement bags as the originals had deteriorated), each one sealed and tagged with a serial number.

1908 No Motto Saint-Gaudens $20 Gold Piece. NGC MS68. Sold by Stack’s Bowers in August 2010 for $20,240. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Gillio and his associate immediately recognized the importance of the grouping and the superlative quality of the coins. They were all original Saint-Gaudens double eagles in uncirculated condition. The bags were broken up and the coins were carefully placed in 50-coin rolls and then put back into the bags.

The use of the evocative moniker Wells Fargo Hoard has a banal explanation. Before having the coins certified and bringing them to market, Gillio stored the hoard in a Nevada Wells Fargo branch- thus the name “Wells Fargo Hoard”. Without knowing this, one might imagine stagecoaches and the Old West. We hate to ruin the fantasy.

The Wells Fargo Hoard coins were graded by PCGS and NGC and successfully marketed. In short order, the coin collecting community consumed all of the available stock. Particularly interesting is the grade distribution (at the time of publication) in grades MS66 and above, as seen below:

  • MS69: 10
  • MS68: 200+
  • MS67: 1,700+
  • MS66: 6,000+

The 1908 No Motto Saint in Today’s Market

In the highest grade, 1908 No Motto Saints rarely trade. The auction record at this grade was set by Heritage Auctions in January 2020, when a non-CAC-approved example brought $96,000 USD. Curiously, as of the time of publication (10/21), CAC population reports show no coins of this date have earned stickers above the grade of MS67.

The Saint-Gaudens double eagle weighs 33.4 grams and contains 30.08 or 0.9675 Troy ounces of gold. As a commodity, the price of gold is highly volatile and can fluctuate on an hourly basis. As the current price of gold at the time of this writing is approximately $1,760 an ounce, the intrinsic value of the 1908 No Motto Saint is about $1,704. Even as a common date, it is highly unlikely that one will find a genuine example of this issue for sale for anything less than $1,850, and unless you are a professional buyer, we highly recommend that you buy an example certified by either NGC or PCGS.

The premium for doing so will be about $200 (or $2,050 a coin) for examples in MS-63, or $300 (or $2,150 a coin) for examples in MS-64. The grade of the coin does not matter if you are buying it as a store of gold. If you are purchasing the coin as a collectible, then the grade is only a consideration when it comes to your budget and collecting goals.

Given the ready supply of Superb Gem coins, we do not consider any 1908 No Motto Saint below the grade of MS68 to be “investor grade”. Attractive Gem coins in the MS66 grade can be purchased for $3,200 to $3,600. Very attractive Superb Gems in the MS67 band will cost about a thousand dollars more, or $4,500 a coin.

Wells Fargo Hoard coins can carry a premium over those without the pedigree and on the basis of the eye appeal of many coins from this hoard, we feel that the premium is often justified. In any case, whether Hoard coin or not, buy the coin that is right for your pursuit and choose a pursuit that is right for your budget.

Design

Obverse:

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.

Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Reverse:

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.

Edge:

The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, in raised letters that alternate with 13 raised stars, is on the edge of the coin.

Designer(s)

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.

Coin Specifications:

Country:  USA
Year Of Issue:  1908
Denomination:  20 Dollars (USD)
Mint Mark:  None (Philadelphia)
Mintage: 4,271,551
Alloy:  .900 Gold
Weight:  33.44 g
Diameter:  34.00 mm
Edge: Lettered
OBV Designer  Augustus Saint-Gaudens
REV Designer  Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Quality: Business Strike

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