By Bullion Shark LLC ……
Though he is most widely known for his masterpiece of numismatic art, the $20 gold double eagle issued from 1907 to 1933 and known by his name, Augustus Saint-Gaudens – the renowned American sculptor – is also responsible for creating the popular $10 Indian Head gold coin – the most popular gold eagle collected today issued during the same time period as the other coin.
Back in 1904, President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt — sometime after seeing an exhibit of ancient coins at the Smithsonian Institution — proposed that U.S. coinage from cents to $20 gold pieces be redesigned to make them more aesthetically pleasing like those beautiful coins from ancient Greece he had seen and as befits a great nation like the United States.
After contacting Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortimer Shaw to complain of the poor artistic merit of our coins and suggest that an artist such as Saint-Gaudens be hired to redesign our coinage, the United States Mint hired the sculptor to redesign the cent and four gold coins (quarter eagles, half eagles, eagles, and double eagles), though Roosevelt envisioned him redesigning the remaining circulating coins eventually as well. Those denominations were initially selected because their designs had been used for at least 25 years, which is when they can be changed without congressional authority.
Meanwhile, Roosevelt was not pleased with the inauguration medal that the Mint’s Chief Engraver Charles Barber had prepared for him and commissioned Saint-Gaudens to create a new one. The reverse of that medal completed in 1905 would later serve as the basis for the eagle that appears on the $10 Indian eagle and was reminiscent of eagles that appear on ancient coinage, specifically, a coin of Ptolemy I of Egypt.
Saint-Gaudens also prepared sketches and models for a new cent featuring the head of Liberty, but Roosevelt wanted to add a Native American war bonnet to make it distinctly American. He later decided that that would be a good design for the obverse of the new gold eagle, and Saint-Gaudens accommodated him. Researchers Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth pointed out in 2005 that the design was incongruous because it amounted to putting a ceremonial headdress on Miss Liberty that was worn instead by Native American Chieftains, which was emblazoned with “Liberty” on it – something no Native American would have worn.
The profile of Saint-Gaudens’ Indian Liberty was based on a combination of models he had prepared of the Greek goddess of victory Nike for his remarkable monument in New York City for Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman and from modeling sessions with Harriet Eugenia “Hettie” Anderson (also used for the design of the $20 gold coin) and possibly his Swedish mistress, too. An apocryphal story also circulated back then that a New Hampshire waitress named Mary Cunningham was the model, but there is no evidence Saint-Gaudens knew her.
Saint-Gaudens’ design also had to be reworked at the Mint by Barber because the relief with which Saint-Gaudens made his models could not be struck just once by the Mint’s coin presses and because only a couple of coins could be stacked at a time without toppling, which would make mass production impossible. Also, the artist had proposed using Roman numerals for the date, but, as Barber explained, it would not be long before there would not be enough room for all the numerals of subsequent years.
When the coins were released in November 1907 (about three months after Saint-Gaudens had passed away) after being completed by the sculptor’s assistant, Henry Hering, they were mostly met with approval by numismatists who noted how different the new piece was from anything the U.S. Mint had issued until then and that it looked grand and dignified. However, the eagle on the reverse has legs that are anatomically incorrect because they are too thick, prompting the comment in a letter from November 1907 that refers to it as “a turkey buzzard in pantalets” (as quoted in Q. David Bowers’ 2020 book on eagles).
In addition, Roosevelt did not want the motto “In God We Trust” that began appearing on U.S. coinage during the Civil War to appear on the new coins, seeing it as sacrilegious. This led to public outcry and Congress enacting a law mandating its inclusion, as it was starting in 1908 on the $10 and $20 gold coins that initially lacked the motto.
Varieties and Key Dates
There are four types of $10 Indian gold coins. There are the coins of 1907 and 1908 Without Motto and those from 1908 through 1933 With Motto. Then there are two special versions from 1907: Wired Edge and Rolled Edge – both of which have periods before and after the inscription “United States of America” on the reverse.
The Wired Edge coins were the original high-relief version the sculptor created whose outer rim rises to a sharp edge, and the version that Barber modified to reduce their relief for mass production had rolled or rounded rims.
Researcher Roger Burdette believes that a total of 542 of the wired edge variety were struck with 70 later melted. Most of those coins are believed to still exist, with 320 graded by PCGS. The finest known, an NGC MS68, was sold on April 13 for $840,000.
The Rolled Edge is rarer, with most researchers saying 50 are today left of an original minting of 32,500 that Mint Director Frank Leach had melted supposedly because he did not find them to his liking. They were clearly not trial pieces or patterns since so many were struck. Some of those 50 were offered to members of the Assay Commission that met in 1907, while others were offered to museum officials and well-connected collectors. A PCGS MS67 example of this coin was sold on April 13 for $1,140,000.
A Satin Proof Rolled Edge coin – a major 20th-century rarity — that was originally owned by Mint Director Leach sold in 2011 for $2,185,000 – the most ever paid for a $10 Indian gold coin. PCGS currently values it at $2.5 million. One other confirmed Proof exists.
The other scarce dates of this series include the 1911-D in Mint State and the 1920-S, most of which were melted after the gold recall of Teddy’s cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt. Fewer than 100 of the 1920-S have been graded by PCGS and NGC; the finest example, a PCGS MS66, sold in 2007 for $1,725,000. Also scarce is the 1933, of which most were also melted except about 40, with 32 currently graded by PCGS, including an MS66 that sold for $881,500 in 2016.
Fortunately for collectors, most other issues of this series are readily available today, including in Mint State, and are widely traded and collected. An MS60 runs about $1,600 and an MS63 runs about $2,000.
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Bowers, Q. David Bowers. A Guide Book of Gold Eagle Coins (Whitman, 2020)
Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type (Whitman, 2005)