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Roger Burdette: “Silk Purse” Coins

Saint-Gaudens double eagle: A Proof, Specimen, or Business Strike?
Saint-Gaudens double eagle: A Proof, Specimen, or Business Strike?

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
 

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” is an expression that has been around for at least 500 years. It emphasizes the near impossibility of turning something inferior or repellant into a valuable or attractive item. In coin collecting, some attempt this by polishing a common coin, then promoting it as a “Proof”. Others try to claim that parking lot damage is actually a mint error and worth a lot of money – plus the promoter just happens to have some for sale at high prices.

In this little column, I’m going to use a somewhat interesting variation: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” applies to authenticators who assign highfalutin titles to some coins without reason, rationale, or evidence. This is not the “gradeflation” that we all loath; this is giving a coin a specious title and exotic-sounding attribute that does not, in reality, exist. It is a fake title built on self-serving ignorance and possibly a goodly portion of old fashioned greed.

Here’s a classic example.

Long ago and far away, an artist named Augustus Saint-Gaudens created a new design of American $20 gold double eagle coins at the personal request of American President Teddy Roosevelt. The United States Mint made various pattern pieces but there was nothing that could be coined on a normal press – the relief was just too high. In the midst of back-and-forth tinkering, the artist died. This upset the president and he demanded that coins be struck. Not just a few pattern pieces, but real coins for circulation. The Philadelphia Mint’s Chief Engraver, one Charles Barber, did his best and finally produced a pair of face dies that could be fully struck with three (3) blows from a high pressure medal press. A collar die was made that allowed raised letters on the coin’s edge, just as the artist and president wanted.

With the president on a metaphorical warpath and threatening to whack heads with a big stick, the Mint got busy. “If we can make a few of these and show them to the president, maybe he will relent and let us get the relief down to something usable on a regular coin press,” or so they thought.

TR was not to be hoodwinked. He wanted coins for circulation. Coins he could show off to political buddies, Congress, and the public. He wanted his trophy coins from his trophy artist, Saint-Gaudens, out for all to see and admire[1]. “Strike the coins if it takes you all day to make one! (…or something to that effect),” he admonished.

It required three (3) blows from Barber’s dies to bring up the design. In between, work hardening was relieved by annealing the incomplete coins. It was the same with every one of these MCMVII High Relief double eagles: strike 1, anneal 1; strike 2, anneal 2; strike 3, inspect, add to tally sheet. The high relief double eagles were struck in batches so that they could cool between annealing, and the press kept at work. Over and over; the same sequence the same result until 500 coins were ready for the president.

TR liked them. He liked them a lot. He liked them so much he wanted more. The mint director could not say “No.” The Engraver made a second collar and another pair of dies, and the Mint kept making high relief coins a few hundred per day. More than 12,000 were made; all made the same way, with the same dies, on the same hydraulic presses[2].

Fast forward to the late 1980s and early ’90s – the dawn of the independent authentication, attribution, and grading opinion business. High relief MCMVII coins had jumped in price and an attribution opinion business decided – by some unknown and magical means – that some of the MCMVII double eagles were “Proofs” and other were not. Now to be fair to all, at that time no meaningful research had been done on the coins or how they were made. Further, when coins are struck, dies respond by changing slightly – the surface changes and coins struck later have a slightly different appearance than those made first. That is completely normal regardless of the relief of the dies or method of manufacture. The upshot was that “Attribution Opinion Business” (AOB) No. 1 decided to call certain MCMVII “Proofs.” This, as to be expected, caused the coin market to increase the price (not necessarily value) of these “Proof” coins. All of this without clear, objective data – merely a “looks like” opinion[3].

Similar companies, we’ll call them AOB No. 2, AOB No. 3, etc., decided not to follow AOB No. 1’s model. There the situation stabilized.

In 2007, a century after the coins were made, a book containing original archival research was published. This revealed for the first time details of MCMVII High Relief production, and proved that all the coins were made in the same manner: same dies, same medal presses, same strike and anneal cycles, same purpose.

This meant that depending on one’s viewpoint, all the coins were either circulation pieces (the president’s intention), or “Proofs” (struck on a medal press). Collectors can argue about which is which, but not that all pieces were made the same way, and no special treatment was given to any coin.

After a few years of cogitation, AOB No. 1 decided to call their “MCMVII Proofs” by a new name: “Specimen High Relief” but not change any of their old product descriptions. As before, there was no evidence of “specimen” striking and no definition of what the pesky word “specimen” meant. So now there were three names for identical MCMVII coins: “High Relief”, “Proof High Relief”, and “Specimen High Relief”. So much for fact-based attribution.

Now we are in 2023 and suddenly, without new empirical evidence or justification, AOB No. 2 has decided to declare that some of the MCMVII coins are actually “specimens”. Again, no definition of the word, no published research, no discussion – just an arbitrary title given to another silk purse, and a magical transformation from sow’s ear.

The reality is that Attribution Opinion Businesses maintain a closed door policy when it comes to slapping arbitrary titles on their sow’s ears, thereby converting them into special deluxe silk purses fit for high prices. No facts are presented for transparent examination. No questions are entertained, no open and free discussion is permitted[4].

Our leading hobby organizations are persistently silent. A few collectors recognize the problem, but the problem only grows more pervasive. There is no silver bearded Gandalf at hand.

* * *

Notes

[1] TR collected creative people as trophies much as he collected wild animal heads for his trophy wall – except he didn’t shoot them.

[2] Well, almost. One coin did not get its third strike and ended up without edge lettering. This was long claimed to be a “pattern” until Vicken Yegparian, now VP of Stacks-Bowers, proved that it is just an error – unusual, but not so special (and pricy) as once assumed. In December 1907, Mint Director Frank Leach encouraged a change in the way blanks were upset. This led to nearly complete elimination of the fin that had marred earlier double eagles. The dies and striking were not altered.

[3] This is an old fashioned way of saying the attributor doesn’t know, doesn’t really care to examine deeply, and expects blind acceptance of their opinion as if it were proven fact.

[4] How many remember way back when our hobby had public discussion and argument about attributions? What have we lost in 30+ years?
 

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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