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Collecting Saints
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
August 23, 2010

Have you ever thought about the names given to different coin series? Most are named for some prominent feature on the coin's obverse, and such series as Washington quarters, Jefferson nickels, and Lincoln cents come quickly to mind. Each of these is named for the famous president whose bust appears on the obverse. Of course, there are also Standing Liberty quarters, Walking Liberty (or Liberty Walking) half dollars, and Seated Liberty coins in a variety of different denominations.

At least one coin is named for what the obverse feature calls to mind in collectors the Mercury dime. In reality, the obverse design shows a head of Liberty wearing a winged cap to symbolize "liberty of thought." For some reason, this reminded early collectors of the fleet Mercury, who has wings on his feet rather than on his head. Despite the error, the name stuck.

A few coin series are named for a prominent feature on the coin's reverse. Two popularly collected series so named are Buffalo nickels and Peace dollars.

Another grouping of coin series consists of those named for the designer of the series. For example, there are Barber dimes, quarters, and halves, and Morgan dollars, and, celebrating the hundredth anniversary of its inception this year, Saint-Gaudens double eagles or $20 gold pieces.

The latter series, minted from 1907 through 1933, was designed by the most famous sculptor of his day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In 1907, the first year of issue of the double eagles associated with his name, Saint-Gaudens was in rapidly declining health, having been diagnosed with cancer several years earlier. In fact, Saint-Gaudens died on August third of 1907, "never seeing even one of his coins in circulation," according to Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins.

Saint-Gaudens was born on March 1, 1848, the son of an Irish mother and a French father. With his family, Saint-Gaudens immigrated to New York City before he was a year old. There, his father established a successful boot and shoe shop.

Beginning when he was 13, Saint-Gaudens was apprenticed to a French cameo cutter. This was followed by work with yet another French cameo cutter; at the same time, he took classes at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, both in New York City.

Saint-Gaudens next went to Paris, where he was soon admitted to the highly regarded Ecole des Beaux-Arts. During the Franco-Prussian War, Saint-Gaudens went briefly to Italy, where he was inspired by the work of such 15th-century Italian masters as Ghiberti (best known for his "Gates of Paradise" in Florence) and renowned Florentine sculptor Donatello.

In the mid1870s, Saint-Gaudens settled in New York, where his talent quickly brought him important commissions. Saint-Gaudens frequently worked with famous architects of the time, such as Stanford White. White had the misfortune of being murdered by the jealous husband of one of his many lovers, an event immortalized in the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow and in the film with the same title.

One of Saint-Gaudens' most important commissions led to Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago. Placed in a setting by Stanford White, this statue of Lincoln is sometimes considered the finest portrait statue in the U.S. Some of Saint-Gaudens' other well-known sculptures include The Puritan in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, and General Sherman's statue at the entrance to Central Park in New York City.

Numismatists know Saint-Gaudens best for the gold pieces he designed: the Indian Head eagle or $10 gold piece and the standing figure of Liberty on the double eagle. His double eagle is often held to be the most beautiful American coin ever produced for circulation.

Of course, Saint-Gaudens' ultimate design for the double eagle was produced on only a handful of pieces. These are the Ultra High Relief pattern pieces, of which "Fewer than 15 different specimens are in private hands today," according to Q. David Bowers, writing in A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins. Bowers described production of these coins as follows:

Each of the Ultra High Relief coins was struck at least seven times, carefully on a medal press, to bring up the design. Between each striking the coin was heated red-hot, then quenched in a solution of dilute nitric acid, dissolving the copper part of the alloy and eventually approaching pure gold on the surface, a few microns thick. . . . The typical specimen as viewed today is bright yellow, virtually as struck, with fine-grained satiny lustre. . . .

Like most important historical events, the story of Saint-Gaudens' foray into coin design really begins much earlier than 1907. In fact, it goes back to the early 1890s, when the sculptor received a commission to design the official medal for the 1892 Columbian Exposition, which was held in Chicago beginning in 1893. When the reverse of Saint-Gaudens' design featured a naked Grecian youth, Anthony Comstock, founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, immediately began to abuse both the design and the designer. As a result, Saint-Gaudens' design was replaced by one of presumably lesser artistic merit rendered by Charles E. Barber (of Barber coin fame, or infamy, depending on your point of view). Saint-Gaudens vowed that he would have nothing further to do with the Mint Bureau.

And that would have been that, except for the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt, a close personal friend of Saint-Gaudens. Roosevelt first asked the sculptor to design his official inaugural medal. "Roosevelt used this as an opening wedge to induce St. Gaudens to design coins to replace Barber's," according to Walter Breen's account. The president confided to the sculptor his "longtime dream . . . of freeing our national coinage from its unbearable dullness of design, and trying to restore to it some of the beauty and dignity of ancient Greek coins."

The result, as detailed above, was realized fully only in the Ultra High Relief Pattern pieces. These coins, because of their extreme rarity and value, are essentially uncollectible. Much more collectible, although still quite expensive, are the "regular High Relief" versions. There are two different varieties, one with a wire rim and the other with a flat rim. Both are dated 1907, with the date in Roman numerals (MCMVII).

According to Bowers, about a third of the High Relief pieces existing today have a flat rim, the remainder a partial wire rim on one or both sides. The flat rim version is worth slightly more in all grades in the 2011 U.S. Coin Digest. Values start at $7,500 and $7,750, respectively, in VF-20 and finish at $52,000 and $53,500 in MS-65.

The 1907 High Relief Saint is not rare, by any means, as 12,367 were coined, and Bowers estimates that "well over 5,000 coins exist, many in Mint State preservation." This is a coin that shows the importance of demand for value. I just recently bought an 1886 gold dollar, with a total mintage of 5,000. Undoubtedly far fewer than 5,000 of these are still in existence, but the price I paid for one in MS-61 was just $345.

So why is the High Relief Saint worth more than 40 times as much in a comparable grade? The answer, in a word, is demand. As Bowers puts it,

The coin plays to several strong demands, including its necessity for inclusion in a type set illustrating different designs, its need for a date and mint set of double eagles, and, perhaps in an even wider circle, the desire for many collectors to own the variety for its beauty and history, even if it is the only double eagle in their collection.

Unfortunately, the high relief design, although easier to mint than Saint-Gaudens' original design, was impractical for production using high-speed striking. As a result, Mint Engraver Charles Barber was ready with his own low-relief version.

According to Breen, Barber's dies were completely unsatisfactory, a travesty of St. Gaudens's original concept. Henry Hering, St. Gaudens's pupil and collaborator . . . refused to approve them. This created difficulties because St. Gaudens's widow could not be paid without such approval.

Finally, in spring 1908, Hering visited the Philadelphia Mint with the widow's son and their attorney, and denounced the poor quality of Barber's version of the design. When Barber attempted to blame St. Gaudens's original design, Hering produced the far superior reductions he had privately obtained in France against this exact contingency as evidence that the fault lay instead with Barber's bungling obstructionism. Mrs. St. Gaudens was eventually paid after negotiations.

Collecting Saint-Gaudens double eagles is not for the faint of heart. Although many popularly collected series have a "stopper" or two or even three, the Saints series has close to a dozen "stoppers" and at least a couple of "killers," not counting the Ultra High Relief patterns.

Most of these, but not all, come at the tail end of the series, when millions of uncirculated Saints languished in bank vaults. In 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt called for all gold coins to be turned in to the Federal Reserve System banks, the result was that the millions of double eagles stored in bank vaults in the U.S. were ultimately melted. This included the vast majority of coins from 1929 through 1933, and several dates in the 1920s. Fortunately for collectors of Saints, some of the dates considered exceedingly rare turned up in hoards of Saints sent to European banks.

One thing that collectors trying to put together a date-mintmark set of Saints quickly discover is that, unlike many other series, there is little correlation between original mintage and scarcity. The reason for this, of course, is that some of the high mintage later dates were virtually all melted, whereas earlier dates with quite low mintage got into circulation and were spared the big melt.

For example, such dates as the 1909-D, 1913-S, and 1914, with mintages under 100,000, are priced at or only a little beyond common-date prices. By contrast, some of the later dates with mintages well above a million pieces are priced in "stopper" territory. For example, the 1927-S, with more than 3 million minted, begins at $6,850 in VF-20 and is worth $170,000 in MS-65. Similarly, the 1931, with nearly 3 million minted, ranges in value from $10,500 in VF-20 to $120,000 in MS-65.

Several years ago, I decided to try to see how many different Saints I could accumulate. At first, my thought was that I would buy coins that graded MS-63, as there didn't seem to be much differential, at least for common dates, between circulated grades and lower uncirculated grades up to MS-63.

For years, I have written articles in which I, like many other writers, advised collectors starting on a new series to buy the keys first. The reason for this advice is obvious: Common dates are always common, whereas the scarcer coins in a series are always scarce, experience higher demand than common dates, and tend to appreciate at a faster rate.

Did I take my own advice? Of course not.

Psychologically, it's almost impossible (for me, at any rate) to save money and wait to buy a better date, when I can buy several common dates at a time. Like most people, I like to get a lot of bang for my buck.

When I started my "collection" of Saints, I had exactly one coin: a 1924 that one of the grading services called AU-58. I had bought the coin as a gem uncirculated piece. Bowers notes that the 1924 is tied with the 1928 as the most common Saint. As you might suspect, I quickly sold this piece and bought a better replacement.

In addition to buying coins in at least MS-63, at least initially, I decided that I would only buy certified pieces. Unless you're an expert at authenticating gold pieces, I would urge you to do the same with this or any series of U.S. gold coins.

As you would expect, I quickly accumulated all the really common dates in MS-63, with a few in MS-64, and realized that I was going to have to lower my grade requirement in order to procure any of the slightly better dates. Thus, the MS-63 requirement was reduced to MS-62, and then MS-61, and suddenly I realized that some of the more expensive dates might have to be less than uncirculated.

Because I bought all the Saints I now have before the most recent runup in the price of gold bullion, I can feel good about what I paid for them. For common dates, the range of prices paid was from about $450 to $600.

At the present time, I have three circulated Saints: 1908-S, 1909/8, and 1909-D. Other than the High Relief Saints, the 1908-S has the lowest mintage of any of the dates in the series (22,000). Bowers notes that it is especially rare in mint state, but mine is far from that level of preservation. ANACS certified it as VF-35.

2011 U.S. Coin Digest assigns a value of $2,450 to one in VF-20 and $3,150 for a 1908-S in XF-40. Presumably my coin has a retail value between these two numbers but closer to the upper value.

My 1909/8 Saint is an example of the only overdate in the series. According to Bowers, the overdate accounts for about 40-50% of the total mintage for the 1909 date (161,289). In grades less than mint state, the 1909/8 variety is priced as a common date. My coin is graded AU-53, which means that its retail value is somewhere between $1,300 (AU-50) and $1,850 (MS-60) but closer to the lower figure. Looking at what I paid for the coin, I'm not sure why I didn't try to buy one in MS-61 or MS-62.

The 1909-D is another low-mintage Saint (52,500). It's priced as only a slightly better date until MS-60, when it takes a big jump. The 1913-S, with a mintage of just 34,000 pieces, is another of the Saints that starts off valued as only slightly superior to a common date but takes a big leap in mint state. The reason for the big leap? Bowers writes, "The 1913-S is very scarce in Mint State in relation to the intense demand for [it]."

The 2011 U.S. Coin Digest values the 1913-S at $2,000 in MS-60 and $4,3500 in MS-63. Somehow I managed to buy one in MS-61 for only $1,050. Of course, I bought it almost seven years ago, which may account for why I got a "bargain."

Perhaps my best Saint in terms of value is a 1922-S, which is in MS-61 condition. This is a date with a huge initial mintage (2,658,000). Bowers calls this date a "Former great rarity. Still quite scarce." He later writes, "It seems likely that most of the 1922-S coins were retained in the United States and melted in 1937. However, thousands were exported. This was an ideal situation for the numismatists, as foreign banks held in reserve many coins that would have been destroyed had they remained in America."

I bought the coin in the summer of 2002 for $660. Today it is valued at $2,450 in MS-60 and $4,850 in MS-63, so mine should be worth at the low end of the range.

I still have five dates on my list of Saints to watch for in circulated grades, of course. They're all mint marked dates in the 1920s: 1924-D and S, 1925-D and S, and 1926-S. These are all coins that were once considered great rarities, because the ones that stayed on this side of the Atlantic were all melted. Fortunately, enough went to Europe and then returned to make them semi-affordable today.

Of course, I'm considering prices for the coins in slightly circulated condition. The truth may be that they don't really exist in XF-45 and AU-50, that they're all in lower mint state grades. If so, then my accumulation of Saints may have come to an end with the purchase of the circulated 1908-S a couple of years ago.

Unless, of course, I'm ready to spend considerably more for single coins in the future than I've spent in the past. Let my experience with collecting Saints be a lesson to you: If you can afford them, stretch and buy the better dates first. You'll be glad you did.

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