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Love Saints Ė Just Canít Afford Them
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
October 30, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Only one person can complete a collection of Saint-Gaudens double eagles and not many more can come to within one date of completing a set. Even with the rare dates and nearly impossible coins, the Saint-Gaudens double eagle is a popular favorite as nearly everyone wants at least one.

It would be fair to suggest that at least part of the fascination with the Saint-Gaudens double eagle comes from the story of the design itself, which saw something close to a war break out between the President of the United States and the chief engraver of the U.S. Mint. Augustus Saint-Gaudens himself died before the coin’s release. Considering what was done to the original design with high relief, it is likely that the artist would have been less than thrilled with the eventual outcome.

Saint-Gaudens was the most famous artist of his time. In his corner was President Theodore Roosevelt, who had taken it upon himself to do something about American coin designs.

On the other side was Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who had for years basically viewed the Mint as his personal business. He might have had some reason to believe this as he had followed his father into the post of chief engraver.

Until Teddy Roosevelt came along, Barber and Saint-Gaudens had made it a practice to avoid each other as much as possible. They had been judges in a design competition in 1892 where they both agreed there were no winners, but otherwise there is no record of the two agreeing on anything and that certainly did not change with the attempt to create new coin designs.

Mint employees had not been consulted during the actual process of creating a $20 design as Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens mixed and matched designs ultimately resulting in both the popular double eagle design as well as the Indian head gold $10 design. The designs as adopted were either modified from their original form, or had begun the process earmarked for a different denomination.

The biggest problem would prove to be the double eagle. The contentious point was the proposed ultra high relief that would have made the coin resemble those of ancient Greece. Barber, on the other hand, was the voice of practical considerations such as how well the coins would strike up on the coining presses and whether they would be stackable when they entered the nation’s banks. Naturally, he wanted the relief reduced.

The initial Saint-Gaudens double eagles are known as ultra-high-relief double eagles. They had a Roman numeral date for 1907, MCMVII. In his book, The Official Red Book A Guide Book of Double Eagle Coins, Q. David Bowers suggests that these coins had four strikings by the press, with 18 to 22 coins created in this way, of which two were melted. Any of the others is considered extremely desirable as they are the double eagles that Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt wanted to make.

With the die cracking somewhere between the 18th and 22nd coin, the ultra-high-relief gold $20 was clearly not practical as die life had to be measured in tens of thousands of coins, not 22.

Before the relief could be lower and a new coin attempted, Saint-Gaudens died Aug. 3, 1907, leaving the task of working with Barber to his assistant, Henry Hering. That process dragged along when Roosevelt, who was not viewed as being especially patient even on his quiet days, lost his temper and ordered new production.

The next attempt at the new double eagle design proved to be only slightly better than the first with the new coins requiring three blows from the press to bring up the design detail. That would not work, but a total of perhaps 12,367 high relief coins were created.

High relief coins did reach circulation. and became rather popular with collectors. Prices soared to $30 each shortly after their release. They come with either a wire rim or a flat rim with Bowers putting the totals at roughly 8,000 with the wire rim and 4,000 with the flat rim. The flat rim does command small premiums to wire rim coins in all grades, but not what might be expected if the Bowers estimates are correct as most are simply content with any example.

The price of a high relief $20 with a wire rim starts at $7,650 today in VF-20 while the flat rim version goes for $7,900. In MS-60 the prices are $14,350 and $15,600, respectively. In MS-65 these rise to $47,500 and $49,000, respectively.

Overall, though, prices reflect demand as Bowers estimates that perhaps as many as 5,000 exist with many of them in Mint State grades.

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There is little doubt that things were frustrating along the way and that produced an assortment of experiments, including one attempt that saw a double thick example with the diameter of a $10. That experiment failed, although a couple of examples of the double-thick double eagle did manage to find their way to the Smithsonian Institution.

The only real answer for a workable coinage was to lower the relief again. While that hurts the beauty in some minds there were really no other choices if there were to ever be Saint-Gaudens double eagles for circulation. In fact, lowering the relief got them into circulation.

Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens’ experiments also included the use of Roman numerals for the date. Roman numerals had been used in the past to express denomination on the three-cent piece and Liberty Head nickel.

This use of the Roman numeral date was not appreciated and it was replaced with regular arabic numerals that the average person would be able to read as being 1907.

Another problem with the new coins was Roosevelt’s insistence that “In God We Trust” not be used on them. He did not view the use of the motto as a positive religious expression, but quite the opposite. He said the motto was “in effect irreverence which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.” As a result, he and Saint-Gaudens had agreed to keep the motto off the new $20.

After a public outcry, the Congress stepped in and ordered the motto put on the coin in 1908.

In 1908 coins were made without the motto and with the motto. The two together make an interesting type coin pair. The mintage of the coins without the motto was a large one at 4,271,551. Even with heavy losses due to melting, it is still available thanks in part to a hoard of 19,000 pieces that came to light in the 1990s. Some of these are in extraordinary grades. Mintage of the 1908 with motto was just 156,258.

Despite the disparity in the mintages, in MS-60, they are almost identically priced. Without the motto it is $1,510 and with the motto is $1,560.

Once the changes were finished to the 1908 coins, the design remained the same until the final pieces were struck in 1933.

What did not remain the same were the economic conditions that whipped the American economy. World War I broke out in Europe in 1914 and America was drawn in in 1917. Peace was declared Nov. 11, 1918. Prosperity governed the 1920s and then Depression arrived with the stock market crash of 1929.

The path followed by any individual Saint-Gaudens $20 after it left the Mint could diverge widely from that of another coin issued the same year. Some simply circulated like regular coins while others were shipped overseas. primarily to Europe and they would remain there safely for decades, avoiding the destruction resulting from the Gold Recall Order of 1933. With a variety of potential fates that awaited each coin, it is difficult to forecast value based solely on mintage.

In some cases, dates are relatively close to what we might expect. The 1908-S with motto is a date that should be fairly scarce based on its mintage of 22,000. It appears, however, that the 1908-S with motto was not melted and in some cases was sent to Europe only to return later as Bowers explained, “thanks to the importations of the current generation, such coins in MS-62 to MS-64 are much more available than they were prior to the 1980s.”

Such returning examples of the 1908-S with motto might not make it common, but at $2,450 in VF-20 and $10,650 in MS-60, it is more available than once was the case.

The European hoards loom large in the story of double eagle dates not unlike the U.S. Treasury holdings of Morgan silver dollars. The European holdings may not have been bags and bags of certain dates like the Treasury Morgan holdings, but with much lower demand for specific double eagle dates because of fewer collectors, even a few rolls of a specific date could potentially make a difference.

The date probably more influenced by European hoards was perhaps the 1924-S. In his book Bowers recalls, “The appearance of a specimen at auction was a momentous event.” He also remembered that for a time the 1924-S was considered to be even better than the ultra-high-relief, or the Coronet Head 1883 and 1884 double eagles, which were proof only and always in demand at high prices.

Today the 1924-S lists for $1,665 in VF-20, $3,800 in MS-60 and $180,000 in MS-65. In the top grade, obviously, it is a very expensive coin, but in the lower grades the prices are much more reasonable. The reason for this is the return of an estimated few hundred up to 500 pieces from overseas vaults.

The story of the 1924-S $20 might remind some of the story of the 1903-O Morgan silver dollar. Its price crashed from rarity status to fairly common due to a Treasury release of some quantity.

This story is repeated for other dates like the 1925-D, which popped up in French banks, the 1926-S, 1926-D and 1929, just to name a few that have had their numbers increase over the years thanks to newly discovered examples.

In some cases the Saint-Gaudens double eagles are better simply because they are lower mintage. That would appear to be the case with the 1909-D, which had a mintage of 52,500, and the same seems to be the case with the 1913-S, which had a mintage of 34,000. In both instances there were relatively few coins discovered outside the United States after the gold recall, making their mintages good proxies for evaluating scarcity.

While foreign hoards have helped make some dates more available than might normally be expected, the Gold Recall Order of 1933 had exactly the opposite impact as this led to the melting of over 30 percent of all double eagles every produced as significant numbers were simply sitting in vaults within the borders of the United States where the recall order applied.

Many others were in circulation. These were turned in by their owners for face value in paper money. Most Americans were not in a financial position to keep such high value coins, or risk the legal penalties if they were caught with them.

The 1930-S is one excellent example of the situation. It has a mintage of 74,000. That would indicate the potential to be a better date, but certainly not a date that commands a price of $35,000 in VF-20. In fact, there may be no example of the 1930-S in such a low grade. None would have circulated long enough to drop that far.

There is some question if any 1930-S coins actually circulated. The date has been seen a combined total of 41 times by the Professional Coin Grading Service and by the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation. The only coin that fell below a Mint State was one that was called AU-58. That coin could simply have been mishandled and not really circulated.

The MS-60 price is $72,500.

Bowers agrees as his estimates have 40-60 examples remaining in Mint State but only three to six in circulated grades. Bowers adds another element to the 1930-S by pointing out that it has a high number of bag marks.

The 1931 is another case of a coin that is much more expensive than its mintage would indicate. The VF-20 price is $10,500. Mintage was over 2.9 million pieces, but the best estimates are perhaps 125 of that total remain today.

Clearly nearly all of the 1931 coins were melted. As is the case with the 1930-S, PCGS says just three out of 90 coins came in with a grade below MS-60.

The 1932 has a mintage of 1,101,750 and it would normally be an available date with some very real questions about how many if any actually reached circulation. Bowers estimates that there may be only one or two circulated examples out there. Grading service experience agrees. PCGS and NGC have seen more than 100 examples between them, but not a single one is under MS-60.

Coin Market shows its price at $26,500 in MS-60. It has prices for circulated grades, but these are mere conjecture about the value of such coins if they do exist somewhere waiting to be found by collectors.

This situation with only high grade survivors of later dates is logical as there would have been no time for them to circulate. Anybody who had any gold coins like this during the Depression would have been wise to simply keep them locked away rather than spending them. That would have been easy because people generally preferred the convenience of paper money in daily transactions.

What about survivorship of earlier mintages? The 1920-S and the 1921 also have similar stories. Both are unusually expensive when mintages of over 500,000 each are considered. The 1920-S is $14,500 in VF-20 while the 1921 is $35,000.

There is no way around the conclusion that these two dates were also melted in large numbers, although unlike the later dates, these two have numbers of coins that have circulated.

In fact, roughly 50 percent of the known 1920-S coins are circulated and the percentage might be even slightly higher in the case of the 1921.

It is also believed that at least a few examples of the 1921 have arrived from Europe, making it a fascinating mixture of coins that went to Europe or survived the gold recall order somewhere in the U.S.

The 1927-D had no surprise hoards in Europe. It had a mintage of 180,000. Nearly all were melted. The coins just sat in vaults before the recall order. Collectors had the opportunity to buy them as late as 1932 for face value plus postage from the Mint. They did not do so.

Bowers describes it now as the darling of the are coin market. It has been seen just four times by PCGS and another four times by NGC. Four of the eight are MS-65 or better. The lowest graded one is AU-58.

Overshadowing the rarity of the 1927-D is the 1933 issue. There is only one example that is legal for collectors to own. It sold for $7.59 million in 2002.

More were released, but the government has consistently tracked them down and made the owners give them up. Only an export permit issued by the Treasury to King Farouk of Egypt during World War II saved the one legal example from also being impounded by the Treasury.

The owner of the legal 1933 has not been identified. There is also the continuing question as to whether there are 1933 coins in Europe or elsewhere outside the country whose owners are smart enough to keep the beyond the reach of the United States government. Future generations of collectors might find out.

For years after the 1933 coins were struck, they were not considered the top Saint-Gaudens date.

Bowers wrote that B. Max Mehl, who had handled the one legal 1933, believed as late as 1949 that there were only three examples of the 1924-S and a similar number of 1926-D coins, making them tougher than the 1933 was known to be at the time.

But that is part of the changing nature of numismatics. What we believe to be true does not always remain true in light of new information or hoard discoveries.

Whatever the future holds for the 1933, what will not change is the popularity of the Saint-Gaudens design among collectors and the daunting price tags of too many of the individual issues.

Most collectors who own any Saint-Gaudens $20s at all are content with one of the common dates.

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