The Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle Gold Piece

The name "Saint-Gaudens" and "$20 gold piece" seem to go hand-in-hand, even though there was a $20 gold piece before Augustus Saint-Gaudens designed his masterpiece. For that reason these coins are often simply referred to as $20 Saint Gaudens.

The Story

The story of how the Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle gold piece came to be is a story filled with intrigue and curiosity.

It all started in 1905 when President Theodore Roosevelt was touring the famous Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. Among the items on display at the Smithsonian in those days were several examples of ancient Greek coinage. Roosevelt believed that the ancient Greek coinage was majestic and attractive. He especially liked the way the devices on the coins stood out in what came to be described in "high relief."

When Roosevelt compared the ancient Greek coins to contemporary American coins at the time, he is said to have described the U.S. coins as "atrocious" and "hideous."

After his visit to the Smithsonian, Roosevelt decided to have the full range of U.S. coins redesigned. He wanted America’s coinage to symbolize America’s greatness. So, he contacted the artist who had designed his inauguration medallion, the famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Roosevelt asked Saint-Gaudens to develop designs for all U.S. coins from the cent to the Double Eagle.

As it turned out, Saint-Gaudens was dying of cancer and was not able to complete the monumental task that Roosevelt had assigned to him. He was, however, able to complete two designs, the $10 Eagle and the $20 Double Eagle.

Of these two designs, the $20 Double Eagle was by far the more famous in the ensuing years.

The Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle gold piece was described by President Teddy Roosevelt as the most beautiful coin in the world.

The obverse featured a full view of Lady Liberty holding a torch aloft, striding toward the viewer, with the sun’s ray’s beaming from a sunrise behind her. The reverse of the coin features a majestic American eagle soaring across the scene, through the sun’s rays.

The new coin was not without its problems, however.

High Relief Version

At President Roosevelt’s request, Saint-Gaudens had designed his Double Eagle in the high relief motif similar to the ancient Greek coins Roosevelt had seen at the Smithsonian. Because of this, the procedure for striking these coins was arduous and complicated. The Mint was accustomed to striking coins at a high rate on modern coin presses. The high relief design would not allow for that. In fact, each coin had to be struck multiple times to fully bring out the details.

The personnel at the Mint complained bitterly about this and angered Roosevelt in the process. The Mint staff also pointed out that the high relief coins would not stack well, making them impractical for banks.

To top all this off, the new coins were so attractive that Americans lucky enough to acquire one began hoarding them. In fact, a $20 Saint-Gaudens sometimes fetched $25 worth of greenbacks.

Eventually, President Roosevelt relented and the design relief was lowered to accommodate high speed minting and handling by banks.

The coin was still quite beautiful and it stayed in production from 1907 until 1933 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ended production of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle and all other U.S. gold coins.

The obverse design of the Saint-Gaudens resurfaced 53 years later when the U.S. Mint unveiled its American Eagle Gold Bullion Coin program. The obverse of the modern Gold American Eagle was an exact replica of the original Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle design, with Lady Liberty striding toward the viewer with the rising sun at her back.