Millions of coins have been minted over thousands of years, depicting royalty, gods, animals, landscapes, national symbols, and myriad other things. The list is virtually endless. As a result, it can be difficult to pinpoint the most impressive design among them. But there is one contender that consistently ranks among the most revered: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ $20 gold piece issued, and struck by the United States between 1907 and 1933.
The U.S. introduced a new denomination in 1849, a large $20 gold coin known as a double eagle. There was a large influx of gold from California at that time, and it needed somewhere to go. Large gold coins served well in international trade and were widely used on the West Coast. The first double eagle design lasted from 1849 to 1907. It featured a neoclassical portrait of Liberty on one side and a heraldic eagle on the reverse.
By 1905, the so-called Liberty Head double eagle had grown tired, and President Theodore Roosevelt demanded a change. He enlisted master sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whom he had first met in 1901. Four years later after their first meeting, Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens discussed a new $20 gold coin that would match the high-relief coinage of the Ancient Greeks. Roosevelt famously referred to the project as his “pet crime.”
The artist quickly got to work, preparing an obverse that showed a striding figure of Liberty, based on his winged Victory from the Sherman Monument at the southeast corner of Central Park in New York City. The reverse featured a flying eagle above a radiant sun. In so many ways, the Saint-Gaudens double eagle represented the dawning of a new American century.
Three major variations of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle exist. The first is the MCMVII (1907) Ultra High Relief, but only 20 pieces or so were made. The second is a highly sought-after but more available 1907 High Relief, also with Roman numerals, of which 12,367 examples were produced. Finally, the relief was lowered permanently for circulation coins late in 1907. The lower-relief coins were struck until 1933.
Most regular issues between 1907 and 1928 are obtainable for a minimal premium, but the later dates in the series are major rarities. They were never released in large quantities and most were converted into gold bars. The 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle is one of the most famous coins in American numismatics, with an example realizing a record price of $7.2 million in 2002.