Posted on October 27, 2022
Augustus Saint-Gaudens had as full and colorful a life as you’d expect from a fin de siècle artist. Perhaps the most famous American artist you've never heard of… He belongs to that American Renaissance period, or the Gilded Age, between 1876 and 1917. Think of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (described so poetically in Erik Larson’s masterful The Devil in the White City). The era that brought us the Brooklyn Bridge and Mark Twain, the telephone and Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps the most iconic symbol of the era was the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, dedicated in 1886.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the Michaelangelo of his time – and today, he’s mostly forgotten. If you're reading this, you may already recognize his name. You might even own a piece of Saint-Gaudens’ most celebrated artwork.
Saint-Gaudens worked his way up the artist’s ladder, starting as an apprentice cameo cutter. He graduated to sculptor, then to celebrated sculptor and eventually became a well-known national treasure.
to being the person behind the coin. Now, this might spark some division. Plenty might argue that his famous sculptures such as New York City's Diana or Lincoln Park's... you know... are more important than his coin designs. Others might not be as convinced.
The $20 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin which he designed between 1905-1907 is called one of the most beautiful American coins ever minted.
To that we say: just “American?” Nonsense!
Saint-Gaudens’ $10 gold eagle (aka “Indian Head” coin) is another popular one, and we'll address both shortly. For now, let's just say both were minted for circulation from 1907 to 1933. (Yes, minted for circulation – they called it the Gilded Age for a reason! Saint-Gaudens and his contemporaries paid their bar tabs and bought supplies with intrinsically-valuable gold and silver coins.)
President Roosevelt (bull moose, San Juan Hill, walk-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick Roosevelt) selected Saint-Gaudens to design the U.S. Mint's new coins around the turn of the 20th century. Roosevelt chose Saint-Gaudens based on a number of celebrated sculpture projects, including Abraham Lincoln: The Man for Chicago’s Lincoln Park and the absolutely spellbinding Adams Memorial.
Saint-Gaudens accepted the commission. You might expect someone who worked on really big projects like the two I mentioned would balk at the miniscule canvas of a coin – but remember, Saint-Gaudens started out as a cameo engraver. He’d worked in miniature before.
Interestingly enough, he called his designs for the coins “medallions.” To be technical, actual “medallions” are coin-shaped items produced by a sovereign mint that aren’t legal tender (like silver rounds, but produced by a government mint). So, in a sense, Saint-Gaudens was correct to call his coin designs “medallions” before they were officially accepted as circulating coins.
As usual, the U.S. Mint ran into some problems, and that's where real value was created…
Saint-Gaudens’ first design was we’d call “high-relief” today. Here’s how I described a modern high-relief coin:
“High relief” coins are more three-dimensional than standard coins. Look at a quarter. Notice that raised rim around the edge? That rim is the highest part of nearly every coin, because it prevents the designs from rubbing and wearing on one another when coins are stacked. High relief coins have designs that rise above the rim, offering greater detail and visual intensity to the design. Simply put, they elevate the coin almost to the level of sculpture…
Well, Saint-Gaudens really wanted to elevate the coin to sculpture. His first design, known today as the “Ultra High Relief $20 Double Eagle” took 11 strikes to produce. For comparison purposes, regular circulation coins and bullion coins are struck once – modern proof coins are struck at least twice. Each “strike” (that’s when the coin press stamps the obverse and reverse dies together, impressing their designs into the metal disc) enhances the crispness and three-dimensional aspect of the coin’s design.
But eleven individual strikes? That’s not exactly a scalable process. So the original double eagle design was completely unfeasible for production. Only 20 were made, and these days you can get one for just a few million dollars.
Back to the drawing board! More experiments resulted in the merely “High Relief” version of the double eagle, which only required three strikes – but was still deemed unfit for mass production. (The 12,317 of these known to exist are a collector's collectible, the kind of thing hardcore numismatists dream of owning.)
Finally, after what I’m sure were many heated discussions over cigars and brandy, Saint-Gaudens and the U.S. Mint compromised on a design that only took a single strike to produce.
The Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle was minted for nearly 30 years, which ran for nearly three decades. Over 70 million were minted.
The double eagle gold coin’s design was so revered that U.S. Mint chose Saint-Gaudens’ design for the modern American gold eagle coinss, which debuted in 1986.
Those early 20th century Saint-Gaudens coins we just discussed are the most common gold “collectible” or numismatic coin you'll find among bullion dealers. We don't have them on-hand very often, but we’re happy to take yours off your hands! They’re pricey, especially compared to modern gold bullion coins. .
If you really want a modern Saint-Gaudens coin, look no further than any American gold eagle. The obverse design from the original Saint-Gaudens double eagle was dusted off and reused in 1986, and continues to this day. (The U.S. Mint also issued a limited Ultra High Relief $20 coin in 2009, almost as if to remind itself of its early woes…)
While the nation has moved away from using gold as money as we did in Saint-Gaudens’ era, it's interesting to note that gold hasn't lost its status since then.
Gold is still money – not just “money,” but the most elite form of money. For jewelry or decoration, gold is still the pinnacle of luxury. It’s quite a feat that Saint-Gaudens’ designs still haven't gone out of style.
[Bonus fun fact: James Earle Fraser, designer of the other competitor for “most beloved of all American coins,” the buffalo nickel, was a student of Saint-Gaudens. If you look closely enough, you can just make out some of the same timeless, iconic spirit in the American gold buffalo, the modern version of Fraser’s buffalo nickel.]