This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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There is nothing with quite the same feel in your hand or pocket as a double eagle of the United States. If you have never felt the heft of such a gold coin, it will surprise you. Gold is very heavy for its size because of its density.
Collecting and Investing Strategies for U.S. Gold Coins
Whatever the design, a double eagle is simply a great coin that makes you feel good when you own it. The sad thing about double eagles is that with their cost, most of us cannot hope to complete a collection by date and mint.
That does, not, however, eliminate the possibility of a type collection and in collecting gold double eagles by type you can learn a great deal about the history of gold in the United States through what was the largest gold coin produced for regular circulation.
There is simply no separating the gold double eagle from the discovery of gold in California. Had it not been for the bonanza of gold in near legendary amounts in California there almost certainly would have never been a double eagle.
At the time of that gold was first discovered in 1848 the largest gold coin of the United States was the $10 coin, which is also known as the eagle. Even the $10 gold coins were not in circulation in the numbers that might be expected. The branch mints in Charlotte, N.C., and Dahlonega, Ga., made only gold coins yet they never saw a need for a $10 and certainly later no need for a double eagle.
Even the Philadelphia $10 gold eagles, which had been produced since mintages were resumed in 1838 after having been suspended back in 1804, primarily sat in vaults as reserves. For much of the nation, a $10 gold coin was a lot of money.
The discovery of gold in California changed everything. First, there was no mint in the area of the finds so that meant much of the gold initially was being shipped east to Philadelphia, New Orleans and even the Charlotte and Dahlonega facilities.
To use this new influx of bullion, there was an immediate proposal to approve a gold dollar, which actually had been produced privately by the Bechtler family mint in the South for years, and a gold double eagle, or $20.
It was probably not a case where anyone felt that double eagles were badly needed in circulation, but using up gold was a priority, so the two denominations were approved in 1849 although other proposals for gold $25, $50 and $100 coins were not approved.
There is an 1849 double eagle in the Smithsonian Institution, but for collecting purposes the first type of double eagles were produced from 1850-1866 using the James B. Longacre Coronet Head design, which is somewhat similar to the gold dollar while the reverse had an eagle flanked by scrolls with stars and rays above.
Availability of gold double eagles is determined by a variety of factors. For the double eagles of this type there are no coins saved by collectors. Actually there may be a couple, but the simple fact is that with its high denomination the gold double eagle was not collected by date and mint basically for all of the 1800s.
In the 1890s Augustus Heaton observed that he knew of no collectors of $5, $10 and $20 gold coins by date and mint. In the early 1900s Q. David Bowers has been able to point to perhaps half a dozen collectors, but realistically other than a couple of wealthy collectors, if you really want to see any numbers of double eagle collectors you have to look well into the 1900s long after the final double eagle was produced. As a result, there are very few coins in Mint State, which it perhaps it can be suggested as to have come from the very few collectors who did collect during the period when double eagles were produced for circulation.
This situation applied to both Mint State and circulated coins so the question becomes how did any numbers survive to the present day? The fact is there were a variety of factors centering around the distribution of the coin at the time. In the 1850s and early 1860s there were large mintages, including the 2,976,453 total of the 1861. Moreover, gold coins at the time circulated everywhere. In the East they were not used widely, but they were available, while they were common in commerce in the West. It is, however, worth noting that significant numbers were exported largely to London which was the world gold center for trading at the time, but to the rest of Europe and South America as well.
Things changed on Dec. 28, 1861, when many Eastern banks stopped paying out gold at par (a $20 coin for $20 in paper) and that meant that for all practical purposes there were no gold coins in circulation until 1878 in the East. That made collecting or saving examples just that much more difficult.
There have been two major sources of the type. There have been treasure salvaged coins in Mint State emerging from wrecks such as the Yankee Blade, which had the 1854-S, the 1856-S and especially the 1857-S from the S.S. Central America while the 1864-S and 1865-S were found on the S.S. Brother Jonathan.
In the case of circulated examples, which start at about $1,413 for a VF-20 as opposed to $2,900 for the most available 1861 in MS-60, the supply has primarily come from European bank vaults where they were shipped over a century ago and which then returned home when American dealers starting in around the late 1940s began traveling to Europe in an attempt to find better U.S. gold coins still sitting in the vaults of places like Switzerland and France. As a result of those efforts, examples in VF-20 and XF-40 are relatively available today.
The next type of double eagle began in 1866 with the addition of IN GOD WE TRUST to the reverse while the denomination was expressed as “TWENTY D.” This type would be produced from 1866-1876 at Philadelphia, San Francisco and Carson City, which began production in 1870.
Once again with this second type $20, we have a situation where there was virtually no saving by the collectors and dealers of the time. Most Philadelphia coins of the period were exported and melted and the 1867 is thought to be the first Philadelphia double eagle ever found in any numbers in Mint State in overseas hoards. For the collector today any Mint State example of the second type of double eagle is difficult with the least expensive MS-60 being about $1,500 while a VF-20 of an available date might be possible for $1,300.
Starting in 1877 the next type would be introduced with the denomination expressed as TWENTY DOLLARS below the eagle on the reverse. There were other slight alterations with the head of Liberty being repositioned while the neck truncation is higher. This type had a better chance for circulation as beginning on Dec. 17, 1878, for the first time since the 1860s gold could circulate at par with paper money. The possibility was there but the circulation of double eagles was still primarily west of the Mississippi and California was the center. The bulk of the double eagles in the rest of the country were sitting in banks being used as reserves for paper issues like National Bank Notes.
Today double eagles of the type are readily available with a VF-20 reflecting gold prices probably commanding roughly $1,413 at the moment. In the case of an MS-60 the current listing is $1,500 while an MS-65 in the case of the very common 1903 and a few other readily available dates is $5,500.
The story behind the availability of the dates is an international one. It must be remembered there were still basically no collectors saving Mint State double eagles as they were released. The total supply saved by collectors and dealers at the time would probably not be enough to cover one day’s trading in the active market today, but there was another huge potential supply.
The export situation began in earnest in the early 1880s with large numbers of gold coins and especially the highest denomination double eagle. Realistically it is hard to pin down precisely how much gold was exported to European and other banks, but during the period from the end of May in 1888 to July of 1889 it was over $61 million in gold bars and coins. In fiscal year 1892 it was almost $38 million and by 1895 the United States quite literally almost ran out of gold as official reserves were not adequate to cover the notes outstanding and disaster was staved off by a timely loan to the government from J.P. Morgan.
The double eagles as well as large numbers of other denominations ended up in bank vaults in various countries. That was to prove critical. When the Gold Recall Order of 1933 was issued, it resulted in the melting of well over 30 percent of all the double eagles ever produced and those sitting in bank vaults outside the country were out of the reach of U.S. law.
As mentioned, starting in the late 1940s after World War II had been fought and Europe began rebuilding and still continuing to a small degree to the present day, American coin dealers traveled to Europe and cherry-picked the coins in the vaults. Initially, Carson City and better dates were purchased and brought home, but ultimately there would be large quantities of relatively common dates, but these were in Mint State. In most cases, the Mint State dates were after 1880 having probably gone literally from the Mint to a ship for export. The travel and indifferent handling resulted in most being lower Mint State grades, but the fact remains that even today there are literally thousands of Mint State examples of a date like the 1903 and others.
While gold doubled eagles found in foreign bank vaults were not as great in terms of numbers they were probably every bit as important to the supply today as the $1,000 bags of silver dollars paid out by the Treasury over the years up to 1964 are important relative to the surviving silver dollar supply. It is those European supplies that are the backbone of our double eagle supplies today.
President Theodore Roosevelt would be responsible for the next change in the double eagle and it would certainly be a dramatic one. Roosevelt had come to office after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901 and after winning his own four-year term in the 1904 election he turned his attention to matters of interest to him and one of those matters was coin design in the United States which he did not like. He recruited the most famous artist of the day, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the two began a project to make new coin designs.
The result of the efforts were Saint-Gaudens double eagles and Indian Head gold eagles. Both, however, had problems with the double eagle especially having started out with a relief that was far too high to be used as a coin. In fact, the first attempt saw the die crack after perhaps 22 coins were produced. Clearly the design high points had to be lowered and during that process the artist died. Work continued, resulting in a 1907 coin with the date expressed in Roman numerals. A total of 12,367 of what are called the high-relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle were produced. The numbers were not higher because the coins were still impossible to use as regular circulating coins. It took three strikes simply to bring up the design. The coins came with either a partial wire rim or with a flat rim with the wire rim being the more numerous by about a two-to-one margin.
The Roman numeral 1907 with high relief was different from the ultra high relief in that it reached circulation and was almost immediately considered a better date, which was natural based on its mintage. Even though there were very few actual collectors of double eagles at the time, many wanted the high-relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle and that saw its price rise to $30. By the 1920s the novelty was gone and they tended to bring only a dollar or two over their $20 face value. Some were ultimately turned in and melted in the gold recall, but the supply today is estimated at perhaps 5,000 coins. The demand, however, is very high and that results in a VF-20 price of $7,650 while an MS-60 is $14,000 and an MS-65 is $48,500, making it easily the most expensive double eagle type in most grades although probably the most popular by a wide margin.
The high-relief double eagle was not possible to produce at the speed required so the relief had to be lowered another time and in the process the Roman numeral date was replaced by a regular date with standard Arabic numerals that most people are used to. There was, however, something missing and that was the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
Roosevelt’s reading of the scriptures gave him firm belief that God should not be associated with money of any government. For 1907 and some of the 1908 production, the Saint-Gaudens double eagle would have no motto. The three without the motto were the 1907 as well as 1908 and 1908-D. These three have relatively similar prices of around $1,423 in VF-20 but in Mint State the 1908 thanks to the Wells Fargo Hoard which involved something over 19,000 examples in Mint State is by far the most available at prices of $1,470 in MS-60 and $1,650 in MS-65.
The Wells Fargo Hoard has a well-deserved reputation because of the quality of the coins involved. In his book, A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins, Q. David Bowers has a statement from Ron Gillio who purchased the hoard and in his statement Gillio states that the hoard included over 200 coins in MS-68, over 1,700 in MS-67 and over 6,000 in MS-66 with the rest being MS-65 or below.
With such grades being uncommon for any date, it was truly a remarkable hoard when it comes to the no motto 1908 and because the no motto 1908 is one of only three possible dates of the type, it proved to be an extremely important source of supply for type collectors. The other two dates of the type are available thanks in part to European hoards ,but certainly not in the numbers or quality found in the Wells Fargo Hoard.
There was a public and congressional uproar over the missing IN GOD WE TRUST. The motto was restored by congressional action in 1908 creating the final type of Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Interestingly, there was a design change not generally recognized as the coins from 1908 to 1911 have 46 obverse stars while those from 1912 to 1933 have 48 reflecting the addition of the states of New Mexico and Arizona. The two stars added beyond the 46th star overlap the oak leaves.
The type is readily available with a VF-20 being around $1,413 while an MS-60 is $1,470 and up and an MS-65 begins at about $2,250. It is a case where prices can vary widely from date to date as this type was either sent to Europe and stored or melted. There were certainly some in circulation but realistically these later Saint-Gaudens double eagles generally sat in bank vaults somewhere. The big question was where the bank vaults were located. If they were in the United States, the coins were destroyed as a result of the Gold Recall Order of 1933, but if the vault was in France, Switzerland or some other country the coin survived and was returned to the United States in later years.
For the collector today, the double eagle is perhaps the most impressive of all U.S. coins. At least in circulated grades all six types are available at hardly more than gold value although the high relief 1907 is more costly than the others. A complete type set is also possible in Mint State, but there it becomes much tougher as especially the early Coronet Head types are not routinely available in significant numbers.
Whatever approach you choose, a double eagle type set is a lot of fun to assemble and even more fun to show off and to explain when gold is rising in value. And don’t forget the satisfaction one can get by simply hefting the double eagle.