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Beauty, history behind Saint-Gaudens design appeal

 The 1907 High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle (shown here with wire rim) is considered by many to be America’s most beautiful coin. This, plus its historical significance, keeps prices high.

The 1907 High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle (shown here with wire rim) is considered by many to be America’s most beautiful coin. This, plus its historical significance, keeps prices high.

Most of us cannot afford a 1907 Ultra High Relief example of the Saint-Gaudens double eagle. With fewer than 20 known and enormous demand, it can easily top $1 million when offered. The 1907 High Relief double eagle is much more possible, and as part of the same story, it is every bit as interesting.

Designer Augustus Saint-Gaudens and President Theodore Roosevelt wanted the high relief. There were problems from the start, including the fact that Chief Engraver Charles Barber was not happy that the new coin was not going to carry his designs.

As it turned out, Barber had legitimate reason for his dislike of the Saint-Gaudens design. The first attempt to produce Ultra High Relief saw about 22 coins struck before the die cracked under all the pressure required to bring the design up.

There was no way the United States could issue coins that destroyed dies at that rate. Even if the coins had been produced, they would have had problems stacking, requiring the design’s relief to be lowered. That task was made all the more difficult by Saint-Gaudens’ death on Aug. 3, 1907. That left lowering the relief to his assistant and the Mint staff. Officials knew this would not work, but they had a President saying he was about to start issuing pink slips if he did not get his coins.

Roughly 11,250 of what is called the 1907 High Relief were struck. The coins featured high relief and the Roman Numeral date that Roosevelt wanted (which would be eliminated after this effort). There was nothing wrong with the High Relief that lowering the design’s relief even further would not fix. It took three strikes with the press to bring up the design, and once brought up, the coins still would not stack.

The coin was released, creating quite a stir among collectors. The 1907 High Relief was an immediate novelty and a scarce one, with its price rising to about $30. That level could not be held, however, as there were not that many who wanted one at the time.By the 1920s, examples were selling at just a dollar or so above their face value. Most collectors of the time could not afford even that.

The growth of collecting, however, brought rising interest in the 1907 High Relief double eagle. People want to own an example of the famous design close to the way Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt had imagined it would be. It can also be considered a separate type of double eagle with its high relief and Roman Numeral date.

Of the 1907 High Relief mintage, about 8,000 had a partial wire rim, while another 3,000 had a flat or normal rim. The two varieties are rarely collected as such; most collectors are content with a single example. It is an expensive coin, currently listed at $7,000 in VF-20 condition, $13,500 in MS-60, and $40,000 in MS-65.

Supplies today are actually very strong, with grading services reporting thousands of examples graded, many in Mint State. The Professional Coin Grading Service puts the total at around 5,100, while Numismatic Guaranty Corporation records 3,790. With repeat submissions, it will not be surprising to see these totals top the actual mintage.

Prices might seem high, and they would be if this was a normal coin with a normal demand. But the 1907 High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle is special in the hearts of collectors, and those who want one want it in the best possible grade. That keeps pressure on prices despite the fact that buyers are fully aware that numerous examples are still known to exist.

After all, it is considered by many to be America’s most beautiful coin, and it is historically significant. That’s a great combination, and the low mintage will keep prices high.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000 is your guide to images, prices and information on coinage of the 1900s.

• The Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money is the only annual guide that provides complete coverage of U.S. currency with today’s market prices.