Virtually every collector who has any knowledge of classic United States coins knows that the famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, designed the $20 gold double eagle image that bears his name today. This Saint-Gaudens design is routinely touted as one of the most beautiful coins ever minted, with an artistry plucked straight from classic Greco-Roman imagery.
There are some high rarities at both ends, the early ones of 1907 being those in terms of design elements, and those at the tail end in 1933 being in terms of the legality of private ownership. Yet Mr. Saint-Gaudens did more than design a single type of gold coin for the United States. His work extends to what are often called the Indian Head $10 eagles. Let’s take a look into how these came to be.
The story has been told many times that President Teddy Roosevelt wanted the entire spectrum of United States coinage redesigned, to move away from what had been done traditionally, towards something of equal beauty to that of the coinage of the ancient Greek city-states. He enlisted Augustus Saint-Gaudens to undertake the overhaul, but the great artist passed from cancer before being able to complete the entire task. Yet beyond the double eagle, he did produce the eagle that was minted annually from 1907 – 1916, then a few more times until 1933.
Somewhat like the production of the double eagle, what is often called the Indian Head eagles – what we might call the Saint-Gaudens eagles – had a few hiccups at the start. There are some rare varieties, one of which sported what are called wire rims, which only saw a total mintage of 500 pieces. Unless we are sleeping on a bed of money, we’ll have to skip this wire rim in favor of more affordable examples. Another early variety had periods as spacers amidst the Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum. Those were all produced in 1907. In 1908, just after Mr. Saint-Gaudens passed away, there was production of the $10 pieces from both the Philadelphia and the Denver Mints without the phrase “In God We Trust,” then later in the year production from Philly, Denver, and San Francisco with the phrase added. Of all of these varieties, the 1908-D is by far the most common, and the most available to collectors.
Other rarities, or perhaps we should call them key dates within the series, include the early 1908-S, plus the 1911-D and S, the 1913-S, the 1915-S, and finally the 1930-S. This group of six all saw Mint production runs of less than 100K, which makes them at least scarce by today’s standards, but that are actually larger in overall production than some of the rare dates within the Coronet $5 and $10 series that came before. Any would be great to add to a collection. All would be expensive.
If the key dates in any series make us sigh, we can at least breathe one of relief when we realize there are some common dates within this Saint-Gaudens eagle series, and that a few of these dates are very common indeed. Right at the beginning, the 1908-D saw a mintage of over 800K. That number from back then is certainly enough to satisfy any collector demand today. Two years later the folks working the branch Mint in the Mile High City managed to crank out an amazing 2.3 million of these gorgeous pieces. That record high lasted quite a while. In 1926 the main Mint in Philly did pound out just over one million, and in its next-to-last year, 1932, the Mint employees in the City of Brotherly Love managed to churn out an amazing 4,463,000 of these big, gold eagles. Any of these multi-million years can be a great place to start for any $10 gold piece collection.
Since we have arrived at the point where we are thinking seriously about a purchase or two, let’s do some basic math. What we mean is: each of these has 0.48375 troy ounces of gold in them. This in turn means that when gold trades at $1,800 per ounce, each of the Saint-Gaudens eagles has $870.75 of the precious metal in it – the same as the Liberty Head $10 eagles that were made from 1838 – 1907. So, there is no way to get one for less. Looking at the price lists in an issue of Coins or of Numismatic News, we’ll find that those three most common dates we just discussed each cost about $1,300 for an example in a grade like MS-60. While this doesn’t qualify as cheap for many of us, it’s really not all that much over the price of the gold – something worth considering for a United States gold coin with about a century of history to it.
There are many ways to build a collection of United States gold without spending a fortune, and arguably the easiest one is to land a single Saint-Gaudens eagle, and pair it up with a Liberty Head eagle. Another way to go at this, but staying strictly with the Saint-Gaudens eagles, is to start with one of the three very common dates, then see what other dates and mint marks can be added at about the same price, even though their overall production was lower. This can be a true collector challenge, and can be a lot of fun as well.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ previous works
Looking at dates and mint marks and trying to assemble a full set is a traditional way to collect any series of coins, be they United States issues, or those of some other country. But since these big gold pieces probably qualify as costly to many collectors, simply because of the amount of precious metal in them, it might be worth looking at some other, less traditional ways and means to build this collection. One way is to learn more about Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his overall body of work.
By the time he accepted President Roosevelt’s charge for our nation’s coinage, Saint-Gaudens had already built himself a reputation as one of the greatest sculptors in the world. That may seem like vain boasting, but he had already produced numerous sculptures, many of them still well-known today, all of them arresting and beautiful. His Shaw Memorial, first shown to the public in 1897, continues to be a stirring monument to the men of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first units of black soldiers to fight for the Union in the Civil War. Named after the commander of the unit, Robert Gould Shaw, this piece of work is still on display in Boston. As well, he designed and produced several versions of Diana of the Tower – sometimes called Diana the Huntress – which is a wonderful example of classic beauty in a single work.
Unfortunately for a person who is deeply interested in collecting, there is really no way to get our hands on an original of any of Augustus Saint-Gaudens works. But even though the originals are the stuff of museum collections, there are a couple of other possibilities we could explore. One is the idea of purchasing a small-scale reproduction of any of his other works. Prints of the Shaw Memorial are certainly a possibility. The Diana sculpture, for another example, is generally available on-line, and may cost less than one of the $10 gold pieces! Additionally, a person might take a look at what books about Saint-Gaudens are available and affordable, either at a local book shop or on-line. Learning more about Saint-Gaudens by immersing ourselves in books about him and his works can give us a greater appreciation of his coin designs. Both of these ideas can add a new depth and dimension to our collecting.
The Saint-Gaudens design for the United States $10 gold piece has become almost as famous a classic coin as the $20 pieces that bear his image. Collecting a full date run of them will definitely be a substantial expense. But we have seen that there are some more economical ways to appreciate these classic eagles, and some easy ways to make inroads into the works that this famed sculptor created. All things considered, these $10 gold pieces can become a fascinating collector focus.