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Century later, gold coin reflects sculptor's vision

Section: Daily Dispatches

By Matthew Healey
The New York Times
Monday, November 24, 2008

WEST POINT, N.Y. — With the push of a button and some 60 tons of pressure, a blank gold disc was converted into an ultra-high-relief coin Monday at the branch of the United States Mint here, and a century-old vision for America's coinage was finally fully realized.

Producing the $20 coins, conceived by the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1907, has been a personal goal of the mint's director, Edmund C. Moy, since he was appointed in 2006. "Saint-Gaudens was a bit of a poet and wanted to tell a story," Mr. Moy said at a ceremony Monday at the branch, where the new coin was first struck. "Liberty has visited America and is now marching into the rest of the world, led by enlightenment. America's best days are ahead."

In President Theodore Roosevelt's opinion, those ideals weren't embodied by existing coins, and he commissioned his friend Saint-Gaudens to come up with fresh designs.

His vision for the coin, known as a double eagle (it was twice the value of the $10 coin known as the eagle), was hailed by Roosevelt and others as a classical masterpiece. A full figure representing Liberty strides toward the viewer, torch raised, hair flowing, and robes billowing, one foot on a promontory while the sun rises over the Capitol dome behind her. The reverse shows an eagle in flight over a blazing sun. The coin's mastery lay chiefly in two trademarks of the sculptor's style, typical of his medals: the comparatively high relief and the graceful incorporation of lettering in the design.

But one crucial person was not enamored: Charles Barber, chief engraver of the United States Mint at the time and a designer himself of several coins then in circulation -- those Roosevelt and much of the public so disliked. According to Alison Frankel's 2006 book, "Double Eagle," Barber fought for his turf and did little to smooth the way for Saint-Gaudens' designs.

Barber's main critique was that the coin's exceptionally high relief made production impossibly slow and difficult, and he had a point. In early tests up to 11 strikes per coin were required to bring out all the details. A variation using a smaller but thicker blank had to be abandoned because such a change would need congressional approval.

Barber then remade the coin in a considerably flatter version that would work for high-volume production. The following year, 1908, Congress insisted that the motto "In God We Trust" be added. Roosevelt, a religious man, considered it inappropriate to put the name of God on money, and had told Saint-Gaudens (who died in August 1907 before production began) to omit it. The motto was inserted, somewhat incongruously, on the coin's reverse, between the sun and its rays. This version circulated until 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of his response to the Depression, banned hoarding of gold.

Today, the 1907 ultra-high relief $20 trial pieces are highly prized by collectors, not only for their beauty but also for their rarity. Fewer than two dozen survive, and they command six- and seven-figure prices. A circulated flat-relief version, containing a little less than an ounce of gold, typically sells for $800 to $1,200.

The double eagle is still generally considered the most beautiful American coin ever made. "We haven't been as thoughtful with all our coin designs in the modern era," Mr. Moy said after the ceremony, adding that he hoped to introduce modern coins that were beautiful, high-tech, and uniquely American.

In the 1980s the mint began producing gold bullion coins that revived the flat-relief design on one side, in one-ounce sizes and smaller, for investors.

The newest coins, slightly more than an inch in diameter, use the smaller, thicker blanks rejected in 1907, are dated MMIX (2009), and contain exactly an ounce of 24-karat gold. The original coins were larger in size and contained 22-karat gold, hard enough to withstand circulation, but, Mr. Moy said, modern investors prefer pure gold, which also has the benefit of being soft enough to turn into ultra-high relief coins.

The first $20 coin will be placed in the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution. The rest, which will be produced for only a year, go on sale to collectors and investors in January, at a price still to be determined, based largely on the current bullion price of gold. (On Monday afternoon it was about $824 an ounce in New York.)

Though the new coin is largely faithful to Saint-Gaudens' vision, in one respect it won't resemble the original: The reverse still reads "In God We Trust."


Photographs of the new coin may be found at the link above.

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