By: Frank Van Valen, Numismatist & Cataloger, U.S. Coins
Later in June of this year, all eyes in the numismatic world will be on lot 4438
in our Baltimore Auction sale
as one of the legendary gold rarities of United States coinage comes to market -- the fabled MCMVII Ultra High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle with Lettered Edge. Graded an incredible Proof-69 by PCGS, this prominent rarity is certain to fetch a price well into the seven-figure range, joining a modest handful of other U.S. coins that share that “Million Dollar Club” distinction.
A landmark rarity since the day of inception, the Ultra High Relief double eagle, predecessor to the regular-issue High Relief double eagles of late 1907, has been studied and written about by numismatic scholars such as Edgar H. Adams, as far back as 1913, and Roger Burdette and our own Q. David Bowers in more recent times. While 12,367 MCMVII High Relief double eagles were struck for intended circulation, it is thought that just 20 or so Ultra High Relief MCMVII double eagles were produced.
The history of the coin is easily as fascinating as the coin itself. The Saint-Gaudens double eagles were the dream child of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the “Rough Rider” president of San Juan Hill fame and an outspoken defender of all he held dear, including nature, sportsmanship and classical art. A staunch advocate of “the strenuous life,” Roosevelt was an 1880 graduate of Harvard and later received his law degree from Columbia University. Before being elected vice president on the McKinley ticket in 1900, he served as assistant secretary of the Navy and police commissioner of New York, serving also as governor of the Empire State. In 1901 he became president after the death by assassination of William McKinley in September of that year.
The Roosevelt White House was one of the most open of all presidencies; the family invited the press routinely and enjoyed a largely open-door policy, similar to the “Camelot” White House of the early 1960s Kennedy era. On October 16, 1901, soon after becoming president, Roosevelt dined at the White House with black educator Booker T. Washington, an event that caused quite the stir among the self-righteous believers in segregation throughout the nation. He was a “tough cookie” when it came to dealing with Congress, trust-busting (breaking up monopolies), improving social conditions, and advocating for the Pure Food and Drug Act. In line with his famous “speak softly but carry a big stick” policy, he sent America’s Great White Fleet of Navy battleships and other vessels on an around the world cruise. Perhaps the most famous event of his presidency, however, occurred on a hunting trip to Mississippi. Not finding a bear to add to his trophies, Roosevelt returned to camp one evening only to find a captured bear cub chained to a tree for his hunting pleasure. Roosevelt, the consummate naturalist, ordered the bear released into the woods. When word got out of this humane treatment of the defenseless bear cub, the famous stuffed toy the “Teddy Bear” was born.
One afternoon in 1904, while on a visit to the Smithsonian Institute, Roosevelt encountered specimens of classical Greek coinage and was smitten by their inherent beauty and high relief style. In December 1904 he wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortier Shaw and noted: "I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?"
Enter one of the world’s greatest living sculptors, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who kept his home and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire from 1885 until his death from cancer in August 1907. By early 1905, Roosevelt (or a staff member) had contacted Saint-Gaudens to design an inauguration medal different than the one created by Charles Barber, the first of many perceived slights to the Mint’s Chief Engraver during Roosevelt’s tenure in the White House. Roosevelt also asked the sculptor to redesign the entire spectrum of America’s coinage, from the lowly cent through the magnificent gold double eagle, to which Saint-Gaudens replied: "I am extremely interested in the matter of the new designs for the coinage and am honored by your desire that I should give thought and advice on the subject."
In late 1905 the correspondence between the president and the artist increased, with Roosevelt inquiring at one point: "I was looking at some gold coins of Alexander the Great today, and I was struck by their high relief. Would it not be well to have our coins in high relief, and also to have the rim raised? The point of having the rims raised would be, of course, to protect the figure on the coin, and if we have the figures in high relief, like the figures on the old Greek coins, they will surely last longer. What do you think of this?" Saint-Gaudens replied that he would be more than pleased to follow the classical coinage styles of the ancient Greeks, but noted: “the authorities on modern monetary requirement would, I fear, 'throw fits,' to speak emphatically, if the thing was done now."
By January 1906, Roosevelt was on board with the Saint-Gaudens plans for the coinage, including the Roman numeral date style. He wrote to the sculptor and noted: "I have seen [Leslie Mortier] Shaw about that coinage and told him that it was my pet baby." The path to his "pet baby" was, however, constantly being thwarted by Charles Barber and others at the Mint. In a letter to Saint-Gaudens, Roosevelt jokingly wrote: "I think it will seriously increase the mortality among the employees at the Mint at seeing such a desecration, but they will perish in a good cause!" In an answering letter, Saint-Gaudens took a poke at Barber and the Mint, writing: "He has been in that institution since the foundation of the government and will be found standing in its ruins." In yet another letter the sculptor wrote: "I have sent a practical man to Washington to obtain all the details necessary for the carrying out of our scheme, but if you succeed in getting the best of the polite Mr. Barber down there, or the others in charge, you will have done a greater work than putting through the Panama Canal. Nevertheless, I shall stick at it, even until death."
At one point, experts from Tiffany and Gorham were consulted after Barber complained that his staff at the Mint could not produce a coin that required such heavy and deep cutting into a die. In a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Shaw dated September 11, 1906, Roosevelt wrote: "Mr. Kunz of Tiffany, and Mr. Buck of Gorham's, at once stated that their houses could without difficulty at a single stroke make a cut as deep as this. Mr. Barber must at once get into communication with Tiffany and Gorham, unless he is prepared to make such a deep impression without such consultation. Will you find out from him how long it will take, when the full casts of the coins are furnished you by Saint-Gaudens, to get out the first of the new coins -- that is, the twenty-dollar gold piece, which is the one I have most at heart?"
By this point in time, cancer had begun to ravage Saint-Gaudens. He wrote to Roosevelt on June 28, 1906: "I am here on the sick list, where I have to remain in the hands of the doctors until the first of August, but my mind is on the coins." He also wrote that he was considering for the reverse of the double eagle, "a flying eagle, a modification of the device which was used on the cent of 1857. I had not seen that coin for many years, and was so impressed by it that I thought if carried out with some modifications, nothing better could be done. It is by all odds the best design on any American coin." The sculptor's able assistant Henry Hering had taken on much of the work for the ailing Saint-Gaudens, and the Mint had been provided with plaster working models of the initial Saint-Gaudens design which had been transmitted to them by Hering. Regarding the plaster models, Roosevelt wrote: "Those models are simply immense -- if such a slang way of talking is permissible in reference to giving a modern nation one coinage at least which shall be as good as that of the ancient Greeks. I have instructed the director of the Mint that these dies are to be reproduced just as quickly as possible and just as they are. It is simply splendid. I suppose I shall be impeached for it in Congress; but I shall regard that as a very cheap payment!"
By early 1907, the Mint had reviewed the new double eagle designs numerous times and had begun with the technicalities of production. By February of the year, dies were prepared from the plaster models provided by Hering. Incredibly, it took nine blows from the hydraulic press to bring up the depth of detail in the dies. As the coins were to be struck at high speed for mass production, the nine-blow scenario was too much for the Mint to handle. Roosevelt wrote to Saint-Gaudens on May 8, 1907: "I am sorry to say I am having some real difficulties in connection with the striking of those gold coins. It has proved hitherto impossible to strike them by one blow, which is necessary under the conditions of making coins at the present day. I send you a copy of letters from the head of the Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum, and from Comparetti" [Comparette, curator of the Mint Collection, and a knowledgeable numismatist], who wrote: "I am afraid it is not practicable to have the coins made if they are struck with more than one blow. Of course, I can have a few hundred of these beautiful coins made, but they will be merely souvenirs and medals, not part of the true coinage of the country. Would it be possible for you to come on to the Mint? I am sure that the Mint authorities now really desire to do whatever they can, and if it would be possible for you to go there I could arrange to have some of the Tiffany people there at the same time to see if there was anything practicable to be done."
As noted in our catalog description by Dave Bowers of this marvelous Ultra High Relief double eagle: "The sculptor's health worsened, and the project was completed by Henry Hering. Although accounts differ, and some of the Ultra High Relief (as we now call them) Proofs may have not been preserved, it is thought that close to 20 were produced. Today these are the creme de la creme of American coinage. At the same time work was being done on the Indian $10 with a standing eagle on the reverse, the same bird, adapted from ancient coinage, used by Saint-Gaudens on the 1905 inaugural medal. Models for one-cent pieces were also made, but no pattern coinage resulted. Saint-Gaudens passed away in early August. Hering continued the work, including interface with Charles Barber at the Mint, who no longer had any resistance. The new $10 gold eagles entered commerce in the autumn of 1907 and the MCMVII circulation strikes were ready in December. The new twenties caused a sensation, and within a month or so all were gone, and the market price rose to $30 or so. These took three blows of the coining press to strike. An American classic was born! Mehl’s Numismatic Monthly, January 1908, included this regarding the circulation strikes:
'New Gold Coins. Philadelphia, Dec. 4. -- The first installment of new $20 pieces has been shipped from the United States mint in this city to various sub-treasuries about the country. There are 115,000 of them, their monetary value being $2,300,000. On one side of the coin is an eagle flying with outstretched wings, while on the other side is the figure of 'Liberty.' The coins are concave, the figures in high relief, and nine strokes of the hydraulic press being required to make them. Hereafter only one stroke will be used, and thus the coins just circulated will be different from those to be put in circulation later.'
"Barber set about changing the design, removing the Roman numerals and flattening the relief. His modification also entered commerce in December 1907 and went on to become the standard through 1933. In the summer of 1908 the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse, and in 1912 the number of stars around the obverse border was increased from 46 to 48, reflecting the addition of two states to the Union."
"Regarding the Ultra High Relief, today there is a large body of information available concerning it. David E. Tripp, Q. David Bowers, Roger Burdette, and others have written extensively on them and on the related circulation strikes. Roger Burdette's The Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908, published in 2006, incorporates the latest information and is definitive. Today a beautiful Proof is in the gallery display of selections from the National Numismatic Collection on the first floor of the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution. Another Gem is on view from the Harry W. Bass, Jr. Collection exhibit on loan to the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs, and another is a treasure in the cabinet of the American Numismatic Society in New York City. The Connecticut State Library in Hartford has a fourth from the bequest of Joseph C. Mitchelson, a prominent numismatist."
"Others are in private hands. We have had the honor of handling over a half dozen of the Ultra High Relief twenties at public and private sale, including the Lilly Collection specimen now in the Smithsonian and the Norweb family coin said to have been obtained by Albert Fairchild Holden (Emery May Holden Norweb’s father) from Saint-Gaudens or his family in 1907."
And so reads the story of the MCMVII Ultra High Relief Lettered Edge double eagle rarity, lengthy, to be sure, but of as much importance as the coin itself. We hope you will be on hand in Baltimore to witness numismatic history in the making.