As struck and pristine, the surfaces of this amazing Ultra High Relief double eagle are free of so much as a single trivial blemish. Swirling die polish lines in the fields are characteristic of the manner in which these coins were produced, and radiant yellow gold surfaces are aglow with a stunning satin to modestly semi-reflective finish. Fully defined over even the most intricate elements of the design, and a remarkable coin to behold.
An Appreciation of the Ultra High Relief Saint Gaudens Double Eagle, by Q. David Bowers
The MCMVII (1907) Proof Ultra High Relief has been a landmark rarity ever since the day it was coined. Over a long period of years various scholars -- ranging from Edgar H. Adams in 1913 to Roger Burdette in recent times -- have studied and admired this coin, the predecessor to the regular circulation strikes minted in High Relief in December 1907 and from the same dies in January 1908 to the extent of 12,367 examples. While few collectors or museums have been fortunate enough to own an Ultra High Relief, as here, the regular High Relief issues, of slightly different design details, are readily collectible, though expensive due to the great demand for them. Time and again surveys among numismatists have rated this as America's most beautiful coin design. Indeed, in 1986 when the U.S. Mint commenced making American Eagle gold coins it could not improve on this 1907 motif by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and employed in for the obverse. In 2011 the Mint made reduced-diameter Proof copies of the motif.
Of all American presidents Theodore ("Teddy") Roosevelt may have been the one who most enjoyed the world around him. As a young man he was in ill health much of the time, but outdoor activities and exercise helped him overcome his ill health, making him an advocate, as he often said, of "the strenuous life." He graduated from Harvard in 1880, a Phi Beta Kappa, and then took a degree in law at Columbia. He entered politics as a Republican. His efforts were in what he considered to be the best interests of the people. For what we call "political correctness" today he had little interest. A gifted speaker and writer, Roosevelt never hesitated to express what he had in mind.
He served on the Civil Service Commission from 1889 to 1895, then as assistant secretary of the Navy from 1895 to 1897, and as New York police commissioner. During the 1898 Spanish-American War he was lieutenant colonel of the Rough Riders, leading them on a charge in the Battle of San Juan Hill. After the war he was elected as governor of New York State. In 1900 he was selected as running mate when President William McKinley sought re-election. McKinley and Roosevelt took the oath of office in March 1901.
While visiting the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6 of that year, McKinley was shot twice by Leon Czolgolz, a deranged anarchist. He was taken to a nearby home where his condition worsened. Thomas L. Elder, a young man from Pennsylvania who enjoyed dealing in coins as a sideline, was a professional telegrapher and happened to be on hand. Each day he tapped out messages to inform the world of the president's situation, who was in continuing decline. He passed away on September 14 and was succeeded in office by Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens
In the White House the new president set the tempo for the Washington scene with his family welcoming the press and creating a lot of attention, similar in a way to the Kennedy family in the early 1960s. On October 16, 1901, he invited well-known black educator Booker T. Washington to dinner, causing an uproar among those who thought this was not proper. In Congress he set about trust-busting (breaking up large business monopolies), improving social conditions, advocating the Pure Food and Drug Act, and in accordance with his "Speak softly but carry a big stick" policy of American defense, sent the Great White Fleet of Navy ships around the world. On the sentimental side he inspired the Teddy Bear. He was on a hunting expedition in Mississippi and returned to camp empty handed. Some associates captured a cub bear and chained it to a tree, ready for the president to shoot. The little bear's life was spared. Today in 2012 the Teddy Bear lives on.
Roosevelt enjoyed art and history and had a joie de vivre unmatched by any president up to his time. One day in 1904 he visited the Smithsonian Institution, then centered in the "Castle" which, to this day, is a cynosure on the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. There, under glass, he viewed specimens of ancient Greek coinage. Perhaps reflecting upon a handful of pocket change, he would later (December 27, 1904) write to Leslie Mortier Shaw, his secretary of the Treasury:
"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?"
At the time Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), who since 1885 had maintained his studio in Cornish, New Hampshire, in verdant hills overlooking the Connecticut River, was America's best-known and most honored sculptor. He had done extensive commissions for many important projects including for the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893), among many others. A particular point of pride was the nude Diana sculpted for display atop Madison Square Garden, the New York gathering place designed by his late lamented buddy Stanford White, of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White. In Cornish, Saint-Gaudens was part of an artists' colony that included a half dozen or more artists and writers of repute, among the former being Maxfield Parrish (some years ago his son, Maxfield, Jr., consigned a regular High Relief $20 to us for auction; it had been a gift from Homer, the artist's son). Each summer the group would hold amateur theatricals and otherwise enjoy the arts in bucolic surroundings.
By early 1905, Saint-Gaudens had been contacted by Roosevelt or his staff to help create a medal for Roosevelt's March 1905 inauguration, his first as an elected president. The official inauguration medal had been created by Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber, following the custom that such medals were always made at the Mint. In an unprecedented move Roosevelt had Saint-Gaudens make another version! The handwriting was on the wall for Barber, although no one knew it then. Probably few remembered that some years earlier Saint-Gaudens had called another Barber medal "wretched." Roosevelt asked the sculptor to help redesign all American coinage from the cent to the double eagle! This was a slap in the face for Barber.
On January 13, 1905, Saint-Gaudens wrote to Director of the Mint George E. Roberts in Washington:
"Your letter of January 13th addressed c/o Society of American Artists was sent to Windsor, Vermont [Windsor, across the Connecticut River from Cornish, NH, was where the artist received his mail] and from there forwarded to me here two days ago."
"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. It will, I assure you, give me great pleasure to assist in the procuring of good work but I shall need time for reflection and consultation with others before replying definitely and when I have come to a conclusion I will write you at once. I shall be in Washington in March and should you desire it can take up the subject with you at that time."
In due course the inaugural medals were viewed by President Roosevelt, who then wrote to the artist:
"My dear fellow. I am very grateful to you, and I am very proud to have been able to associate you with my administration. I like the medals immensely, but that goes without saying, for the work is eminently characteristic of you..."
"Thank Heaven we have at last some artistic work of permanent worth done for the government … I don't want to slop over, but I feel just as if we had suddenly imported a little of Greece of the 5th or 4th centuries B.C. into America; and I am very proud and grateful that I happen to be the beneficiary."
Development of the New Double Eagle Design
With commission in hand, the sculptor made many sketches for various issues, particularly the cent and the larger gold denominations. It was the autumn season in the hills of New Hampshire, most leaves had fallen from the trees, and following the departure of visitors, the serious work could begin.
On November 6, 1905, Roosevelt wrote:
"How is that old gold coinage coming along! I want to make a suggestion. It seems to me worthwhile to try for a really good coinage, though I suppose there will be a revolt about it!"
"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 to Roosevelt on November 11, stating that he would be pleased to follow the coinage concepts of ancient Greece, "but the authorities on modern monetary requirement would, I fear, 'throw fits,' to speak emphatically, if the thing was done now."
Further: "It would be great if it could be accomplished, and I do not see what the objection would be if the edges were high enough to prevent rubbing. Perhaps an inquiry from you would not receive the antagonistic reply from those who have say in such matters that would certainly be made to me."
Clearly, the antagonism between Saint-Gaudens and Chief Engraver Barber at the Mint was deep rooted. More from the same letter:
"Up to the present I have done no work on the actual models for the coins, but have made sketches and the matter is constantly in my mind. I have about determined on the composition of one side, which would contain an eagle very much like the one I placed on your [inaugural] medal with the modification that would be advantageous."
"On the other side I would place a (possibly winged) figure of Liberty striding energetically forward as if on a mountain top holding aloft on one arm a shield bearing the Stars and stripes with the word Liberty marked cross the field, in the other hand, perhaps, a flaming torch. The drapery would be flowing in the breeze. My idea is to make it a living thing and typical of progress."
Thus was born the idea, at least in coinage form, of what would become in 1907 the Ultra High Relief gold double eagle.
Additional correspondence took place between the president and the sculptor. Roosevelt seconded Saint-Gaudens' idea of putting the date in roman numerals, heretofore not utilized on United States coinage. The Mint (read Charles Barber) strongly resisted this entire procedure. Roosevelt met with Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortier Shaw, and on January 6, 1906, reported to Saint-Gaudens:
"I have seen Shaw about that coinage and told him that it was my pet baby. We will try it anyway, so you go ahead. Shaw was really very nice about it. Of course, he things I am a crack-brained lunatic on the subject, but he said with great kindness that there was always a certain number of gold coins that had to be stored up in vaults, and there was no earthly objection to having those coins as artistic as the Greeks could desire..."
"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!"
The presidential encouragement prompted the sculptor to comment, tongue-in-cheek, on May 26, 1906:
"Whatever I produce cannot be worse than the inanities now displayed on our coins, and we will at least have made an attempt in the right direction, and served the country by increasing the mortality at the Mint. There is one gentleman there, however, who, when he sees what is coming, may have the 'nervous prostitution' as termed by a native here, but killed, no. He has been in that institution since the foundation of the government and will be fond standing in its ruins."
The powers of the White House notwithstanding, getting the chief engraver to like anything that Saint-Gaudens did was next to impossible. On May 28, 1906, the sculptor commented to his president-patron-protector:
"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."
Cancer had taken hold in Saint-Gaudens' body, and the last sentence would prove to be very poignant. On June 28, he advised the president, "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." The sculptor noted that for the reverse of the $20 coin he was going to use "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 struggled with his health and was aided in his coin work by Henry Hering, an assistant.
The Continuing Story
Roosevelt kept up the pressure on the Philadelphia Mint and also on the sculptor, but was receiving nothing in the way of help from the chief engraver. On September 11, 1906, a letter from Roosevelt to Secretary of the Treasury Shaw included this commentary:
"Now, a word as to my pet iniquity, the coinage, which I am getting Saint-Gaudens to start. I am afraid I shall have some difficulty with the Mint people, who are insisting that they cannot cut the coins as deep as they should be made. I enclose you a specimen, and I direct that Mr. Barber have the dies made as Saint-Gaudens, with my authority, presents them."
"Mr. Barber is quoted as saying that they could not cut them as deep as this. We then applied to Tiffany and Gorham, the two great silversmiths and jewelers of New York. 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?"
"All I want to know from Mr. Barber is how long it will take to make them, and the cost; and if there is likely to be a long delay and seemingly too much expense I will want him to communicate with Messrs. Buck and Kunz. But if he has to communicate with them I should regard it as rather a black eye for the Mint and a confession of inferiority on their part to Tiffany and Gorham. Will you communicate all of this to the Mint people?"
So it was with a feeling of relief and satisfaction that Roosevelt wrote to Saint-Gaudens on December 20, 1906, after having seen the first plaster models (which had been transmitted by Henry Hering):
"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 $20 design several times and was now involved with the technicalities of mintage. As the coins were intended to be made in large quantities on a high-speed, steam-powered production press, efficiency was the key precept. At the time the $20 circulated little except in areas of the West, and was mainly used for international monetary settlements and domestic bank reserves. And, it is to be remembered, a mint is a coin factory, not an artist’s studio.
In February 1907 dies were prepared from the plaster models received the preceding December. Incredibly it took nine distinct blows from a hydraulic press to bring the relief up to the height required. Given the scenario of each coin requiring nine blows from the press and the animus triangle involving the president, the sculptor, and the Mint, progress continued to be slow, and resisted at every turn.
On March 12, 1907, Saint-Gaudens reported to Roosevelt:
"I send today to the Mint the models of the twenty-dollar gold piece with the alterations that were indispensable if the coin was to be struck with one blow. There has been no change whatever in the design. It was simply a question of the thickness of the gold in certain places, and the weight of the pressure when the blow was struck."
Today the impressions from this second modification are not known to numismatics. However, the revisions did not help, and problems at the Mint -- real as well as perceived -- continued. It simply proved too much. 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]."
"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."
The Rest of the Story
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 Head $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.
Combined PCGS and NGC Population: just 1; 0 finer.