Following the discovery of gold in California in 1849, the mint began production of the Double Eagle or $20 gold piece the following year. Originally struck only in Philadelphia and New Orleans, coinage began in San Francisco in 1854 followed by Carson City in 1870. Containing nearly an ounce of gold, the Double Eagle was the nation’s highest-face value coin ever struck for circulation and packed enormous purchasing power in its time – equivalent to just over $700 in today’s money!
There are two main types of Double Eagles, the Liberty (1850-1907) and the Saint-Gaudens (1907-1933). These are commonly referred to today by dealers and collectors as “$20 Libs” and “Saints” respectively. Three varieties of $20 Liberties were made – the first from 1850 through 1866 did not carry the motto “In God We Trust” on the reverse. The second variety (1866-1876) featured the motto, but indicated the denomination on the reverse at bottom as “TWENTY D.” In 1877 the denomination was changed to “TWENTY DOLLARS” and this variety was struck through 1907.
Like the Eagles, Double Eagles present a formidable challenge to any collector attempting a complete date and mintmark set. While nearly all the early branch mint Double Eagles are tough in Mint State, a few dates are prohibitively rare in any condition. These include the 1854-O, 1856-O, 1870-CC, 1871-CC, 1879-O, 1882, 1885, 1886, 1891 and the proof-only issues of 1883, 1884 and 1887. The final issues from New Orleans before the Civil War (1859-O, 1860-O and 1861-O) are also quite scarce. Most dates after 1894 are readily available, with 1904 being by far the most common date.
The beautiful design of Augustus Saint-Gaudens appeared on the Double Eagle in 1907 with a modest run of just over 12,000 pieces struck in high relief. These are easily among the most artistic and striking coins ever produced by the U.S. mint. Unfortunately, production difficulties were encountered and later that year, the relief was lowered. While a high percentage of High Relief Saints survived and they are nearly always available, their high price (around $25,000-35,000 for a choice Mint State example) reflects the ardent demand from collectors.
The 1907 and early 1908 issues were struck without the motto “In God We Trust” on the reverse, but later in 1908 the motto was added. Up to 1916, most Saint-Gaudens $20s are available and relatively affordable, but after that point, things become more difficult. The 1920-S, 1921, 1927-D, 1927-S, and all issues dated 1929 and after are very tough. However, the most common dates are also found in this range, with a high number of Philadelphia-produced Saints dated 1924, 1927 and 1928 in the market.
In 1986, the Saint-Gaudens obverse design was selected for use on the American Gold Eagle Bullion issue, certainly cementing its position as one of America’s most beloved and enduring designs.