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Looking for Something New to Collect?

Written by Q. David Bowers, Chairman Emeritus

Author: Stack's Bowers Galleries / Wednesday, January 23, 2013 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers
Right now as I send these words to you the price of an ounce of gold is lower than it has been in some time. The outlook for gold, from all I read, continues strong and holding some gold would seem to be as good of an idea as it ever has been.

A particularly interesting way to make a beginning or add to what you have is to form a type set of $20 designs. Double eagles are the largest regularly issued denomination, were struck from 1850 to 1933, and comprise a nice group of distinctly different types. In such grades as EF and AU all except the MCMVII are very affordable, selling at a relatively low premium over melt value. Even in grades such as MS-61 and MS-62, there are many attractive coins that can be acquired without paying a great premium. As I have mentioned before, cherrypicking among certified coins can yield excellent results. There are many encapsulated MS-62 coins today that no doubt will be resubmitted and come back as MS-63. These are “high end” pieces. Resubmitting is, of course, gaming the system, but it is a great sport for those who indulge in it. Cherrypicking always has its advantages, and within a given grade -- MS-62 or any other grade -- there are pieces that are average, pieces that are low end, and ones that are high end. The adding of stars, plus signs, and other such designations is relatively recent, leaving tens of millions of coins that have no indication as to high, average, or low quality within their grade. Even those that do have such indications are subject to different opinions.

Type I -- 1850-1866
The first double eagle type is that minted for circulation from 1850 to 1866. The obverse depicts the head of Miss Liberty designed by Chief Engraver James B. Longacre. The reverse has an ornate shield, the denomination given as TWENTY D, and does not have the motto. These were produced in quantity through 1865, plus some at the San Francisco Mint in 1866. While there are scarce and rare issues, the 1854-O and 1856-O being particularly well known, most are affordable.

When the lost treasure of the S.S. Central America (lost at sea on September 12, 1857) was recovered in the 1980s, it yielded over 5,000 mint fresh examples of the 1857-S! These had been put aboard the S.S. Sonora in San Francisco, shipped in the Pacific Ocean to Panama City, then taken 48 miles across the Panama Railroad to Aspinwall, where they were loaded aboard the Central America. As is well known, the ship was lost in a raging storm, and $1,200,000 in registered coins and ingots, plus other amounts not registered, went to the bottom of the sea. Today the 1857-S double eagle is the one issue that can be obtained in grades in MS-63 to MS-65 for prices considerably less than other varieties. Most of these are well struck and truly beautiful.

Type II -- 1866-1876
The second type has the same obverse and reverse as the preceding, except that the motto IN GOD WE TRUST has been added on the reverse. As no quantities of the type were found on any of several recovered treasure ships, in higher Mint State levels this type is distinctly rarer than the Type I. This design also introduces the first coinage of the Carson City Mint in 1870. As a general rule, Carson City double eagles are very elusive, those of the early 1870s being particularly so. A nice common date, so to speak, in a grade such as AU or MS-60 is quite affordable, these being from the Philadelphia or San Francisco mints.

Type III -- 1877-1907
The third type is the last of the Liberty Head series and is the same as Type II but now with the denomination spelled out as TWENTY DOLLARS. While earlier Mint State examples are as a rule generally scarce, those in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are quite common -- that is for higher mintage dates. The first several years of the 20th century are particularly inexpensive.

Type IV -- MCMVII (1907)
This type is the masterpiece of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, struck in High Relief with the date expressed in Roman numerals as MCMVII. As is well known in numismatic circles, President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 viewed coins on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. He was impressed with the sculptured high relief art of ancient Greek issues and wondered why America could not have a high level of beauty in its own coins. He contacted Saint-Gaudens, America’s best-known sculptor at the time, and arranged for him to redesign the entire coinage spectrum from the cent to the double eagle. The sculptor began with the $20, creating pattern versions. Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens was terminally ill and on August 3, 1907, passed away from the effects of cancer. He never did live to see the final iteration of his design, which was produced to the extent of slightly over 12,000 pieces for circulation in December of that year. By that time his $10 gold coin was a reality as well. Some other designs were made in models and sketches, but no patterns or regular coins resulted.

There was an artistic competition between Saint-Gaudens (highly acclaimed) and Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber at the Philadelphia Mint, whose work was not well viewed in artistic circles, with Saint-Gaudens at one time calling his work “wretched.” Perhaps this was an overstatement, for without doubt certain of Barber’s designs were and are beautiful, the Liberty Head nickel being an example. However, the two did not get along, and when Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to redesign coins, Barber was offended.

The high relief $20 was beautiful to view, but in reality required three strokes of the coining press to bring the design up in full. This was not feasible, so after the limited coinage noted above, Barber revised the design, lowered the relief to a shallow format, and eliminated the Roman numerals. Thus was isolated the fourth type of double eagle, the key to a type set. As the MCMVII attracted a lot of attention in its time, many were saved, and I estimate today that about 6,000 exist in various degrees of preservation.

Type V -- 1907-1908
This type is the revision of Saint-Gaudens’ design by Charles Barber in December 1907, in shallow relief, continued through the first part of 1908.

Type VI -- 1908-1933
In the summer of 1908, the motto IN GOD WE TRUST was added to the reverse of the Type V lower relief Saint-Gaudens’ design, creating the final motif, which was produced intermittently through 1933. The fifth and sixth types of double eagles were made in quantity and today examples are inexpensive.

Arranged in a row, the six different designs of $20 gold pieces will make an impressive display. Why not consider such a challenge?