Without question, the most beautiful coin in U.S. history is the design that appeared on the $20 Gold Double Eagle from 1907 to 1933. It is the design of Augustus St. Gaudens. The coin carries the grace and magnificent charm of the ancient Greek coins and is considered the centerpiece in the United States' "Golden Era" of coinage. Who could have known that an apprentice cameo carver would become a world renowned sculptor, and designer of the coin that carries his name, the St. Gaudens $20 gold piece?
Augustus St. Gaudens was not an unknown artist when he was asked to design U.S. coins. You have probably seen some of his works and not realized it. Some of them are:
The “Admiral Farragut Monument” in New York City
“Abraham Lincoln: The Man” in Lincoln Park, Chicago
The “Shaw Memorial” in Boston and shown in the movie “Glory”
The “Sherman Monument” in Central Park in New York City
“Abraham Lincoln: The Head of State” in Grant Park, Chicago
“Silence” in the Masonic Hospital, Utica, NY
“The Pilgrim” in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia
Upon completion of President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural medal, in 1905, St. Gaudens, ailing from reoccurring cancer, was asked to create new designs for the $20 and $10 gold pieces, and the penny (which never came to be). The president felt U.S. coinage needed a face-lift. After submitting a couple of different design concepts, for the $20 gold piece to the president, a stunning high relief design was agreed upon. The obverse design featured “Liberty” striding towards the viewer with a torch in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The sun is rising behind her. Many art aficionados believe the “Liberty” design, on this coin, was an adaptation of the winged “Liberty” utilized on the “Sherman Monument.” An African-American artist’s model named Hettie Anderson posed for the “Liberty” design. The design on the reverse of the $20 gold depicts a majestic eagle in flight, with the sun below and its rays extending upward.
St. Gaudens and the president agreed to omit the motto IN GOD WE TRUST from the new coin. It is said President Roosevelt reasoned, since coins could be used for illegal or immoral purposes, then it would be blasphemous to have the name of God on our coinage. The first year and a half of issue didn’t carry the motto. An act of Congress returned the motto in 1908. The motto was first appeared on the 2˘ piece in 1864, under the Lincoln administration. It was meant as a promise to the American people that the U.S. would never be torn apart by Civil War again. After Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, legislation was passed to install the motto on all our coinage that was large enough to allow it.
Augustus St. Gaudens died in 1907, just before his new design was issued for circulation. It was issued in high relief with the date appearing in Roman Numerals. Only 11,250 were issued. The mint’s Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber found an opportunity to lower the relief of the coin and took it. He sited the necessity to produce these coins at high-speed and the need for the coins to be stacked as his excuses. Barber also changed the date from Roman to Arabic numerals. Even after Barber tampered with the design, the coin’s aesthetic integrity remained. With the exception of three years, 1917 through 1919, the coin was produced annually from the Philadelphia Mint with the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco adding to the production as needed.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Orders number 6102 and 6260, in 1933, which prevented gold coins being released for circulation. The mint manufactured almost half a million gold coins dated 1933, but the government supposedly never released them, and maintained ownership as illegal.
In the late 1990s, a rumor circulated throughout the Coin Industry, a 1933 St. Gaudens $20 Gold Piece existed and was heading for the auction block. The U.S. government heard and confirmed the same rumor. The coin was seized and arrests were made in New York City. The coin, at one time, was a part of the King Farouk coin collection, and the government was left trying to figure out how it got there. A settlement was agreed upon. Only this one coin could be sold legally, and the U.S. government would split the proceeds of the auction 50/50 with the owning rare coin dealer. The coin was graded by PCGS as a Mint State 65. When the auction hammer fell, the coin sold for a record price of $7.59 million.
The St. Gaudens $20 Gold Piece is, without a doubt, the most beautiful of any U.S. coin ever produced. The design is classic. In 1986, the U.S. Mint once again honored the artistic genius of St. Gaudens by resurrecting the obverse design on the U.S. Gold Eagle bullion coins.