The 1907 High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

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Posted by: John Roberts, on 8/2/2007, in category "Pressing Issues"
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Abstract: With the passage of a century, the allure of this issue remains among the strongest.

1907 High Relief Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle
The centennial of one of America’s most celebrated numismatic designs is upon us. The passage of the years has only deepened the aesthetic appreciation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens work. This version of the double eagle or twenty dollar gold piece most closely represents the realization of the desire of President Theodore Roosevelt to make the United States circulating coinage rival that of the classical Greek world.
The ultra high relief examples of 1907, dated with the Roman numerals MCMVII, are among the most rare and valuable of all coins. Approximately twenty exist and an auction appearance of one of the survivors is a landmark event. The Heritage Numismatic Auctions sale of the Phillip H. Morse collection on November 3rd, 2005 is a notable instance of such an occasion. More closely resembling medals than coins, the ultra high relief impressions required between six and nine strikes on the medal department’s 150 ton hydraulic press. The pieces were annealed – softened by controlled heating and cooling – and cleansed between blows leaving a surface layer of virtually pure gold. They are properly considered patterns and are listed in United States Pattern Coins: Complete Source for History, Grading and Prices by J. Hewitt Judd, MD. The three different Judd numbers (J-1907 thru J-1909) associated with the gold examples each represent a distinct collar type used with the same obverse and reverse dies. This version of the design has no rim. They are the only pieces that were viewed by the famed sculptor as the fruition of his work prior to his death on August 3rd, 1907.
The high relief double eagles are by contrast of a slightly lower relief and feature distinct rims. Production began on September 1st. The earlier version of this design had a small gap between the dies and collar resulting in what is commonly known as the “wire rim” variety. The mint considered this an undesirable characteristic and modified the collar slightly. Coins from productions runs after the thin, irregular fin of metal was eliminated are known as the “flat rim” variety. They command a slight premium over the “wire rim” pieces. Together, mint records report the coinage of 12, 387 high relief double eagles. Use of the heavier medal press was still required to fully strike up the design. Three to five blows were employed with an annealing between each blow. These coins were not subjected to the same chemical bath of a nitric acid solvent prior to striking that their ultra high relief counterparts were. Rather than the bright and somewhat reflective gold surface, the high relief issues typically feature a satin like luster and a slightly more reddish-yellow tint to the gold.
Image courtesy of Stack's Rare Coins
Saint-Gaudens' high relief double eagle obverse design was strongly influenced by classical Greek sculpture.
Saint-Gaudens’ design has been marveled at almost universally since it first appeared. The representation of the Goddess of Liberty is striding forward and upward, a torch held aloft by her right arm along with the olive branch of peace in her outstretched left. A burst of rays are at her back with the dome of the US Capitol in the distance the viewer’s left. An arc of 46 stars surrounds the periphery and the legend “Liberty” is inscribed above her portrait. The date is expressed in Roman numerals as MCMVII. On the reverse, the bald eagle is in full flight, ascending across the rays of the sun. The sculptor’s art is captured in miniature; our national symbols have a most remarkable dimensional aspect and a strong impression of animation. To see one is to witness a coin that truly appears alive.
Image courtesy of Stack's Rare Coins
The reverse was inspired by one of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' favorite American coins, the Flying Eagle cent of 1856-58.
Having satisfied the demands of the President, the Mint was allowed to modify the design again to make it more suitable for mass production on a scale of millions rather than thousands. The high relief double eagle is estimated to have taken a total of twelve minutes per coin to produce with its several trips through the medal press and the annealing furnace. In sharp contrast, the low relief design that replaced it could be struck at the rate of eighty coins per minute on the regular coining presses. Contemporary photographs of the coining room in the Philadelphia Mint depict dozens of presses at work simultaneously. Chief Engraver Charles Barber redesigned the double eagle with lower relief and the “Arabic Numerals” date. It was his modifications that made the coins capable of being produced by a single blow from a standard coining press. However, Barber’s changes have been the subject of many negative opinions penned over decades of numismatic writing. Theodore Roosevelt was hardly flattering of Barber’s work. He is quoted as referring to the coins that were then currently in use as an “atrocious hideousness”. Most of the coins in circulation were either designed or modified by the Chief Engraver. Whether the opinions regarding Barber’s work are justified will undoubtedly continue to be the subject of debate. Some would express the opinion that he was far more concerned with function rather than form. A review of his efforts would seem to bear out a tendency to produce efficient workaday tools of the economy rather than a collection of object d’art to strike the fancy of generations of numismatists.  
Omega images by John Roberts
The signature of "Omega" is found inside the eagle's claw.
Small tooling marks identify the obverse of this well made counterfeit.
The high relief MCMVII dated pieces are also noteworthy as a target of one of the most infamous counterfeits ever known, the work of the mysterious “Omega”. Several diagnostic characteristics may help identify an example of one of the highest quality forgeries ever produced. The maker of these pieces, who has never been identified, signed his work. A tiny symbol “Ω” that resembles the Greek letter omega may be found inside the eagle’s claw. Two patches of distinctive tooling marks are found on the obverse, in the hair to left of Liberty’s face and on the ray directly above the first M of the date. With genuine circulated examples difficult to obtain for less than five thousand dollars and better grade mint state pieces routinely trading for over fifty thousand, the grading and authentication of any example by competent professionals is an increasingly essential service.

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