Coin designers tend to be a fairly insular group, plying their trade in relative obscurity. And while a few have become heroes (or villains) in numismatic circles, only one rose to such national prominence that his home and studio have been preserved as a National Historic Site.
Today, Augustus Saint-Gaudens is best known for his design of the American Double Eagle $20 gold coin, but his work as a renowned sculptor is what brought him to the attention of Teddy Roosevelt when the president decided that U.S. coins needed a facelift.
Early Life and Artistic Endeavors
Son of a French shoemaker and Irish mother, Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin but emigrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1848, when he was six months old. At thirteen, his father asked him what sort of work he wanted to do, and the youngster said he wanted to pursue his love of the arts. He took an apprenticeship with a famous cameo maker of the time and enrolled in art classes at New York’s Cooper Union in the evenings. His father’s success as a shoemaker in Boston allowed young Saint-Gaudens to travel to Paris to study at the prestigious Ecole de Beaux-Artes.
A teenager during the Civil War, Saint-Gaudens became fascinated with that war’s Northern heroes. While still in Paris, he received a commission to do a sculpture of Union Admiral David Farragut to be displayed in New York’s Madison Square Park. Celebrated architect Stanford White designed the pedestal, and that association began a long series of collaborations between the two men that included several other statues and commemorative plaques featuring Civil War notables. Those works impressed Roosevelt, and he met and became friends with Saint-Gaudens.
Entry into U.S. Coin Design
In 1891, Saint-Gaudens was invited to serve on a committee that included Charles Barber, the U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver, to judge entries for the design of new silver coinage. Top designers, including Saint-Gaudens himself, boycotted the competition due to the paltry prize offered the winner, resulting in submissions that the judges deemed unacceptable. In spite of Saint-Gaudens’s offer to design it himself, Barber, a much less talented engraver with an outsized ego, chose to take on the design personally, resulting in a series of coins that were judged by the public as pedestrian, at best. Insulted by Barber’s actions, Saint-Gaudens refused to take part in any further Mint designs, a vow he kept until approached personally by Roosevelt several years later.
Recruited by Roosevelt for Coin Design
Two days after Christmas, 1904, President Roosevelt wrote the Treasury Secretary, saying "I think the state of our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness,” and asked if it would be possible to circumvent Congress, which had to give permission to any changes in coin design, and hire Saint-Gaudens directly to redesign some of the more prominent coins. It would be a break with tradition, since up to that point, no one other than a Mint employee had ever designed a U.S. coin.
But Roosevelt was persuasive, and in late December, 1907, after some changes necessitated by production methods and some minor modifications made by a meddlesome Charles Barber, just over 360,000 Saint-Gaudens $20 Gold Double Eagle coins were released into circulation.
$20 Gold Double Eagle Coin Design
The coin’s face depicts a full-length figure of Liberty striding confidently forward over a rocky outcropping with a torch of enlightenment in one hand and an olive branch in the other. The sun’s rays radiate behind her and the U.S. Capitol building sets in the distance on the lower left. The name of Liberty is inscribed at the top, and 46 stars radiate around its circumference, representing the number of states in the Union at the time. Two more stars were added in 1912, when Arizona and New Mexico became states. The national motto, E Pluribus Unum, is inscribed on the coin’s edge.
The reverse design is a side view of an eagle in flight with a rising sun and its rays behind it. The original 1907 release notably left off the motto “In God We Trust,” but after a national uproar, it was restored in an arch above the sun’s surface for coins made from 1908 onward.
The coin remained in production until the suspension of all gold coinage by Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1933. It is considered by many to be the most beautiful U.S. coin ever made.
Obverse Face Design of American Gold Eagle Series
When the Mint began issuing gold bullion coins in 1986, the Saint-Gaudens design was chosen for the face (obverse) of the American Gold Eagle series. The reverse was designed by contemporary sculptor Miley Busiek. It features a male bald eagle carrying an olive branch back to a nest occupied by his mate and their hatchlings. Busiek added two additional stars to reflect the admission of Alaska and Hawaii to the Union.
Collect Gold American Eagle Bullion Coins
The Great American Coin Company® is proud to offer these beautiful Gold American Eagle Bullion Coins in 1/10, 1/4, 1/2, and 1 ounce versions produced under the U.S. Mint’s bullion coin program. Each features the striking Saint-Gaudens and Busiek designs in 91.67% pure gold. They’re great additions to both bullion portfolios and coin collections, and make beautiful gifts for special occasions, too.
The Great American Coin Company® offers a wide selection of collectible U.S. coins and paper money as well as currency from around the world. We keep adding unique collectibles as they become available, so be sure to visit us frequently. And while you’re there, be sure to visit our blog for interesting and timely articles about currency and precious metals.