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Gold Double Eagle

The $20 gold coin shown here is the only known specimen of its kind and is among the rarest of United States coins. It owes its existence, in part, to the discovery of gold in California in 1848, of which the famous Sutter's Mill discovery was but the beginning. The California Gold Rush created a steady flow of gold, part of which reached the United States Mint in Philadelphia. Instead of striking gold in traditional $1 pieces, the Mint decided to also issue larger denominations. In February 1849,Congress authorized the striking of $20 gold coins, which were created by the very talented Chief-Engraver James Barton Longacre. This coin is one of two trial patterns struck on March 12, 1850, even though it bears the date 1849. The second pattern has never been found. This coin inaugurated the series of gold 20 dollars, nicknamed "double eagles", which were issued from 1850 to 1907. The term "double eagle" is derived from the fact that the $10 coin is called an "eagle". 

The experimental high-relief $20 coin struck on December 22, 1907 was the work of two famous Americans: President Theodore Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The President was a great admirer of ancient Greek coins and wanted to bring similar beauty to the U.S. coinage. He approached Saint-Gaudens to redesign the 10 and the 20 dollar coins. For the $20 the sculptor chose an advancing figure of Liberty for the obverse and a flying eagle on the reverse. Chief-Engraver of the U.S. Mint, Charles Barber, resented the new design, partly because the high relief of the coin required a longer striking process, thus only a few of the very high relief pieces were struck in December, 1907. Soon afterwards new dies with a much lower relief were created for this coin; it was issued for circulation from 1907to 1933. The coin above shows the ultra-high relief. It was a gift from Saint-Gaudens to President Roosevelt. In 1967, this piece was donated to the National Numismatic Collection by Cornelius van Schaak Roosevelt, a nephew of the President.


These 20 dollar gold coins are the only legal survivors of 455,500 double eagles struck in the spring of 1933 but never released for circulation and ultimately melted down in the fall of 1934. They are part of the National Numismatic Collection. The financial instability following World War I throughout the world encouraged many private citizens to hoard gold, ultimately also affecting the U.S. gold reserves. The problem was compounded in the 1930's by a general bank crisis which led, on March 6 to 9, to the closing of all banks. President Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded, with his legislation "the Emergency Bank Relief Act", March 9, 1933 and the "Gold Reserve Act", Jan. 1934, in putting an end to these crises: banks were opened, but gold vanished. The legislation put an end to all circulation and private possession of U.S. gold; an exemption was granted for "gold coins having a recognized value to collectors of rare and unusual coins". Late in 1934, the 1933 $20 coins were melted down, with the exception of the above two coins. In 1923 they were added to the old Mint Collection, which had become a part of the Smithsonian Collections.

Images and text courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution


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