Double Eagle Type Collecting
BY PAUL GREEN
Collecting $20 double eagles by type is a lot of fun, and very educational as well. Moreover, every time the price of gold goes up, a double eagle type set has a way of looking better and better. This is the denomination that receives the most attention when prices begin rising.
To say that double eagles are historic is an understatement. A very strong case can be made that the United States $20 gold double eagle has its roots in the discovery of gold in California’s streams back in the late 1840s.
Prior to the discovery of gold, there were no "Doubles," and no talk of creating a gold coin larger than the $10 eagle. In fact, gold eagle production had been suspended for nearly 35 years so that the mint was free to strike smaller denominations. Even when gold coin production was resumed, the two branch mints at Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia, (which only made gold coins) never struck a denomination higher than $5, as there was very little commercial use for a $10 coin at the time.
Approval for a $20 double eagle and a gold dollar came quickly, although other proposals for $25, $50 and $100 gold coins never passed. The Liberty Head double eagle debuted in circulation in 1850, struck primarily from large amounts of gold shipped from California – an area that would not have an official mint until 1854.
The first type of double eagle was produced from 1849-1866 (1849 was not released for circulation) with the denomination shown as TWENTY D. Most of these double eagles are found in circulated grades, as most collectors at the time could not afford a collection of $20 coins. The few Uncirculated exceptions were generally from recovered shipwrecks like the S.S. Central America and S.S. Brother Jonathan, which preserved many of the dates they were carrying after they slipped below the waves. The bulk of the other examples found today are circulated, as the Type 1 double eagle tended to circulate in most areas of the country prior to the Civil War.
The Type 2 Liberty Head double eagle appeared in 1866 with the addition of the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. During the time they were produced, the Type 2 double eagles, like all other gold coins, did not circulate in much of the country (California and other western areas were the major exception). The bulk of Type 2 Coronet Head double eagles available today are lower Mint State grades, which were found in European hoards. For a tough date like the 1870-CC, the few examples that are known are almost never seen in Mint State condition.
The final type of Liberty Head double eagle appeared in 1877 with the denomination written out as TWENTY DOLLARS. This type is readily available today, with large numbers of some dates known (even in Mint State) thanks to overseas holdings. When issued, many of the Type 3 double eagles, as the largest gold coin of the United States, were almost immediately shipped out of the country. Discovered after decades of sitting in foreign bank vaults, the supply of the final type of Coronet Head double eagle is strong especially in lower Mint State grades, making it a perfect choice for anyone wanting a nice type coin. This is the most easily acquired of the three Liberty Head types.
The Saint-Gaudens double eagle made its debut in 1907. The first design was a special coin, and the most challenging of all the double eagle types. Produced shortly after Saint-Gaudens’s death in August of 1907, this High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle is exactly that – it features a higher relief than the issues that followed. The relief was actually slightly lower than in the first attempt, which resulted in roughly 20 pieces known today as Ultra High Relief. Apparently after that small production, the die cracked, so it was clearly not possible to continue minting in this manner.
As it turned out, despite a mintage of 12,367, the High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagles were not feasible either. The design took three strikes, meaning it was impossible to achieve significant mintages. However, those that were minted were released – roughly two-thirds featured a "wire rim," while the other third had a "flat rim." (The wire rim was formed when, due to pressure, metal was forced between the collar and the die. A collar holds the planchet in place during striking.) Most collectors are content with either example, as the High Relief double eagle is the closest to what Augustus Saint-Gaudens and President Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when they created the design. With the small mintage and significant demand, the 1907 High Relief is a coin that fetches premium prices – and collectors are happy to pay those premiums to own an example of what many consider to be America’s most beautiful coin.
The fifth double eagle design clearly shows President Theodore Roosevelt’s influence. While it had a normal arabic date, as opposed to the earlier issues which had roman numeral dates, the original Saint-Gaudens design does not have the motto IN GOD WE TRUST. Based on his reading of the Bible, Roosevelt felt that God should not be associated with coins. Congress would see that the motto was restored, but in 1907 and part of 1908, there was no motto. Only three coins were issued without the motto – the 1907, 1908 and 1908-D. Fortunately for those wanting a really nice example, there was an extraordinary hoard of nearly 20,000 pieces discovered some years ago. Known as the Wells Fargo Hoard, it has basically provided enough of the "no motto" 1908 pieces to make it possible for most collectors to own a nice example at a reasonable price.
The final double eagle design began in 1908. This separate type once again features the motto IN GOD WE TRUST in the reverse design. The type would continue until the final double eagle was produced in 1933. What many do not know is that there was also a change to the type in 1912. The number of stars on the obverse was increased to 48, reflecting the addition of New Mexico and Arizona to the Union. Whether you would like to include an example of the 46 and the 48-star versions in your collection is up to you. But thanks to significant numbers found in foreign banks, this last double eagle design is also available, especially in lower Mint State grades.
Whether the price of gold goes up or down, the fact remains that a type set of double eagles is always impressive. Rich in history and featuring some of the best designs in the history of American coinage, the double eagle is a coin virtually everyone loves. If you complete a type set of this fascinating coin, you will probably love them even more. A double eagle is a coin you will always feel good about owning and showing off to your friends and family.