1907 Ultra High Relief $20 Lettered Edge PR68 PCGS. Among American coin collectors, the Saint-Gaudens Ultra (or Extremely) ...
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Theodore Roosevelt became President after the assassination of William McKinley in September 1901. After three years of being President one would think he had adapted to the job, yet it was not until after the election of November 1904 that Roosevelt could truly claim in his own thoughts to be President of the United States.
In the weeks following his election, amid celebrations and congratulatory visits, there was time for contemplation and good-natured conversation with wife Edith, and family friend, painter Frank Millet. As their conversations wandered over many topics, the subject of the aesthetic merit of American coinage came to the fore. It probably took little prodding for Millet to expound on the artistic banalities of the coins Americans carried in their pockets and purses. Roosevelt agreed and soon fired off a typically commanding letter to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortier Shaw on December 27, 1904:
My dear Secretary Shaw:
I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?
The President had developed an opinion and now wanted to do something about it--he was not one to study the situation at length. With Shaw's assurance that Saint-Gaudens could be hired to design American coins, Roosevelt laid his trap. For his part, by 1905 Saint-Gaudens was at the height of reputation in America and Europe. As early as 1887, he had turned down suggestions that he redesign the nation's coinage. Since an 1894 disagreement over the Columbia Exposition medal with the Mint Bureau, he had wanted nothing to do with work for the U.S. Government.
The artist and politician had been acquainted at least since the 1890s when they both attended evening discussions at Henry James' home in New York. Since Roosevelt's election as Vice President, he had consistently praised the artist in letters and public comments, but now, with a purpose in mind, intense ego-stroking began. First came a lavish banquet at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) on January 11, 1905 with Saint-Gaudens and Roosevelt both attending. This was followed by the annual Diplomatic Reception at the White House on January 12. After the reception, Saint-Gaudens was ushered upstairs for dinner amid the glow of candles, gold-and-velvet uniforms and waves of ladies in shimmering silk. Saint-Gaudens was seated next to Edith Roosevelt, well above many representatives of other nations. During these events, Roosevelt evidently outlined his grand plan to remake the coinage. Like any good sportsman, the President set fresh bait for his quarry: first design an Inaugural Medal.
Less than three weeks after the letter to Shaw, Roosevelt had button-holed Saint-Gaudens and flattered, cajoled, and possibly bullied the artist into accepting the task of designing the medal and redesigning the coinage. The medal was completed (with much assistance from Adolph Weinman) within a few months. But it would be two long years before the first experimental coins were struck. During that time, and through the few months of life that remained for Saint-Gaudens, the artist and politician would never meet again.
It was the summer of 1905 before Saint-Gaudens formally accepted the President's coinage design commission. For the sum of $5,000 the sculptor was to produce one pair of obverse and reverse designs for use on all four circulating gold coins, and another pair of different designs for the bronze cent. These were the only coins eligible for change under the Coinage Act of 1890. Over the next 18 months the President and sculptor exchanged letters filled with suggestions and supportive comments. First priority went to the large gold coins, impressive and most appealing to Roosevelt. The practicalities of production were never mentioned except when Mint Director George Roberts or Secretary Shaw were consulted. By the beginning of June 1906, Saint-Gaudens had prepared his designs and shipped off the plaster reverse model, showing a standing eagle based on his 1905 Roosevelt Inaugural medal, to Paris for reductions. The completed work returned in the Fall and everything should have been ready to turn over to the Philadelphia Mint. But, the sculptor sensed something was not right about his designs.
Through late September, October, November, and into December, Saint-Gaudens struggled to rework his creations. Meanwhile, Roosevelt was getting anxious to have final models and wrote to the artist on December 11:
I hate to trouble you, but it is very important that I should have the models for those coins at once. How soon may I have them?
With all good wishes, believe me,
Saint-Gaudens responded by sending models to the White House on December 14. However, they were not the ones President Roosevelt had expected. The only obverse and reverse designs anyone with the administration had seen were of a Striding Liberty with wings and Indian headdress, and a standing eagle derived from the inaugural medal. The new models were simpler, stronger, the reverse now featured a flying eagle. During October and November, Saint-Gaudens had apparently been experimenting with his Striding Liberty without the wings and Indian headdress. He also replaced the original reverse with the now-familiar flying eagle. In a follow-up letter the artist apologized for markings that suggested these initial models were not finished:
I am afraid from the letter sent you on the fourteenth with the models for the Twenty Dollar Gold piece that you will think the coin I sent you was unfinished. This is not the case. It is the final and completed model, but I hold myself in readiness to make any such modifications as may be required in the reproduction of the coin.
This will explain the words "test model" on the back of each model.
When Roosevelt finally saw the large design models on December 15 he was hardly able to control his enthusiasm:
My dear Saint Gaudens:
Those models are simply immense--if such a slang way of talking is permissible in reference to giving a modern nation one coinage at least which shall be as good as that of the ancient Greeks. I have instructed the Director of the Mint that these dies are to be reproduced just as quickly as possible and just as they are. It is simply splendid. I suppose I shall be impeached for it in Congress; but I shall regard that as a very cheap payment!
With heartiest regards,
The President also reminded Mint Director Roberts of his expectations:
... I do want to ask that you have special and particular care exercised in the cutting of that Saint Gaudens coin. Won't you bring the die in for me to see, even before you send it to Saint Gaudens? Of course the workmanship counts as much as the design in a case like this. I feel that we have the chance with this coin to make something as beautiful as the old Greek coinage. In confidence, I am not at all sure how long I shall be permitted to have such a coin in existence; but I want for once at least to have had this nation, the great republic of the West ... do something in the way of artistic expression that shall rank with the best work of the kind that has ever been done.
P.S. Of course keep what we are doing absolutely confidential, as I do not want anything about it to get out until the coins are actually made.
Roberts replied to the President the next day, including assurances that the Mint Bureau would do its best:
... I fully appreciate your interest in the Saint Gaudens designs, and join you in it. I shall be happy to have my administration of the mint service distinguished by the execution of this beautiful piece. I delivered the models myself to the Engraver at Philadelphia last week, and I am assured that every man in the mint who has to do with this work will do his utmost to make the coinage a success.
... I have no misgivings however about the execution of the dies; I believe that dies-cutting done at the mint is equal to any done in this country. But the high relief will present difficulties in coinage which have never yet been overcome, and when it comes to that we must ask your patience while we try to work out the problem ... The very best that can be done will be done to give effect to these designs.
I have cautioned everybody who of necessity must know of this undertaking that it is a confidential matter ...
"That is first-class. I am very much obliged to you," replied the President.
The models also omitted the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM and included no suggestions for the edge of the coin. Charles Barber commented about the edge motto and stars:
... Regarding the lettering upon the edge, if Mr. Saint Gaudens will send a sketch of the character of the letter he desires and also a sketch of the star to be used I will attend to the rest, which you know is made in the collar.
... Mr. Saint Gaudens need not go further than to furnish the sketches asked for with any instructions he wishes regarding the position of the letters and stars, whether they are to entirely encircle the coin or only partly, any of the directions given will be strictly adhered to.
It appears that Charles Barber created a lettered edge for Saint-Gaudens' design based on his experimental work in 1885 and a 1906 "proof of concept" sample assembled by he and assistant engraver George Morgan. This "proof of concept" coin was the Barber/Morgan twenty dollar pattern of 1906. This pattern was most likely made in late December 1906 to prove to Director Roberts that a raised lettered edge coin could be made without unusual difficulty.
As 1906 closed, President Theodore Roosevelt was at the peak of his popularity. The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War, had elevated him, and the country, from blustering backwater to an international force in the community of nations. This had boosted his popularity with the public, and muffled critics in the opposition and his own Republican Party.
Charles Edward Barber, Engraver of the United States Mint at Philadelphia, was pleased to have the new models in his workshop. Long ago he had decided no model from Saint-Gaudens' hand could be coined, but many artists were skeptical. Now he had what he needed to prove "the Saint" knew nothing of coinage. He was determined to do all he could to make coins out of the medallic designs Saint-Gaudens provided. With the information from this experiment at hand, he could finally put the sculptor in his place. He was also determined to make sure his superiors in the Bureau of the Mint knew it.
Anticipating a future assertion from Saint-Gaudens that the mint's dies or hubs were inferior, Barber turned to Henri Weil, a Paris-trained expert in the use of the Janvier reducing lathe, for assistance. Unknown to anyone except Director Roberts and the Philadelphia Mint Superintendent, Barber arranged for Henri Weil, a Dietsch Brothers employee, to help him make the reductions and hubs. Although the work was being done at the mint, bringing in an outside expert to cut the new hubs might not agree with Roosevelt. Confidentiality was important--no one wanted the President galloping through the Philadelphia Mint issuing orders.
Weil visited from January 3 through 8 and was officially explained as providing additional training on the new equipment. But what Weil did was to make paraffin reductions from the Saint-Gaudens' models, bronze casts of the reductions, and cut the high relief hubs. All this took six days during which Barber made notes so he could complete additional hubs on his own.
Apparently no attempt was made to lower the relief, this being Barber's understanding of the President's command to use the models "just as they are," so the full design was reduced proportionally. This process was much like what Barber had learned to do on the old Hill lathe 30 years earlier. The part the engravers did not learn was how to reduce relief while maintaining detail in all parts of the design. This knowledge gap would haunt the mint's work until John Sinnock became engraver in 1925.
With hubs cut by an expert known to Saint-Gaudens, Barber's experiment was to try and strike a coin from the new dies--something he knew would fail. The real problem was not high relief of the models, the Philadelphia Mint has been making high relief medals for a century, it was making detailed reductions (including relief) from large diameter models. A secondary problem was identifying how much relief was possible on a coin struck with just one blow of the production press. Working dies of the first models were completed within a month, and on February 15, 1907 the first gold impressions of the new double eagle were placed in the hands of the Director of the Mint. Roberts reimbursed the mint account for his coins and took them back to Washington.
This first small group of Extremely High Relief twenty dollar coins included three complete strikes, a plain edge (incompletely struck), and three partially struck pieces, all in gold. The complete coins had lettered edges using the segmented collar on the late 1906 experimental example. The plain edge, which was also the last one struck of this group, had a prominent die crack on the reverse. The intention was to strike a small quantity, possibly 15, but this was thwarted when the reverse die cracked.
The Assay Commission was meeting at the Philadelphia Mint at this time and it is likely that Dr. George Kunz and possibly others on the Assay Commission saw or were told about the new coins. On February 18 Kunz was advised, "Please say nothing at Numismatic Society or elsewhere about our new coins." Victor Brenner also learned about the new coins and was told, " ... it is not possible at present to give out information about the talked-of new coins."
Each complete experimental Extremely High Relief coin required seven blows at 150 tons pressure from the hydraulic press--six in a plain edge collar to bring up the design and a seventh in a three-part collar to impart edge lettering. Between each strike, the planchet was annealed to compensate for work hardening produced in the press. After heating to a deep red, the planchet was dipped into a weak nitric acid solution, which removed any oxidized copper from the surface. Repetition of this treatment left the coin's surface depleted of copper. All known Mint State specimens have the color of nearly pure gold rather than .900 fine alloy color.
Saint-Gaudens wrote to the Director on February 21 asking for casts of the coins and to examine the gold experimental pieces:
I find that if the Twenty Dollar gold coin required seven strikes, it will be necessary ... to have a cast of each of the following strikes sent me:
The finished strike in lead.
The finished strike in lead of the small coin.
... It is also absolutely essential that I should also have the actual gold strikings described above, as it would give me a much truer idea of the result. I can assure you that I would take the best possible care of these strikings and return them to you in a very short time.
Director Roberts agreed to Saint-Gaudens' request, but learned that the mint could not supply everything requested:
The dies being broken I can only furnish such pieces as I have of the Double Eagle in gold, new design, namely; first, second, third strike and a finished piece, and one impression of each diameter, in lead, without the lettering on the periphery [i.e., edge].
I have no doubt that these will answer the desired purpose.
The finished coin is the best impression of the steel hub that can be furnished.
The gold coin and strike samples were duly sent to Saint-Gaudens and returned by him on March 13. The three complete coins from this first group use the same lettered edge with a plain sans-serif style font, and each letter in the motto was separated by a star.
The experimental coins received by Director Roberts had caused something of a stir at mint headquarters, and on March 4 Roberts authorized the production of two more samples specifically for the Philadelphia Mint cabinet of coins. To make more experimental pieces for the mint cabinet, Barber had to make a new working die from the hub. This was not completed until at least late March.
This second group of EHR coins had a new edge design that used a Roman (serif) font. The letters were upside down if the coin was viewed with the obverse facing up (called Alignment B-II). Although using this alignment for most of the EHR experimental coins might seem odd, it has a subtle elegance. If one looks at the obverse of the coin, then moves slightly to one side or the other, the edge lettering appears to be an extension of the coin's face, arching over the figure of Liberty, with the text reading correctly. This counter-intuitive approach enhances the three-dimensional effect of the design, and was certainly Saint-Gaudens' intent.
A third and final group of three coins were struck on New Years' Eve by Charles Barber at the request of Mint Director Leach.
A total of three groups of Extremely High Relief pattern coins were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. The groups differ in the treatment of the edge. The estimated mintages are:
Group I--February 1907--Three complete coins, one plain edge coin.
Group II--March/April 1907--Thirteen (estimated) complete coins.
Group III--December 31, 1907--Three complete coins.
The total mintage is unknown. A reasonable estimate is that 18 to 20 pieces were struck, including the lone plain edge coin. The present specimen appears to be one of the Group II pieces, although the encapsulation prevents examination of the edge.
The magnificent Extremely High Relief patterns led to changes in design details, which finally resulted in the High Relief and Low Relief versions released into circulation late in 1907. The original hubs and dies were destroyed on May 24-25, 1910.
Working obverse and reverse dies for all versions of the EHR double eagles were made from the same hubs cut by Barber and Weil in January 1907. When compared to later versions, the EHR design has a very small Capitol building to Liberty's lower right (left as one views the coin), and the berries on the olive branch are few and indistinct. One star sits above each of the arms of the Y in LIBERTY.
The surfaces of this incredible coin are bright orange-gold. As mentioned above, this finish is the product of repeated annealings, which resulted in the eventual elimination of all copper from the alloy and a thin layer of pure gold over both obverse and reverse. The striking details are nothing short of extraordinary also with an even more pronounced, dished, three-dimensional effect than seen on a regular High Relief. After several minutes of examining this piece with a strong magnifier we finally were able to locate one surface flaw that might be used as a pedigree identifier for this important coin: There is a short, diagonal luster graze on the reverse between the eagle's head and the forward curve of the wing.
The opportunity to personally examine an Ultra High Relief is rare in itself. The opportunity to actually own one of these magnificent coins is a thrill few people will ever experience in their lifetime. For those who can seriously contemplate the purchase of such a coin, the offering of this piece at public auction is an event worthy of focused attention.
We are deeply indebted to numismatic researcher Roger Burdette for the above background information for the Extremely High Relief. All the information in this description is taken from primary sources.(Registry values: N1) (NGC ID# 26EX, PCGS# 9131)
Service and Handling Description: Coin/Currency (view shipping information)
Revised Edition by James L. Halperin, Mark R. Borckardt, Mark Van Winkle, Jon Amato, and Gregory J. Rohan, with special contributor David W. Akers
The Coinage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens is an issue-by-issue examination of these two artistically inspired series of gold coins.
Each date and mintmark is reviewed with up-to-date information, much of which has never been previously published. The book is based on
two extraordinary collections: The Phillip H. Morse collection and the Dr. and Mrs. Steven L. Duckor collection.
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