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Important Near-Gem 1920-S Double Eagle

1920-S $20 MS64 PCGS. A prized rarity in the Saint-Gaudens double eagle series, the 1920-S holds a unique historical position in that assemblage. Before the United States entered the First World War, gold twenties actually circulated in the western part of the country. Coins from this period are more available today than many later dates, such as the 1920-S. The war brought inflation, with consequent rising prices in gold and other metals. Production of double eagles was halted in 1916 and did not resume until 1920. A large mintage of 558,000 pieces was produced at the San Francisco Mint that year, but the commercial role of the double eagle had changed. The big gold coins no longer circulated freely, and were seldom seen by ordinary citizens. Instead, the coins were kept in reserve by the government and the banking system.
The coins served two purposes. Some were stored in mint bags by the government, and used to redeem Gold Certificates. Other coins were used as specie payments to foreign governments and banks. Private ownership of gold was essentially illegal after the Gold Recall Act of 1933. Most of the coins held in government vaults were melted in 1937, converted into gold bars, and transported to Fort Knox. The coins that were used in international trade largely escaped this fate, and many of them were found decades later in European banks. Enough circulated specimens of the 1920-S exist to suggest that a few bags may have reached circulation, but examples have never been readily available. Almost all of the mintage was melted. The 1920-S issue was the earliest date subject to this destruction, and it is demonstrably scarce today.
Collecting large denomination gold coins became popular for the first time during the 1940s. Some of the greatest collections of that era included a specimen of the 1920-S double eagle. One appeared in the Belden E. Roach Collection (Mehl, 2/1944), lot 262. Mehl's terse lot description reads, "Uncirculated, sharp, with full mint luster. Scarce." Similar brief descriptions were noted in the J.F. Bell Collection (Stack's, 12/1944), lot 986; and in the World's Greatest Collection (Numismatic Gallery, 1/1946), lot 1026. These early appearances helped establish the 1920-S as a rare and desirable coin, but it was the Dr. Charles W. Green Collection (Mehl, 4/1949), lot 877 that really put the coin on the map. Mehl's lot description expanded to eight lines on this occasion. He noted that Dr. Green had purchased the coin at the Bell sale for $160, and asserted it was, "One of the most difficult dates and mints of the Double Eagles to obtain." The Green sale had a dramatic effect on the collecting of double eagles in general. To quote David Bowers in A Guide Book of Double Eagle Gold Coins, "Collectors and dealers went wild, and great interest was focused on later-date mintmarked double eagles. It is likely that at least several dozen collectors decided to make this a specialty." The numismatic public became aware of the scarcity of the later-date double eagles for the first time, and demand for these coins has increased steadily until the present day.
In recent times, the rarity of the 1920-S has been studied by many numismatic scholars. Walter Breen estimated that less than a dozen examples survived, but this figure is demonstratively too low in view of current population data. David Akers considers the issue to be the seventh rarest in the Saint-Gaudens double eagle series. In his 2006 book mentioned above, Bowers estimated that there were 45-60 circulated specimens extant, and perhaps 40-60 examples in Mint State grades. The current population reports from NGC and PCGS reflect a combined total of 24 examples in MS64, with only six finer. Clearly, at the near-Gem level, the date is rare. The two finest-known coins are the MS66 Duckor example, and the MS66 Eliasberg/Duckor/Morse coin. There are only four coins currently graded at the Gem level, so trying to improve on the present coin's MS64 grade is a daunting challenge.
The present coin is a dazzling example of this rare and popular date. The surfaces display soft, frosty luster with a better than average strike. There is crisp detail on the berries in the olive branch, and the pillars of the capitol building can be individually counted, areas that are frequently soft on this issue. There are few surface marks for the grade, the most obvious being a planchet void near the eagle's beak that can be used as a pedigree marker. The surfaces have attractive, reddish patina that yields to olive at the rim. Outstanding eye appeal, rarity, and historical importance make this a prize for the discerning collector. Population: 11 in 64, 5 finer (6/09).
Ex: Long Beach (Heritage, 6/2000), lot 7702; Philadelphia 2000 (Heritage, 8/2000), lot 7599; Benson II (Goldberg, 2/2002), lot 2271.
From The Bay State Collection, Part Two.(Registry values: N10218) (NGC ID# 26FZ, PCGS# 9171)

View all of [The Bay State Collection, Part Two ]

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Auction Dates
Jul-Aug, 2009
31st-2nd Friday-Sunday
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The Coinage of Augustus Saint-Gaudens as Illustrated by the Morse and Duckor Collections
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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