The 1920-S Saint-Gaudens Gold Double Eagle
By Heritage Auctions
The 1920-S double eagle is a prized rarity in
the Saint-Gaudens series, and it 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 that early
period are more available today than later dates
such as the 1920-S.
The war brought inflation, with consequent
rising prices in gold and other metals. Double
eagle production in San Francisco 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
ordinary citizens seldom saw them. Instead, the
government and the banking system kept the coins
in reserve. By this time, double eagles served
two purposes: The government used some, stored
in mint bags, to redeem Gold Certificates. Other
coins were used as specie payments to foreign
governments and banks.
Private ownership of gold became essentially
illegal after the Gold Recall Act of 1933, and
most of the government-held coins were melted in
1937, converted into gold bars, and transported
to Fort Knox. The coins 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 specimens of the 1920-S double eagle
and helped establish the 1920-S as a rare and
desirable coin. However, it was the Dr. Charles
W. Green Collection, sold by B. Max Mehl in
1949, that really put the coin on the map.
Mehl’s usually terse 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 double eagle collecting in general.
According to 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 them has increased steadily
until the present day.
In recent times, many numismatic scholars have
studied the rarity of the 1920-S. Walter Breen
estimated that less than a dozen examples
survived, a figure demonstrably 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.
Herirage’s upcoming 2010 April-May Milwaukee, WI
CSNS US Coin Auction features a dazzling MS64
example of this rare and popular date.
Outstanding eye appeal, rarity, and historical
importance make this a prize for the discerning
collector. The surfaces display soft, frosty
luster with a better than average strike. Crisp
detail appears on the berries on the olive
branch, and the pillars of the Capitol building
can be individually counted–areas frequently
soft on this issue. Few abrasions show for the
grade, although a planchet void near the eagle’s
beak serves as a pedigree marker. The surfaces
have attractive, reddish patina yielding to
olive at the rim.
The current population reports from NGC and PCGS
reflect a combined total of 25 examples of the
1920-S double eagle in MS64, with only eight
finer, so trying to improve on the present
coin’s MS64 grade will be a daunting challenge.
We expect this coin to draw the attention of
specialists in the Saint-Gaudens series who are
interested in the finest coins available.