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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.

 



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