It may have taken over a century, but Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ vision for the $20 Double Eagle coin became reality in 2009.
The story of the 2009 Ultra High Relief Gold Coin actually began back in 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt examined the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of Greek and Roman coins. Roosevelt was impressed by how the ancient coins were struck in extremely high relief. The coins’ design elemetals were boldly raised, which imparted a stunning visual effect. Roosevelt believed that America’s coinage was quite plain and uninteresting by comparison.
Later in 1907, President Roosevelt asked famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens with overhauling the four United States gold coin designs (the $2.50 Quarter Eagle, $5 Half Eagle, $10 Eagle and $20 Double Eagle). As a sculptor, Saint-Gaudens was accustomed to working in high relief and was eager to create a new design format. Much to the chagrin of the U.S. Mint, he was primarily concerned with the coins’ aesthetics and paid little attention to practicalities. Saint-Gaudens crafted a design that was beautiful but a major challenge to produce.
Per Roosevelt’s instructions, Saint-Gaudens submitted a double-thick $20 Double Eagle design in Ultra High Relief. Much like the motif that was eventually adopted, the coin featured a standing image of Liberty holding a torch on the obverse and a flying eagle on the reverse. However, this pattern coin was much smaller and thicker than the final version; it required massive amounts of force and pressure just to strike one coin as a prototype. This unique piece currently resides in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian.
Over a century later, the United States Mint finally developed the technology to execute on Saint-Gaudens’ original 1907 design. The 21st-century presses had the necessary force and pressure to bring out the high relief on each coin. The U.S. Mint also used a soft 24 karat .9999 fine alloy in lieu of the traditional 90% gold / 10% copper mix previously used for pre-1933 gold coinage. This revised metallic composition made the striking process much easier and faster.
Today, the 2009 Ultra High Relief continues to be one of the most popular and avidly-sought modern American coins. It boasts a fervent collector following in both graded and ungraded form. Its unusual and gorgeous design, unique format and relative scarcity make it a favorite among numismatists. The coin continues to trade for amounts well in excess of its original mint issue price. 2009 Ultra High Reliefs are worth even more graded MS70 and/or with the desirable Prooflike designation.