The $20 Liberty Double Eagle can trace its roots back to the California Gold Rush. Until 1849, the largest United States gold coin was the $10 Eagle – and for good reason. Ten dollars, in 1849 terms, would be the equivalent of approximately $300 today. Just as few Americans need to use bills larger than a $20 today, larger gold coins were rarely used in the mid-19th century. This all changed, however, when a massive amount of gold started flowing in from central California.
Banks and merchants needed a large gold coin that could be used for significant transactions and reserves. The United States Mint answered their wishes with the $20 Liberty Double Eagle, which was first struck in 1849. Exactly one piece was struck that year but it was never released into private hands. The coin remains in the Smithsonian Institution to this day. Supposedly the legendary banker and coin collector J.P. Morgan offered the U.S. government $35,000 for the coin in 1909, but his offer was rejected. If offered for sale today, the coin could fetch more than $10,000,000 at auction.
During its production run, which stretched across seven decades, the $20 Liberty Double Eagle became an internationally recognized store of value. The coin was deemed a trustworthy and recognized form of payment throughout the world. In fact, to this day, $20 “Libs” will surface from time to time in European and South American bank vaults. It joined major world gold coins like the Sovereign, 20 Franc and Corona as a reliable way of holding bullion.
The $20 Liberty was issued continuously until 1907, although production levels varied considerably year to year. Mintage figures also different quite a bit from one mint to another. For instance, in 1854, the Philadelphia Mint released over 750,000 pieces while New Orleans struck just 3,250. An even more extreme example of this phenomenon took place in 1884, when the San Francisco branch struck 916,000 coins but Philadelphia released a measly 71 pieces.
$20 Liberty Double Eagle production reached a crescendo in 1904, when the Philadelphia Mint issued over 6.25 million coins. It’s unknown as to why the Mint struck so many coins that year – perhaps the Mint was overly optimistic about the country’s economic health at the time. Regardless, the 1904 $20 is by far the most commonly encountered date in the series. This is especially the case in Choice Uncirculated; the vast majority of coins seen in MS64 are dated 1904.