Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1848. His father, a shoemaker, moved his family to New York City when the future sculptor was but six months old. Growing up with an interest in art, Saint-Gaudens began apprenticing for a cameo cutter at the age of thirteen.
While apprenticing, he attended Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. At the age of nineteen he moved to Europe to continue his studies in both Paris and Rome. Here Saint-Gaudens gained knowledge of the Italian Renaissance and met an American student whom he would later take for his wife. Upon returning to the United States, he began work as a professional sculptor.
When Saint-Gaudens returned to America, he received his first major commission in New York City. His statue of Civil War Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, unveiled in 1881 in Madison Square Garden, set a new standard for public monuments.
Other classic Saint-Gaudens monuments include a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago; the memorial to Mrs. Henry Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington D.C. often considered his greatest sculpture; and a monument to Civil War Colonel Robert G. Shaw in Boston Common, dubbed Saint Gaudens’ “symphony in bronze”.
In 1906 his good friend, Theodore Roosevelt, asked Saint-Gaudens to re-design all of the nation’s circulating coinage. His mission was to make the United States’ coins rival the beautiful ancient coins from the Mediterranean region. Having accepted, he immediately began work on America’s two largest gold coins, the $20 and $10 denominations. (The larger coin would become known as the $20 Saint-Gaudens and the smaller would be referred to as the $10 Indian Head.)
Saint-Gaudens followed the instructions of the deeply religious Roosevelt closely and designed his new coins without the “In God We Trust” motto. Shortly after the introduction, however, Congress ordered that all coins accommodate these words. Learn more about the controversy that ensued by clicking here.
Unfortunately, Augustus Saint-Gaudens died in 1907 before he could see his designs become coins at all. Mint Director Charles Barber made some minor changes, but the two coins designed by our nation’s most acclaimed sculptor were deemed America’s most beautiful as soon as they entered circulation. Americans and coin collectors the world over gained treasured works of art that are worth considerably more today than their $20 face value.
Saint-Gaudens Gold Double Eagle.
The experimental high-relief $20 coin struck on December 22, 1907 was the work of two famous Americans: President Theodore Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The President was a great admirer of ancient Greek coins and wanted to bring similar beauty to the U.S. coinage. He approached Saint-Gaudens to redesign the 10 and the 20 dollar coins. For the $20 the sculptor chose an advancing figure of Liberty for the obverse and a flying eagle on the reverse. Chief-Engraver of the U.S. Mint, Charles Barber, resented the new design, partly because the high relief of the coin required a longer striking process, thus only a few of the very high relief pieces were struck in December, 1907. Soon afterwards new dies with a much lower relief were created for this coin; it was issued for circulation from 1907to 1933. The coin above shows the ultra-high relief. It was a gift from Saint-Gaudens to President Roosevelt. In 1967, this piece was donated to the National Numismatic Collection by Cornelius van Schaak Roosevelt, a nephew of the President.
These 20 dollar gold coins are the only legal survivors of 455,500 double eagles struck in the spring of 1933 but never released for circulation and ultimately melted down in the fall of 1934. They are part of the National Numismatic Collection. The financial instability following World War I throughout the world encouraged many private citizens to hoard gold, ultimately also affecting the U.S. gold reserves. The problem was compounded in the 1930’s by a general bank crisis which led, on March 6 to 9, to the closing of all banks. President Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded, with his legislation “the Emergency Bank Relief Act”, March 9, 1933 and the “Gold Reserve Act”, Jan. 1934, in putting an end to these crises: banks were opened, but gold vanished. The legislation put an end to all circulation and private possession of U.S. gold; an exemption was granted for “gold coins having a recognized value to collectors of rare and unusual coins”. Late in 1934, the 1933 $20 coins were melted down, with the exception of the above two coins. In 1923 they were added to the old Mint Collection, which had become a part of the Smithsonian Collections.