Deciphering the Mystery of the
MCMVII Extremely High Relief Double Eagles
by Roger W. Burdette
Copyright 2006

Based on research presented in the book Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908.


            During 1907 the United States Mint struck what many consider to be the most beautiful coin design ever produced by this nation. Inspired by a unique collaboration between the country’s most admired political leader, President Theodore Roosevelt, and its internationally honored sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the new $20 gold coin design featured renewed vitality and artistic vigor.

             Before the new design could be issued for general circulation, the mint, President and artist experimented with several versions of the composition. Among these, the initial version was known as the “Extremely High Relief” (EHR) double eagle. Collector interest in these special coins has been high since they became known shortly after they were struck. As early as 1908, a single specimen was valued at $1,000; today it will take more than a thousand times that amount to buy one. Except possibly for the 1804 silver dollar, and 1913 Liberty nickel, the Saint-Gaudens’ EHR gold double eagle may be America’s best known rare coin.

            Through much of its existence, the EHR $20 has been a coin of mystery. No one could say how many were made, or when, or how they escaped the Philadelphia Mint, or who first owned them. While this added to the myth and lore of the coin – and may have enhanced it’s appeal at auction – little was done to understand how these magnificent pieces came into existence.

            The big “break” in our understanding of the Saint-Gaudens EHR double eagles occurred in 1992 when numismatist David Tripp, working for Sotheby’s, discovered that at least two of the EHR specimens had different lettering on their edges than the other known pieces as shown below.

Tripp was also able to confirm that the discovery pieces had been made with the same edge collar dies as a 1906 pattern double eagle created by Charles Barber and George Morgan. Many catalog writers picked up the discovery but little new information was uncovered. It was more than a decade until the next “break” occurred. Beginning in 2003, the author located official documents and private letters mentioning the EHR experimental coins along with other pieces from the 1907 experiments. By combining this new information with Tripp’s discoveries and previously known documents, a much fuller and richer understanding of how the EHR $20 were created has emerged.

            There is certainly more to learn about these rare and beautiful coins, but for now, this is all we have.

The President Approves

            The story begins on December 15, 1906. Saint-Gaudens’ completed models for the double eagle arrived at the Executive Mansion. President Roosevelt thought they were “simply immense” and ordered Mint Director George Roberts to have them reduced and coins struck “just as they are.” The models went to the Philadelphia Mint where engraver Charles Barber had been waiting for them since September. The Mint had finally bought a modern Janvier reducing rathe in November 1906 after more than two years’ delay. The Janvier machine could make reductions directly to a coin-sized hub from large plaster models including Saint-Gaudens’ 13-inch double eagle models – something the Mint’s old equipment could not do. The Philadelphia Mint had no difficulty with the relief of the design: they had been making high relief medals for 75 years. Only the diameter of the models and the degree of reduction were potential problems.

            Engraver Barber recognized that he did not fully understand how to operate the complicated new Janvier machine, so he had Henri Weil, who had trained with the Janvier et Duval firm in Paris, come to the Mint for a week to help cut the reductions and hubs from Saint-Gaudens’ models. This was accomplished without problem and by February 7, 1907 Barber was ready to strike samples. Between February 7 and 14, Barber produced three complete coins using the new obverse and reverse dies, and the edge collar die from his 1906 pattern coin. (He also made fifteen pieces using the same design but struck on planchets the diameter of the $10 gold coin.) Each coin required seven blows of 150 tons on the medal press – six to impart the face designs and a seventh to impress the edge lettering E Pluribus Unum. With each piece taking multiple blows, several incomplete pieces were always awaiting annealing before the next strike. As Barber gave the sixth strike to one of the partial coins, the reverse die cracked. This ended initial experimental production of Saint-Gaudens’ EHR coins with only three complete specimens struck, plus several incomplete pieces and the plain edge example showing the die crack.

Secret Business

            The Annual Assay Commission was in session during this time and Director Roberts was in Philadelphia to attend the meetings. A special member of the Commission was George F. Kunz, Vice-President of Tiffany’s Inc. and Chairman of the American Numismatic and Antiquarian Society’s New Coin Design Committee. He was also the county’s foremost expert on minerals and gems and an acquaintance of President Roosevelt. Tiffany’s had provided consultative services to the Mint regarding the Saint-Gaudens’ coin ideas and director Roberts wanted Kunz to see the new coin. Soon after the first pieces were struck Roberts, Kunz, possibly others on the Commission, and Henry Hering, Saint-Gaudens’ assistant, got to examine the EHR double eagles. Everyone was sworn to secrecy although that may have been less than completely effective. The experimental pieces were more medal than coin, and clearly not practical from a coinage standpoint. Still, they were uncommonly beautiful medal-coins and Roberts made a point of taking two specimens back to Washington. One he kept for himself, the other he gave to Robert Preston, who had been his predecessor as director.

            A few days later, Roberts contacted Barber ordering that two specimens be placed in the Philadelphia Mint Collection of coins. Barber replied that the dies were broken, so in early March Roberts gave permission to prepare a new reverse die and strike more EHR coins. This was done and sometime between March and July, Barber apparently made 12 or more EHR specimens. All of these had both a new reverse die and a new edge collar with the motto in large Roman-style (serif) letters. Two examples went into the Mint Collection, Barber kept as many as six pieces from this second group for his own collection, possibly along with the remaining complete and plain edge pieces from the first group. (Eight EHR specimens are listed in Barber’s 1916 collection inventory.)

            During July through November, little happened with the EHR experimental pieces except for the President declaring that “coins struck from the high relief experimental dies” could be distributed to collectors who requested them. The mint was busy with normal coin production, and struggling to produce the new Saint-Gaudens $10 and $20 coins in a form acceptable to commerce. In early December, the new Mint Director, Frank Leach, was shown the EHR owned by Preston. Leach was taken by the appearance of the coin and wrote to Barber asking him to make three more examples: one for “the Saint-Gaudens people” (he meant the artist’s widow, Augusta), one for Treasury Secretary Cortelyou and one for himself. As an after thought, he also asked for a fourth piece for the President “if he does not already have one.” Barber took the instructions literally, and made three more EHR coins on December 31, 1907. Leach provided copies to the other officials and himself, leaving Augusta without a sample of her late husband’s work.

            Thus, the elusive and beautiful EHR gold double eagles were struck in three groups:


  • Group 1, February 7-14, 1907 – 3 complete coins, 1 plain edge from cracked die.
  • Group 2, March to July, 1907 – 12 (or more) complete coins.
  • Group 3, December 31, 1907 – 3 complete coins.


            This totals 18 complete EHR specimens and one plain edge example, or 19 pieces, which is in good agreement with the number presently accounted for. All Group 1 pieces were made using the 1906 Barber/Morgan pattern double eagle collar and have a sans serif type face which is unevenly cut into the die. All of the Group 2 pieces have serif-type edge lettering which is upside down when the coin is sitting obverse-up. The final Group 3 coins are the same as Group 2 except the edge lettering reads right-side-up due to the collar die being placed incorrectly, or the die position reversed in the press.

Original Owners

            What about Augusta’s coin? In June 1908 she was finally sold one of the examples from the Mint Collection for face value plus postage. Her husband had seen the EHR and other experimental coins, but never owned one. Original owners of the extremely high relief $20 experimental coins were:


·         George E. Roberts - 1

·         Robert Preston – 1

·         U.S. Mint Collection – 2

·         Charles E. Barber - 8

·         Theodore Roosevelt – 2

·         George B. Cortelyou – 1

·         Frank A. Leach – 1

·         Augusta Saint-Gaudens – 1 (from Mint Collection)


Total Pieces Accounted For:         16

Total Pieces Unaccounted For:       3 (approx.)


            There is no indication that the Mint Bureau sold any of the 1907 coins for more than their face value in gold plus a few cents for postage. The President’s order allowed anyone who wanted them, including employees, to purchase experimental pieces. What the employees or coin collectors did with them later was a private matter.

            Beyond the first owners, we know almost nothing about who next acquired any of the coins. The pedigree of most specimens is confused and offers little hope of untangling which coin originated with which government official. One Smithsonian coin came from the U.S. Mint collection when it was transferred in 1923. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s coins may have remained in his family until donated to the Smithsonian in 1962. Barber may have sold off some of his pieces within a year or two of their striking, although eight remained in his collection inventory as of 1916. It is possible that the old “Captain North” set of Saint-Gaudens gold originated with Barber and was placed in a custom case by it’s new owner in 1917 or later. In later years George Kunz was involved in brokering an occasional transaction including one instance in 1915 where the seller, writing on Mint stationary, wanted $800 for an example. Even with tremendous modern interest in the Saint-Gaudens experimental coins, few of the specimens have been carefully examined to determine their edge characteristics, and research must depend on old catalog notations.

            Like many of America’s most attractive coins – both patterns and adopted designs – the original hubs for Saint-Gaudens’ coins were destroyed May 24-25, 1910 on orders from Mint Director A. Piatt Andrew.