Proof Saint Gaudens Double Eagles

Some coins are so rare that even the most advanced collectors will rarely collect them by series. Often cost will be the prohibitive factor but even with deep pockets some series are still nearly impossible to complete. One such collection is Saint Gaudens Double Eagles struck in proof format, minted from 1907 to 1915. With the highest number reportedly struck being 167 proofs in 1910, it should come as no surprise that the opportunity to buy any proof issue of the series is a very rare opportunity. However, this does not mean that the series is not interesting to study, as it tells us a little bit of the gradual demise of classic Proof coinage, which ceased altogether by 1916 and would not be resumed until twenty years later.

While Proof coinage was known in 18th century English numismatics, the regular production and sale of Proof coins did not commence in the United States until the late 1850’s. The smaller denominations saw relatively high mintages, sometimes up to several thousand pieces per year.  The relatively low face value of these coins allowed them to be collector by numismatists of the day. However, the larger gold denominations were a different story. Few people could afford to collect these because of the high face value and the additional modest premiums that the Mint charged for the coins. As a result, most Proof gold coins from this era saw mintages of only a few hundred at most, with mintages of a few dozen or even less not an uncommon occurrence.

Throughout the 19th century, American Proof coins were struck with highly reflective fields and frosted devices. In the early 20th century, the Mint decided that the highly reflective fields and frosted devices were no longer the way Proof coins should look, and over the next decade the appearance slowly changed. By the time the first Saint Gaudens Double Eagle Proof coins were struck, the highly reflective fields were gone as the Mint experimented with several alternative finishes. None of the new finishes proved popular with the majority of collectors, and may have contributed to the decline and eventual demise of proof gold coinage in 1915.

1907 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The first year of Saint-Gaudens coinage is generally not collected within the Proof series since it is unconfirmed whether or not any Proofs were deliberately struck and sold to collectors. The Proof Ultra High Reliefs were patterns and while NGC does recognize some of the high reliefs as having a Proof finish, PCGS does not. Those with prooflike surfaces and an above average strike appear to have been created through pure luck and were not necessarily produced or subsequently handled with extra care. The previous, Liberty Head design was also struck during this year, and Proof examples of that design appear to have been the one used to represent the double eagle denomination within Proof sets.

1908 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

The first true year of Proof coinage for the design saw a total 101 Proofs sold. Evidence suggests that as many as 500 pieces were initially produced, but the majority of these remained unsold and were later melted. All proof examples are the type with the motto “In God We Trust” added above the sun on the reverse. These proof coins are the first of the denomination that have a so-called “sandblast” finish, also called a matte finish. Invented in Belgium and in use by several Mints at the turn of the century, the sandblast finish was created after striking, when grains of sand of several sizes was blasted on the surface of the struck coins after they had been placed in a closed glass box. This created a fine texture on the surfaces of the coin, giving it a matte like appearance. Since this finish proved unpopular with collectors, the Mint tried some improvements over the next few years. It appears that this process was already started in 1908, as PCGS has certified several 1908 Double Eagles with a so-called “Roman-Finish”. While not as reflective as the older Proofs they are noticeably different from the sandblasted Proofs but still display a somewhat matte surface.

1909 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

In 1909 the Mint continued its experimentation with different finishes, with the majority of the Proof double eagles for this year having the so-called “Roman-Finish”. The mintage was the second highest of the series, with a total of 166 Proofs sold to collectors. Of these, perhaps two were struck with the sandblast finish, indicating that the Mint did not wish to give up their experiments or that perhaps some collectors requested them specifically. The Roman-Finish coins hardly proved popular either, as their distinction with high-end business strikes is minimal. These were struck on regular planchets but from special dies (possibly multiple times) but did not receive any post-strike treatment as the sand-blasted Proofs did.

1910 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

In 1910 the Mint produced the highest number of Proof Double Eagles, although a total output of 167 coins can hardly be considered high. As with the previous year, these were the so-called “Roman-Finish”. Many coins must have been lost or spent over the years, as the 1910 is not the most common date in Proof format, and is generally considered to be as scarce as the dates with a mintage of around a 100 pieces. Most examples are pale yellow and considerably lighter in color than any of the other dates. Similar to the previous year, there are a few sandblasted Proofs known as well, although the reason for their existence is once again unknown.

1911 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Not wishing to give up on their sandblasted Proofs, the Mint reverted back to the style used in 1908, which turned out to be the beginning of the end. Production for the year stagnated at a mere 100 pieces, which would in fact be the highest of the later dates. The reason for the change back to the unpopular sandblasted finish appears to have originated with noted numismatist and later Secretary of the Treasury William H. Woodin and the American Numismatic Association. Their reasons are unclear but certainly do not appear to have been shared by the majority of collectors. It also appears that many were later melted, as perhaps only 30% of the original mintage is still believed to be in existence. The 1911 Proof has a similar finish to the 1908 Proofs, with a darker gold color and fine sandblasted surfaces.

1912 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

In 1912 the Mint continued with the unpopular sandblasted Proofs, and production fell to 74 pieces. Of these perhaps half are still known to exist. Like the previous year, these have darker surfaces and generally, like all sandblasted Proofs, show excellent detail. It is generally believed that all sandblasted Proofs were struck on a medal press (instead of a regular coin press) which had a higher pressure and thus could better strike up the detail. Some minor strike doubling on the coins also suggests that the coins were struck multiple times, as was and is common practice for Proof coins.

1913 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Mintage of Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles was once again lower than it had been the previous year, with the total output listed at a mere 58 pieces. These are of the darker finish as well and generally have excellent detail, although some sources report that some of the coins might have been struck only once prior to being sandblasted. Interestingly enough, the population reports of NGC and PCGS show a combined population which is higher than the actual mintage, indicating that many of the surviving examples must have been resubmitted over the years. Like other Proofs of the last few years, it is generally believed that approximately two dozen are still in existence.

1914 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

Still unsatisfied with the finish of the Proof Double Eagles, the Mint slightly altered the appearance of the coins in 1914. Instead of the darker and finer matte surface, the final two years have a coarser and somewhat lighter finish, sometimes described as having a “sandpaper” appearance. The mintage figure increased a little bit, with 70 pieces produced. The 1914 Proofs are ever so slightly more available than the previous year.

1915 Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle

This year was the final Proof Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle produced, with the lowest output of the series at a mere 50 coins. Like the previous year, the surfaces of these coins have a coarser and lighter appearance compared to the 1911-1913 dated coins. Providing collectors with coins that proved to be unpopular was the Mint’s way of shooting themselves in the foot, as it appears to have contributed to the end of regular Proof coin production, which had commenced in 1858. The next Proofs would not be sold until 1936, when gold coin production had already ceased. The final year is exceptionally scarce in Proof format and concludes and equally scarce series in Proof format.

Images: Smithsonian Institution