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Ultra High Relief Double Eagle Pattern to be Sold by Stack’s: One of Just Two Known

Stack’s is holding their 74th Anniversary Sale this year in Baltimore, MD from November 9-11, 2009. One of the impressive highlights of the sale is an Ultra High Relief Pattern, One of just two known.

stacks_20uhr_J1907From the Stacks sale of the Morrison Family and Lawrence C. Licht collections, March 2005, Lot 1538, this coin was described as follows:

“Discovered in the early 1990s, this extraordinary Ultra High Relief Double Eagle was struck inside the 3-segment collar created by Charles E. Barber for his unique 1906 Pattern Double Eagle (Judd-1773) no residing at the Smithsonian. This collar bore the nation’s Latin motto in small sans-serif letters separated by 13 stars: E*P*L*U*R*I*B*U*S*U*N*U*M*. The normal edge device used on all succeeding Ultra High Relief Double Eagles was the Roman-style serif-lettered motto, *E*PLURIBUS*UNUM**********. Comparison with Ultra High Relief specimens in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institution, expedited by the late Elvira Clain-Stefanelli, revealed that 1906-style lettering was also used on the experimental extra-thick piéfort Double Eagles with the diameter of a Gold Eagle (Judd 1779 [now J-1917]), also housed in the national collection. This coin’s edge lettering is ‘inverted,’ upside down if examined while the coin is horizontal with the obverse up, more properly described as Alignment I. Alignment II with lettering right side up was the one actually adopted for the later strikes.”

There are only two known examples of J-1907. As detailed below, this piece is the discovery specimen for the J-1907 variety; it first came to light as a new type in 1992. Pollock in his United States Patterns and Related Issues provides the following historical note about the specimen: “Discovered by Paul Song of Sotheby’s while examining a ‘small estate collection,’ and was authenticated by David Tripp and J.P. Martin.” A second example turned up in 1995, which is also described as having an “inverted” edge letters arrangement.

Four different edge formats are recognized on Extremely High Relief MCMVII double eagles:

1) Plain edge. J-1908, P-2000. Considered unique.

2) 1906 style edge lettering: E*P*L*U*R*I*B*U*S*U*N*U*M*. J-1907, P-2001. Rarity-8.

3) 1907 style edge lettering: *E*PLURIBUS*UNUM********** (edge inscription read with reverse of the coin upwards). J-1909, P-2002. Rarity-6.

4) 1907 style edge lettering: *E*PLURIBUS*UNUM********** (edge inscription read with obverse of the coin upwards). J-1909, P-2003. Rarity-7 to 8.

Technically, one of each format is required for a collection of Saint-Gaudens double eagles to be considered truly complete!

History of The Ultra High Relief
Any Extremely High Relief double eagle is a numismatist’s dream, but this breath-taking coin is literally in a class by itself. The Saint-Gaudens’ coinage was the result of an unprecedented partnership of the youthful and energetic President Theodore Roosevelt and America’s greatest sculptor, Dublin-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Roosevelt admired the artist profoundly and invited him to the White House to plan what the President later called ”My pet crime,” the drastic overhaul of the nation’s coin designs. A glance at the artist’s earlier interaction with the Philadelphia Mint shows that Saint-Gaudens must have felt profound reservations at tangling once again with the Mint and its irascible chief engraver, Charles E. Barber. The sculptor and engraver had crossed swords twice before, to Saint-Gaudens’ great loss and lingering displeasure.

uhr_J1907_edge_detailDuring 1891, he and nine other artists were invited by Congress to participate in a contest to redesign the nation’s silver coinage, whose Liberty Seated design went back to 1837. The artists rejected the call, citing inadequate time and compensation for what would have been a significant investment of their productive time. A second attempt at competition saw Saint-Gaudens, Barber, and Boston engraver Henry N. Mitchell appointed judges for an open contest that never got off the ground.

Barber took advantage of these false starts to buttress his fanatically held position that only U.S. Mint engravers had the knowledge and skill to even attempt coin design. With the artists out of the running, he swiftly filled the vacuum with his own banal dime, quarter and half dollar designs, forever known as the Barber types, struck from 1892 to 1916.

The two next joined in combat over the U.S. Mint’s award medal for the 1892-1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Saint-Gaudens created a bold obverse showing Columbus stepping ashore on San Salvador, arms outstretched in ecstasy at finding land after his seemingly endless trans-Atlantic voyage. The reverse was more artistic than pictorial, showing a nude youth holding a torch and victor’s crowns. The artist’s son Homer recalled that this design was derailed by an artful early ”leak” of confidential government information. The Page Belting Company was able to get hold of the design and distributed copies of a grossly bowdlerized pornographic parody. Mint Director John Griffin Carlisle canceled Saint-Gaudens’ reverse design and Barber gleefully substituted his own, showing Columbus’ ship squashed under an enormous tablet inscribed with the exposition name and dates. The furious Saint-Gaudens denounced this ”act of rare shamelessness,” but no one in authority cared to listen.

It took all of Roosevelt’s boundless energy and persuasiveness to overcome Saint-Gaudens’ deep-seated reluctance to ever involve himself again with the Mint. On Nov. 6, 1905, Roosevelt wrote to the sculptor after a dinner discussion in which both agreed that U.S. coinage was sorrowfully deficient in artistic quality. Roosevelt reported that ”I was looking at some gold coins of Alexander the Great today, and I was struck by their high relief. Would not it be well to have our coins in high relief, and also to have the rims raised?” Their target would be the gold coinage that had seen only minor change since Christian Gobrecht’s designs were adopted in 1838.

The artist warned the President up front that while his desired high relief would be certainly aesthetically worthy, ”The authorities on modern monetary requirements would, I fear, ‘throw fits’ to speak emphatically, if the thing were done now….” Somewhat later, Saint-Gaudens spoke humorously of Barber’s long term in the engravership, suggesting that he had been there before the establishment of the Republic and would survive long after, sitting in its ruins. Borrowing a quote from Chicago’s comic figure “Mister Dooley,” the artist predicted that Barber would be stricken with ”nervous prostitution” (sic) if the President persisted in his high relief quest. However, persist he did and a greatly encouraged artist went to work despite his terminal illness. His stated goal was to make his new double eagle with its striding full-form Liberty and majestic flying eagle ”a living thing and typical of progress.”

President and artist were braced for Barber’s opposition, and the chief engraver obliged, adding procrastination, prevarication, and outright sabotage in his determination to frustrate the projects of the dying Saint-Gaudens. The artist wrote on May 29, 1906, ”If you succeed in getting the best of the polite Mr. Barber down there, or the others in charge, you will have done a greater work than putting through the Panama Canal. Nevertheless, I shall stick at it, even unto death.” Fortunately the sculptor’s assistant Henry Hering was on hand to contend with Barber on a day-to-day basis. Hering agreed that the proposed Ultra High Relief could not realistically be struck for circulation but demanded that the experiment be made to fulfill Saint-Gaudens’ wishes. Hering recalled the actual striking in the Hartford Courant in June 1933, ”So a circular gold disk was placed on the die and by hydraulic pressure of (I think it was) 172 tons we had our first stamping and the impression showed about one half the modeling. I had them make a cast of this for my guidance. The coin was again placed on the die and again showed a little more of the modeling and so this went on and on until the ninth stamping when the design showed up in every detail.” A ”progression set” struck in lead in the collection of the New York-based American Numismatic Society shows the several stages of obtaining the full Extremely High Relief.

Hering’s relentless prodding assured that the dies were actually finished and possibly 24 Extremely High Relief coins were struck, two of these soon returned to the smelter. Hering repeated to the American Numismatic Association’s journal, The Numismatist in August 1949 that he knew the Ultra High Relief was impractical for general circulation, but that he was determined to see the project completed. In the event, four Extremely High Relief coins were sent on loan to Saint-Gaudens and the sculptor was able to savor his completed work before cancer claimed his life in August 1907. It is remarkable that Saint Gaudens never owned one of his most famous coins, having sent back the four pieces to the Mint. After his death, his redoubtable widow Augusta lost no time in demanding one of the coins. Roosevelt instructed the Mint to either strike another specimen during 1908 or else send her one of the two examples from the national collection. A coin from that collection was sent to her along with a bill for $20.12 for her coin.

Roosevelt had seen the plaster models at the end of 1906 and wrote the artist on December 20, ”My Dear Saint-Gaudens: Those models are simply immense—if such a slang way of talking is permissible in reference to giving a modern coinage one coin at least that shall be as good as that of the ancient Greeks. I have instructed the Director of the Mint that these dies are to be reproduced just as quickly as possible and just as they are. It is simply splendid. I suppose I shall be impeached for it in Congress; but I shall regard that as a very cheap payment!”

It is believed that the dies were completed and the first Extremely High Relief coin struck in mid-February 1907, but no new segmented collar had been prepared in time for the first strike. However, Barber had prepared his own 1906 pattern double eagle (Judd-1773), presenting a large Liberty bust wearing a Phrygian cap on the obverse. His reverse offered a standing Liberty holding a Liberty cap on pole and a sword with a large American eagle behind, originally prepared for an 1891 Pattern Half Dollar (Judd-1766). As noted above, he had prepared his own collar to impress the raised letter motto with a star between each letter, E*P*L*U*R*I*B*U*S*U*N*U*M*. This collar was now pressed into service to strike the Ultra High Relief coin offered here, which is almost certainly one of the first coins actually produced. A second Extremely High Relief with this distinctive edge was discovered in 1995, an About Uncirculated piece with edge bumps, sold in Sotheby’s June 1995 sale as Lot 485, ”Property of a Gentleman.”

The present coin left the coining press and its subsequent history is unknown. It might have passed to Saint-Gaudens’ assistant Hering or possibly into the hands of some supervisor of coinage production and carried about for some time. After these two coins with the 1906 edge, the other known Extremely High Relief coins bore the edge device from a new collar giving the motto and stars as E * PLURIBUS * UNUM ***********. These were presented to VIP’s who carefully preserved them so that these coins survive essentially unblemished. This Extremely High Relief Saint-Gaudens double eagle with the edge of 1906 is of overwhelming beauty, rarity and historical importance. Its appearance offers an historic opportunity for any collector determined to possess the greatest American rarities.

From Sotheby’s sale of December 1992, Lot 837; our sale of the Morrison Family and Lawrence C. Licht collections, March 2005, Lot 1538.

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