«The Fascination of Gold»

In Praise of the Greeks: When President Roosevelt forced the Philadelphia Mint to produce fantastic High Relief Coinage, unsuitable for modern Minting Processes

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It’s an American legend the Saint-Gaudens double eagle. A president and an artist formed a plot to enforce it against the mint’s wishes. It became a success in the end, because the artist died sufficiently early.

 

 

 

Come along with us on our journey through the world of money. Today we are stopping in the United States. We are in the year 1908.

 

It is said to have happened one night in the White House in 1905. At an official dinner, two friends were having a heated conversation. The two men were President Theodore Roosevelt and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens indulging in praise of Greek coinage.

 

What a beautifully deep relief! What artistry! How dull were the American coins in circulation compared to that! It had to be possible to create new, more aesthetically appealing coins! And anyhow, Theodore Roosevelt was the President, wasn’t he? He had the power! He didn’t need Congress’s approval for the gold coins!

 

So Theodore Roosevelt forced the Philadelphia Mint to commission his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens with new designs. The Mint wasn’t exactly thrilled about that. Charles Barber had been holding the office of Chief Engraver since 1879. In this position, he was responsible for all designs and their technical realisation. Before him, his father had held the office. The Barbers had been in charge of American coinage for more than half a century.

 

And now this artist, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, pops up out of nowhere. Son of a French cobbler and an Irish housewife! Granted, he was the American bourgeoisie’s darling with his love of Renaissance art. And yes, the statues he had created for the government were impressive. But his arrogance wasn’t favourable to his making many friends, especially not in the Mint.

 

Among Saint-Gaudens’s work were magnificent medals and fantastic mid-reliefs.

But of course none of his works were suitable for production by modern, high-speed coining presses.

 

However, neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Augustus Saint-Gaudens cared much for the fact that a modern mint in the early 20th century isn’t the same as the workshop of a Greek artisan or a Renaissance artist.

 

Roosevelt insisted that the new coins have a high relief even though experts advised him differently. So Saint-Gaudens designed a magnificent coin. The models were delivered from Paris as Saint-Gaudens was afraid he’d be sabotaged in Philadelphia.

 

In Philadelphia, the mint was faced with the problem that it was technically impossible to mint the coins in a single process. Roosevelt was angry. The situation almost escalated, had it not been for Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ timely death on August 3, 1907.

 

This meant that finally Charles Barber was able to revise the coins‘ design according to the conditions dictated by modern minting technology. The relief became shallower. The year of issue was changed from Latin to Arabic numbers for the American audience. Despite of the strong disapproval from Saint-Gaudens’s family the coin was finally minted and entered circulation in late December 1907.

 

Roosevelt was happy and Saint-Gaudens unable to argue from his grave. His signature had been retained on the revised coin design. Experts agree that the coin is still one of the most beautiful American coins of all times.

 

Thank you for listening. And you can find more podcasts about coins and money on the Sunflower Foundation Web page.