The Saint-Gaudens Indian Head Gold Eagle

To say that, as a type, the Indian Head Gold Eagle ($10) is one of the world’s more valuable gold series on the market is not an overstatement. The series has value in terms of market preference, but more importantly, its significance to the numismatic achievement the Indian Head Eagle represents. Forged from the force of will, persistence, and audacity, The Saint-Gaudens Indian Head Gold Eagle is a symbol of the American spirit at the turn of the century.

In production continuously between 1907 to 1916, and then irregularly after that until 1933, the gold coin and its dramatic history, grabs attention from collectors and investors alike. Values of the 1933 Indian Gold Eagle average around $75,000 and up depending on grade. Mint condition coins regularly command hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

The Allure of the Indian Head Gold Eagle

The Indian Head Gold Eagle remains popular with coin collectors and investors alike. Much of the attraction comes from August Saint-Gaudens’s artistic and highly stylized design for the obverse and reverse of the coin. The front presents a left-facing bust of Lady Liberty (modeled after a study Saint-Gaudens considered for the Lady Victory) wearing an American Indian headdress. The reverse shows an eagle standing proudly on a bundle of arrows, representing being ready for war, which in turn is framed below by an olive branch, symbolizing peace. Saint-Gaudens designs for the coin are strikingly original; and, like his designs for the Double Eagle, foreshadow the Art Deco movement that would follow some fifteen years later.

The Saint-Gaudens Indian Head Eagle and its relative, the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, share 1933 as an exceptionally scarce date. Although Mint records show an original mintage of 312,500; almost all of them were confiscated and melted into ingots and became part of the nation’s reserve bullion supply. There was a discovery of about thirty examples around 1952, and a few more found in European vaults.

Just recently, a 1933 Indian Head Gold Eagle, MS65, was sold at auction for $408,000. Another specimen sold at a Larry Goldberg auction in 2009 for $517,500.

To say that, as a series, the $10 Indian Head Gold Eagle is one of the world’s more valuable gold coins on the market is not an overstatement.

In production continuously between 1907 to 1916, and then irregularly after that until 1933, the gold coin carries with it a dramatic history that’s hard to resist. It captures the imagination and gets a great deal of attention at auctions. Here are just a few of the auction highlights.

1920-S Indian Head Eagle $1,725,000

In 1920, gold coins widely circulated and were regularly used in commerce. Therefore, it is not surprising that the San Francisco mint produced 126,500 ten dollar gold eagle coins that year. The majority of the 1920 Gold Eagles available today are in Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated condition. A Mint State (MS) 67 (a perfect coin is MS70) specimen sold at auction in March 2007 for $1,725,000 and was the finest known example of the 1920-S Indian Head Gold Eagle.

1907 Indian Head Eagle Satin-Finish Proof $2,185,000

This 1907 proof Indian Head Eagle is the finest known example of the date. There are only 12 known-to-exist satin-finished proof 1907 Indian Head Gold Coin of the rolled edge variety, and one of them, previously owned by Mint Director Frank Leach, sold at auction for $2,185,000. Most Indian Head Gold Eagle examples lack detail on the design’s highest points because of the high relief. This specimen is the exception.

Highest Price Paid for an Indian Head Eagle

The highest price (to date) ever paid for an Indian Head Eagle was another 2007 satin-finished proof Indian Head Eagle, which was offered for private sale in 2015 for $3 million.

The Enduring Allure of Saint-Gaudens Indian Head $10 Gold Eagle

The Saint-Gaudens Indian Head $10 Gold Eagle has always had a solid numismatic following. Demand for the coin began to grow in the late 1930s. The Indian Head Eagle is probably more popular today than ever.

Many varieties are scarce in gem state. Indian Head Eagles are available in Mint State from 1907 to 1916, 1926, and 1932, but gems are harder to find and expensive. The most elusive, key dates for the Indian Head Eagle are 1920-S, 1930-S, and 1933.

First Two Years Two Different Varieties

There were two varieties of Saint-Gaudens Indian Head $10 Gold coin for the first two years of issue, 1907 and 1908. One had a rounded rim, and the other had a wire rim. There were other differences as well. The motto In God We Trust is missing from the first variety because President Roosevelt believed it was sacrilegious to put God’s name on coinage. Congress intervened and ordered the use of the motto.

Only a few dozen have survived from the tens of thousands initially minted of the first variety. The rest had been confiscated and melted. Most of the five hundred wire-rim specimens exist today because they were never released to the public but rather given to friends and families of the Treasury Department.

According to PCGS auction prices, a 1907 rolled edge-proof Indian Head Eagle sold for $2,185,000,000.

Proof Editions with Two Different Finishes

There are two different types of Indian Head proof coins, and they’re all costly when they become available on the market. The Indian Head proof coins released in 1908, 1912, to 1915 have a Sand Blast Proof finish. The proof coins released in 1910 and 1911 have a Satin Proof finish.

The History of the Saint-Gaudens Indian Head Gold Eagle

The story of the Indian Head Gold Eagle intertwines with the creation of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle. The saga that began in 1904 and climaxed in 1907 resulted in two of the most amazing coins in US numismatic history. Our previous article, Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle The Meteor of 20th Century Coinage offers a more complete story. This article focuses on the accomplishment of the ten-dollar gold coin that accompanied the Double Eagle.

Problems with the US Mint

The Indian Head Eagle, as originally sculpted by Saint-Gaudens, proved to have a relief that was too high for the Mint to strike in great numbers. The Mint needed a design that could work with one blow of the press. Early models of the coin required multiple strikes to create relief images. Since Saint-Gaudens was severely ill at the time, the work to modify the design went to Saint-Gaudens’s apprentice and studio assistant, Henry Hering. Mr. Hering had the unenviable task of working with Director and Chief Engraver, Mr. Charles Barber, and his team at the US Mint. None of whom liked Mr. Hering or Mr. Saint-Gaudens. Barber resented President Roosevelt, forcing the Mint staff to work with an outside artist, Augustus Saint Gaudens, in particular.

The feud between Barber and Saint-Gaudens extended back to the Columbus Exhibit of 1893 when they disagreed with the commemorative medal Saint-Gaudens designed. Barber swapped Saint-Gaudens’s design for the reverse with one of his own without telling him about it.

Running Out of Excuses

Interactions between anyone associated with Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Charles Barber were full of conflict, confusion, and dismay. A handwritten account of Henry Hering’s dealings with the US Mint still exists today.

Hering writes,

“The issue of the $20 and $10 gold coins was the outcome of a dinner engagement Mr. Augustus Saint-Gaudens had with President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. It was the latter’s ‘pet crime’ (as he called it) to issue a coin which would compare in beauty and relief with the old Greek coins, and he asked St. Gaudens if he would undertake the work. By doing so, he created a bad feeling among the officials of the Mint because up this time no outsider had ever designed a coin for the government.”

Hering explains that Mr. Barber continuously insisted the design was impractical and wouldn’t work. Under duress from the President, Barber’s team experimented with various models supplied by Hering, but none of the results were satisfactory.

Out-Dated Equipment

Hering writes,

“It just so happened that during my student days in Paris, France, there lived a sculptor named Janvier who invested a reducing machine which was perfection and the French government, and, in fact, all the other European governments, installed Janvier’s machine in their mints. So, it occurred to me to look over the machine the US Mint was using.

It was a machine about forty years old and consequently very much out of date. I told Mr. Barbour (sic) so but it made no impression him, so I made my report to Mr. St. Gaudens who in turn told the President. Of course, you can imagine what Teddy’s feelings were on hearing the USA was so much out of date. The outcome was an early visit to the Mint to see another reduction, this time of the $10 gold coin. This Mr. Barbour (sic) showed us with great glee, and after looking it over, I found it also a very poor reduction, whereupon Mr. Barbour informed me that it had been done by the Janvier machine, which the Mint had installed.”

What Hering didn’t reveal at the beginning of his meeting with Mr. Barber was that he had Mr. Janvier reduce the $10 piece in three different heights of relief. The problem wasn’t the new machine but Barber’s ability to use it.

The Design of the Saint-Gaudens Indian Head Eagle

If refining a coin design for the US Mint was complex under normal circumstances, the process became almost untenable under the present situation. It’s incredible how many design details have to be worked out and approved. There is the constant balancing of artistic vision with the practicalities demanded by the physical creation of the coins.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a numismatist and greatly admired the coins of ancient Greece. He knew high relief was possible. The question became how to get the US Mint to create such high relief.

Other than the Indian Princess Gold Dollar (1854–1889), President Teddy Roosevelt didn’t care much for the artistry of the US Mint. He often complained the US coinage was atrociously hideous and not representative of a truly civilized people. He had long admired the sculptures of his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens and asked him to accept the task of re-designing the US coins. President Roosevelt decided to start his “pet crime” with the coins he knew could change without Congressional approval. These were the Cent and the four gold pieces utilized at the time: the Double Eagle ($20), the Eagle ($10), the Half Eagle ($5), and the Quarter Eagle ($2.50). The two designs Saint-Gaudens initially conceived for the Cent were modified and used for the $20 (Double Eagle) and $10 (Eagle) gold pieces. Between the time required to collaborate with a reluctant crew at the US Mint on two gold coins and Saint-Gaudens’s progressive illness, he could never resume his work on the Cent.

Early in the process, Saint-Gaudens had sketched over 70 eagles on clay tablets. He’d line them all up and take a poll on which was the best pose. Another puzzle was where to place the motto “E Pluribus Unum” (out of many, one). One iteration had the motto appear on the rock which the eagle stood, while another version had the motto floating in the field of the reverse to the eagle’s right, surrounded by stars (one for each of the original 13 colonies). The artist decided to use Lady Liberty’s face from the initial design for the Cent on the ten-dollar gold coin.

The Sherman Statue and the Face of Victory

The face used on the obverse of the ten-dollar gold coin had its beginnings almost a decade before. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the preeminent sculpture of the United States in the 19th Century, always had a schedule filled with commissions. He began working on an equestrian monument honoring William Tecumseh Sherman as early as 1888. An early study of the head of Lady Victory used Hettie Anderson as the model. Hettie was a woman supposed to have Negro blood in her veins, according to the artist’s son, Homer Saint-Gaudens. Although intended for the Sherman monument, it was set aside and forgotten until the artist resurrected it as a bust of Lady Liberty for the cent re-design.

As the design for the $10 Gold coin progressed, Saint-Gaudens avoided the question of the Indian headdress as an element of the obverse design, but President Roosevelt was adamant. He would refer to the Indian feather headdress again and again. Finally, Saint-Gaudens realized he was stuck with the Indian headdress and began incorporating it into his design of the bust of Lady Liberty.

The artist’s son, Homer, later said that his father eventually warmed to the headdress idea. As it turned out, Saint-Gaudens was pleased Roosevelt had been so persistent in suggesting it. Design concepts and combinations of the obverse and reverse of both gold coins went on for several years. Barber found problems with every model delivered by Saint-Gaudens. Arguments escalated. Letters were sent out to mint officials in other countries asking if high-relief coins were possible. How did they overcome the technical challenges in using high relief? Most of the replies came back stating they had not much experience in the matter. It seemed like the actual execution of the gold-coin project was at a standstill. The whole project, the Double Eagle, the Indian Head Eagle, everything, could have collapsed.

A Letter to the President

Saint-Gaudens writes:

“I feel I cannot model another design in profile for the Twenty Dollar gold piece. Indeed, as far as I am concerned, I should prefer seeing the head of Liberty in place of any figure on the Twenty Dollar coin as well as on the One Cent. If the idea appeals to you, I would refine the modeling of the head now that I have seen it struck in the small, so as to bring it in scale with the eagle. I am grieved that the striking of the die did not bring better results. Evidently, it is no trifling matter to make Greek art conform with modern numismatics.”

Although Theodore Roosevelt appreciated the letter, he was determined to see the standing Liberty figure for the Twenty Dollar gold piece. The relief of Lady Liberty in an Indian headdress he wanted to see on the smaller gold coin. His position on these two points was solid. The whole project was at a crossroads, and Roosevelt knew it. If he did not stand firm, the endeavor would never see the light of day.

Ultimately, the coinability of the Ten Dollar gold coin was much improved. Details were much sharper. There were some compromises, all of them approved by Saint Gaudens. Barber would not have deviated knowing all the heat he was receiving already from the White House.

President Roosevelt officially accepted the $10 gold piece design on October 3. The Treasury Department issued Orders to melt the earlier rolled-edge variety from the first model. Only about fifty specimens survived and are rarely seen on the market today. The wire-rim versions were held at the Treasury and subsequently distributed to friends of the President and administration officials.

Epilogue & Legacy

August Saint-Gaudens, the most remarkable American sculpture of the 19th Century, impacted the coinage of the United States in ways that go deeper than the contributions of the spectacular Double Eagle and Indian Head Eagle. His work ushered in a renaissance of US coin design and experimentation. His partnership with President Roosevelt to beautify American coinage paved the way for more artists outside the US Mint to contribute to numismatic history.

Students of Saint-Gaudens Continued to Make Contributions to Roosevelt’s “Pet Crime”

The Mint continued to work with students of Saint-Gaudens in the years after his death.

Bela Pratt designed the Indian Head Quarter Eagle ($2.50) and Indian Head Eagle ($5.00) gold coins. These are the only two US coins to use the incuse process, which stamps the design into the coin’s surface.

Sculptor James Earle Fraser created the Buffalo Nickel (from 1913 to 1938).

Another student of Saint-Gaudens, Adolph A. Weinman, designed the front and back of the Walking Liberty Half Dollar (1916–1947). Weinman’s design for the obverse has become iconic. His Walking Liberty became the emblem for the American Silver Eagle program in 1986.

These artists, unique in their own right, convey the spirit of Saint-Gaudens and the pioneering character of a nation poised at the doorway of limitless possibilities.

The difficulties in striking the Indian Head Gold Eagle resulted in the US Mint modernizing their equipment with the acquisition of the Janvier Reduction Lathe. The Mint learned to use the technology thoroughly, and it served them well until it was replaced by digital technology in the 21st Century.

The Artist Did Not Live to See the Coins Released

On August 3, 1907, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, age fifty-nine, died of cancer while at home in Cornish, New Hampshire. In his book The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, Historian David McCullough writes, Only the doctor was at the bedside. Gussie (Saint-Gaudens’s wife) was waiting outside the door. It is said that when the doctor told her (that her husband had died), she fainted on the floor.

Gussie survived Augustus Saint-Gaudens by nearly twenty years. President Roosevelt wrote to her, I count it as one of the privileges of my administration to have had him make two of our coins.

Gussie spent the rest of her life drawing attention to her husband’s work. She had their home turned into a museum incorporated by the State of New Hampshire. Later, it became a part of the National Park Service and still is today.

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