Liberty Head Double Eagles $20 (1850-1907)

Coins / United States of America / 20 Dollars

Overview / History

The discovery of gold in California, and the resulting California Gold Rush, led to a sudden influx of gold bullion needing to be minted. At the time, the largest-denomination coin in circulation was the gold Eagle, worth $10, followed by the Half Eagle ($5) and the Quarter Eagle ($2.50). In the early days of the Gold Rush, the bullion was minted into Quarter Eagles. It became swiftly apparent that the massive influx of gold would require minting a larger coin in a larger denomination. Calls had existed as early as 1836 to mint both a $1 and $20 gold coin, and indeed legislation was already underway to create the $1 coin. The need for a larger coin led to the addition of a $20 piece to the bill, which was approved on March 3rd, 1949.

The coin was designed by Chief Engraver James Barton Longacre, who had designed multiple other notable U.S. coins. The first developmental patterns were struck without a date in early January, 1850, and the Double Eagle finally entered circulation on January 26th, 1850. Production continued until 1866 when, in an effort to aid efforts at healing the nation after the American Civil War, the idea arose to create a religious motto for the nation and add it to all U.S. coinage - resulting in the addition of "In God We Trust" to newly minted coins. Notably, 1866-S Double Eagles can be found in both the original design, and with the motto as both were minted that year. Additionally, the coin underwent an additional redesign in 1877 when Chief Engraver William Barber tilted Goddess Liberty's head forward and changed the way the denomination was written. The coin remained in production until replaced by the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle in 1907, and many remained in circulation until recalled by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 to be melted down in an attempt to boost the economy during the height of the Great Depression.

While exact totals are difficult to come by, it is likely that close to one hundred million Liberty Head Double Eagles were minted in total. Between the Philadelphia, Carson City, and San Francisco mints, 16,160,758 type 2 Double Eagles were produced during their eleven year run. Type 3 Double Eagles were the most heavily minted, with 64,137,477 pieces minted. Type 3 Double Eagles were primarily minted in Philadelphia and San Francisco, with the Carson City, New Orleans, and Denver mints augmenting production periodically as needed.

Details

  • Size & Makeup: The Liberty Head Double Eagle is made of 90% gold and 10% copper, with a gold weight of 0.96750 troy ounces. The coin weighs 33.431 grams and measures 34.1 mm (1.342 in) across.
  • Obverse: The Liberty Head Double Eagle depicts a left-facing head of Goddess Liberty, designed in the Greco-Roman style, with most of her hair pulled back into a bun, and the rest descending down her neck. She wears a coronet with the word "Liberty" inscribed on it. The obverse is rimmed by 13 stars, representing the 13 original U.S. Colonies, as well as the year of minting.
  • Reverse: There are three different variations of the Liberty Head Double Eagle's reverse, depending on the year of minting.
    Type 1 - 1850-1866: The Liberty Head Double Eagle features a modified version of the Great Seal of the United States. An eagle sits in the center, protecting a shield representative of the U.S., while holding two ribbons. The words "E Pluribus Unum" are inscribed on the ribbons, and the dual ribbons themselves are representative of the fact that the Double Eagle had twice the value of the previous highest value gold coin. The eagle holds a bundle of arrows in one talon, and an olive branch in the other. Thirteen stars form a halo around the eagles head, set over an arc of rays. The words "United States of America" rim the top of the coin, while the words "Twenty D." rim the bottom. The mint mark is located directly under the base of the shield, above the denomination.
    Type 2 - 1866-1876: The redesigned Double Eagle is virtually identical to the original design, save that the motto "In God We Trust" is written within the halo of stars above the eagles head, and the halo was widened slightly to accommodate the words.
    Type 3 - 1876-1907: This version is virtually identical to the previous version, except that Goddess Liberty's head is tilted and the denomination along the bottom was changed to read "Twenty Dollars".
  • The word "Liberty" was originally misspelled on the Double Eagle design as "LLberty." Longacre initially converted the second L into an I, though the error can be seen on well-struck specimens.
  • In 1860 Assistant Engraver Anthony C. Paquet revised the reverse, making the letters taller and narrower. Production began in 1861 in Philadelphia and San Francisco, but it was quickly realized that the rim of the new design was insufficient to protect the coin from abrasion, and the new design was scrapped. Most Paquet Double Eagles from Philadelphia were melted down, however by the time word reached San Francisco the mint had already issued 20,000 pieces. The 1861-S Paquet Double Eagle is considered a rare piece, and a 1861 Paquet Double Eagle is considered a landmark rarity.

Interesting Facts

  • The design process for the Double Eagle was the direct result of a conspiracy against Longacre by Mint Director Robert Maskell Patterson and Chief Coiner Franklin Peale. Patterson disliked Longacre and wanted to replace him with noted medalist Charles Cushing Wright, while Peale was known to be corrupt, and feared that Longacre would disrupt his illicit medal-making racket. Patterson and Peale harassed Longacre relentlessly throughout the design process, and forced him to create three separate Double Eagle obverses before approving his design.
  • The primary value in the higher denomination Double Eagles was to both serve as a convenient way to convert gold bullion into coinage, and to make it easier to transfer large amounts of money for transactions in foreign countries, where both governments and commercial interests tended to be wary of paper money.
  • Double Eagles in mint condition are exceedingly rare, as comparative softness of the gold led to many picking up bag, reeding, and contact marks well before they ever entered circulation.
  • 1850-1866 Double Eagles, especially the 1857-S Double Eagle, are difficult to find in an Uncirculated grade despite not being considered rare issues.
  • Rare or scarce issues include the 1854-O, 1856-O, 1861-S Paquet reverse, 1870-CC, and the 1879-O. Additionally, the Philadelphia mint only produced Proofs of the Double Eagle in 1883 and 1884, resulting in only 92 pieces being proof struck in 1883 and 71 being struck in 1884.
  • The 1873 Double Eagle has two forms of the numeral 3 in the date, one that is closed and one open. The Closed 3 is considered one of the rarer issues of the Double Eagle.
  • Wear is often most noticeable over the locks of Goddess Liberty's hair over her ear, as well as on the eagle's head and neck.

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