Collecting Saint-Gaudens, Part I
Posted on 2/16/2012
It's been a privilege to be invited as a dealer member to participate in the United States Gold Coin Club. Although the club now includes the collecting of all US gold coins, it began with a group of serious Saint-Gaudens enthusiasts. In recent years, many of the founding members have seen their collections cross the auction block for amazing prices. For instance, the sale of the Jim O’Neal and Dr. Steven Duckor collections attained new, record levels for many issues. Although these two members have sold their collections, others collectors have entered the field hoping to complete their collections of Saint-Gaudens issues. Bidding is extremely competitive for most of these coins. The collecting of Saint-Gaudens coinage elicits deep passion seldom seen for other series of United States coinage. It’s no secret that coins bring tremendous sums in the upper grades as collectors battle to assemble the best possible sets. It could be called Registry Set collecting on steroids! Remember, this is a series of coins with multiple seven figure coins required for completion at the highest level.
Why the extreme passion? The beauty of the coins is certainly a factor. Augustus Saint-Gaudens was considered the greatest artist in the United States in 1906 when Teddy Roosevelt encouraged him to redesign our coinage. One of his best known works is the gilded Sherman statue that sits prominently at the entrance to Central Park in New York City. Many of his other works fill museums around the country. The Metropolitan Museum of Art featured a retrospective of his works a few years ago. A few well heeled collectors collect the artistic works of Saint-Gaudens in addition to his coins. Saint-Gaudens’ effort to create a work of art for our coinage is well known. The results are unquestionably the most artistically beautiful coins ever to be ejected from dies! It is truly unfortunate for most collectors that the 1907 Ultra High Relief costs so much. Everyone would buy one if it was in their budget! The coin is simply stunning to behold. It is one of the most sculptural coins (or medals) ever created. If you have never seen one in person, make an effort to view one in a museum collection or at auction if the opportunity arises.
The historical aspect of the Saint-Gaudens coinage also appeals to many collectors. Theodore Roosevelt was one of our nations most popular presidents. His involvement in the creation of the coins is a big draw. The country was on the cusp of becoming the greatest nation in the world, and his redesign of our coinage illustrates Roosevelt’s drive to make great things happen in the United States. The drama played out in the design of the Saint-Gaudens coinage is also very compelling. Although his health was on the decline, Saint-Gaudens devoted the last of his energy to completing the commission. He was intent on minting coins with a high relief to best present the artistic merits of his work. Mint officials knew it would be nearly impossible to strike such coins in quantity. Much has been made of Charles Barber’s disdain for the high relief designs and his insistence to modify the coins for striking. Nonetheless, Charles Barber must have appreciated the design of the Saint-Gaudens coins because many of them were found in Barber’s estate! Could it be that he was a secret admirer?
The Saint-Gaudens series is also popular for several other reasons. Although the Saint-Gaudens' Ten and Twenty Dollar series have many uncollectible coins for the average collector, there are dozens of dates and mintmarks that can be purchased for relatively modest sums. Collectors can embark on these sets and buy many mid-grade coins for a modest premium over the bullion value. Quite a few collectors start by buying as many different coins as possible and then become hooked on the series. When they have purchased all of the common coins, they turn their attention to the mid-level rarities. Finally, if funds are available, the lucky few start competing for the prime rarities of the series. And, for the condition rarity folks, the challenge becomes greater from the start. Only a handful of dates are actually common in gem condition. The rest take a great deal of time, money and patience. Dr. Steven Duckor collected his set over the course of several decades. Many coins appear only when great collections are sold.
Registry Set collecting is now a well known method of collecting and one of the most popular draws for those wishing to compete with other collectors. Years ago, many of the greatest collectors were very secretive about their holdings. A few famous collectors, such as John Jay Pittman and John Ford had safety deposit boxes filled with coins they had not viewed in years, if not decades. Today’s collectors are much more open with their holdings, and anyone with an internet connection can examine the holdings of some of the country’s most serious collections. This open competition has brought about extreme competition for the finest examples when they (rarely) appear for sale. Many coins that were considered modest rarities now bring six figure prices at the top end.
Over the years I have dealt with many passionate collectors. However, the “gotta have it” mentality of Saint-Gaudens collectors is the strongest I have ever seen. One of the early pioneers of this mentality was Robert Kruthoffer. He lived in my home town of Lexington, Kentucky. His specialty was Ten Dollar Indians. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he assembled the best collection of Ten Dollar Indians possible. This was well before most collectors were interested in “finest known” coins. He paid what seemed to be ridiculous prices for coins he wanted. Kruthoffer was truly a passionate collector and way ahead of his time. He sold most of his collection in the depths of the 1982 recession. He passed away many years ago before the price levels of these coins shot to the moon. I’m not sure if he would be happy or sad with the current market. It’s great to be vindicated in your thinking, but sad to have missed the party!
NEXT TIME – A close up examination of the Saint–Gaudens series.
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