$20 Liberty Double Eagle
A result of the California gold rush, the gold $20 Liberty Eagle coin is by far the largest circulating gold coin in American history. Since the U.S. Treasury was receiving so much gold from California, they needed to mint larger coins to use the metals they had on hand, which Congress authorized in 1849.
The Liberty Eagle ranges in dates from 1850-1907 and contain .9657 troy ounces of gold.
The Liberty Head design was the work of Chief Mint Engraver James Barton Longacre and it is found in three distinct types.
- The Type 1 (No Motto) was minted 1850–1866, with many high-grade examples coming from San Francisco Mint specimens that were lost in shipwrecks for over 100 years. Thousands, for example, sunk with the SS Central America, a ship loaded with more than two tons of gold dust, nuggets, coins, and ingots from the California Gold Rush. The loss of Central America’s treasure was so severe that it set off the Panic of 1857. Over a century later, treasure hunters recovered the precious cargo, including thousands of beautiful, glittering Type 1 double eagles.
- The Type 2 double eagle, minted 1866–1876, was the first double eagle to bear the words “In God We Trust”. The addition required slight modifications to the design, and in that process, small changes were also made to the eagle and shield. Type 2 double eagles are primarily sought by type collectors, with mint-condition Carson City double eagles being a standout rarity.
- The Type 3 double eagle was minted 1877–1907 and features alterations to the “In God We Trust” motto and the Liberty Head, as well as a lengthening of “Twenty D.” to “Twenty Dollars”. In 1891, gold was discovered in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and the Denver Mint was established. About 12 Type 3 double eagle proofs were struck there, and one sold in 2010 for over half a million dollars.
As Longacre worked on the coin, he was under constant assault by the duplicitous Chief Coiner Franklin Peale. Peale had a scheme running, in which he used Mint property to mint and sell medals for his own profit. The scheme would eventually be Peale’s downfall a few years later, but in 1849, Peale’s medal-making was still in full swing. Peale worried that Longacre’s efforts would interfere with his medal-making, so he delayed Longacre’s design work for as long as possible.
Longacre persevered through three separate designs, and eventually his double eagle was produced. The obverse featured a Greco-Roman Liberty head with her hair pulled back and a diadem resting lightly on her head. The reverse shows the Great Seal of the United States and an eagle holding a shield that represents America. The eagle also holds a double ribbon, symbolic of the coin’s denomination.
The double eagle was an immediate success and remained so for decades to come, until President Franklin D. Roosevelt criminalized the private ownership of gold in 1933. Millions of double eagles were then melted down or sent overseas, greatly reducing the current supply.
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