New Information on Augustus Saint-Gaudens and America’s Most Beautiful Coin
“I suppose I shall be impeached for it…” —Theodore Roosevelt
(left) Fig. 1. Augustus Saint-Gaudens; (right) Fig. 2. Theodore Roosevelt.
Gus and Teddy
They were a couple of New York City kids. Born ten years apart, they grew up three blocks from one another. But it could have been miles.
Born in Dublin, Ireland, to an itinerant Gascon shoemaker and an Irish mother, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Fig. 1), was the first child born to his parents to survive. He sailed to America in steerage and arrived in Boston in 1848, six months old, “red-headed, whopper-jawed, and hopeful.”
A decade later, in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt (Fig. 2), slipped into his privileged world, the first son of one of New York’s most influential men and his wife, a southern belle of whom it was said “no dirt ever stopped near her.” At birth, the product of this elegant union weighed eight-and-a-half pounds, was unusually noisy, and looked “like a terrapin” (although in terms of his mature speaking style, a snapping turtle might have been a more apt description).
The Saint-Gaudens family settled in New York and bounced from the Bowery to the tawdry tangle of Five Points until 1860, when his father opened a shop making shoes for swell ladies at the corner of Twenty-first Street and Fourth Avenue, New York’s finest shopping district. It was only a few blocks from the hush of the towering trees within the iron-gated precincts of Gramercy Park, close to where the frail, asthmatic Theodore Roosevelt grew slowly, fighting for breath every day.
And so, from their youth, like two moths on opposite sides of a light bulb, the two men circled and swirled. Each destined for greatness: one as America’s most renowned sculptor, the other as this nation’s youngest and most ebullient president.
They traveled through life knowing many of the same people, but it was not until they were both at the very height of their careers that they finally met and found they shared a similar vision of their country. Together they sought to share that heroic vision with the rest of the world by redesigning its coins. The robust politician lent the power of his office to clear obstacles, as the increasingly frail artist, dying of cancer, found the inspiration to create his last masterpiece.
This is a well-known story to most numismatists, but as is so often the case there is more. The year 2007 marks the centenary of both the issuance of Saint-Gaudens’ remarkable coinage and his untimely death from cancer. The American Numismatic Society, in conjunction with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site and the New York Federal Reserve Bank, have mounted a new exhibition on the coinage commission, which will run until March 31, 2008.
The exhibition brings together for the first time many objects that have never been displayed publicly and that illuminate not only the design development but also chart all aspects of Saint-Gaudens’ career: from cameo cutter to the creator of sublime monumental public sculpture. During the course of research for the exhibition, new, hitherto unknown information came to light that illuminates the remarkable partnership of the president and the artist and adds new dimensions to our understanding of Saint-Gaudens’ thoughts during the design process.
Fig. 3. Letter from Saint-Gaudens to the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society on March 1, 1892 (ANS Archives).
“I Am a Useless Member”
So wrote Saint-Gaudens to the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society on March 1, 1892 (Fig. 3). Found deep within the archives of the ANS, archivist Joe Ciccone discovered Saint-Gaudens’ application for membership and letter of acceptance (August 16, 1887) (Figs. 4-5) and an amusing correspondence: In 1892, worried that he may have resigned and, if not, wondering what he owes in arrears, Saint-Gaudens refers to himself as a “useless member” (which he most certainly was not, serving in 1900 as one of the Society’s official representatives to the Paris Exposition). The correspondence culminates on June 2, 1892, when “St. Gaudens” (as he signs himself in all this correspondence) becomes a Life Member of the Society.
(left) Fig. 4. Saint-Gaudens’ application for membership to the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society (ANS Archives). (right) Fig. 5. Saint-Gaudens’ acceptance letter for membership to the American Numismatic and Archaeological Society (ANS Archives).
“Barber is a S.O.A.B.”
While not strictly a discovery made in the course of research for the exhibition (it was discovered by Susan Gerwe Tripp in 2003 and subsequently published by David Tripp in 2004 in Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle), it is a remarkably important document.
It was penned by Augustus Saint-Gaudens to his brother Louis from New York City’s Players Club two days after the famed January 12, 1905, White House supper during which Roosevelt broached the coinage commission. The letter alludes to Louis St. Gaudens’ work on the Franklin medal and emphasizes in no uncertain terms the utter and lasting disdain Augustus Saint-Gaudens felt for Charles Barber (Fig. 6), whom he calls a “S.O.A.B.”
Fig. 6. Letter from Augustus Saint-Gaudens to his brother Louis, January 14, 1905 (Dartmouth University, Rauner Special Library).
More intriguing still is Saint-Gaudens’ report that his conversation with the president included Treasury Secretary Leslie Mortier Shaw (who is known to have been at the supper). Saint-Gaudens must have bluntly aired his opinions of Barber and candidly expressed his initial reluctance to accept the commission, for the president, using the forceful (and amusing) style of language so typical of Theodore Roosevelt, sought to assuage Saint-Gaudens’ fears of interference by “promising to cut Barber’s head off if he didn’t do our bidding.”
Saint-Gaudens promised his brother a fuller report when they met, but this wonderful letter clearly indicates that lines were drawn in the sand from the very beginning.
Coins of the Ancients
By April 1905, Saint-Gaudens had still not agreed to accept the commission (this came on July 10, 1905), but his thoughts, most certainly, had already turned to the project. Discovered in Saint-Gaudens’ day book is a simple notation on a rainy April 5, 1905: “Coins of the Ancients” (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7. Page from Saint-Gaudens’ day book, April 5, 1905 (Dartmouth University, Rauner Special Library).
This book, more fully referred to as Synopsis of the Contents of the British Museum. Department of Coins and Medals. A Guide to the Principal Gold and Silver Coins of the Ancients, by Barclay V. Head, was first published in 1881 and went through numerous editions. It was a favorite book of Saint-Gaudens, who undoubtedly used it for inspiration. He is known to have bought copies for friends, and he later loaned a copy of it to Roosevelt.
In November 1905, Saint-Gaudens informed the president that although he not yet begun modeling, he had begun to make sketches (Figs. 8-9). These were rapidly executed, for the most part in pencil, on scraps of paper, and at least one on Century Association letterhead. Two new sheets came to light during research. One is a study of a wing on the recto and a tracing of the same in reverse on the verso (which may have been executed in early 1906 following Saint-Gaudens’ request to Adolph Weinman for a loan of “excellent models of wings which you or Fraser have”). It gives a general look to the flow of the eagle’s wings ultimately adopted for the double eagle. Another unknown study is for a standing eagle reverse (found on the verso of a study for the Parnell Monument), which is close in concept (though lacking the denomination) to the adopted format of the eagle.
Fig. 8. Saint-Gaudens’ preliminary sketches for U.S. coinage (Dartmouth University, Rauner Special Library).
Fig. 9. Saint-Gaudens’ preliminary sketches for U.S. coinage (Dartmouth University, Rauner Special Library).
Two other drawings, while not strictly related to the coinage, do provide a more lighthearted insight into the life of Saint-Gaudens (Figs. 10-11). Although gravely ill, he had not lost his puckish sense of humor. A charming cartoon of life at Aspet on a rainy day (which echoes the April 5, 1905, day book entry) finds the “Sick Artist” with his legs outstretched in front of a roaring fire as he reads a book (Coins of the Ancients, one would hope). The other, a self-caricature, finds the artist wearing his heart on his sleeve (almost literally) as he is pierced with arrows of love for a winged vision of Victory or Liberty (who in his earliest designs still had wings).
Fig. 10: Cartoon by Saint-Gaudens (Dartmouth University, Rauner Special Library).
Fig. 11: Caricature by Saint-Gaudens (Dartmouth University, Rauner Special Library).
Who Was H.C. Hoskier? … A “Fear and Trembling” in Aspet
Unless you have read Lost Commentary of Occumenius (1928) or The Back of Beyond (1934), among other works, or are well-versed in the history of collecting incunabula in the United States, the name H. C. Hoskier of South Orange, New Jersey, may be unfamiliar.
Born in England, Herman C. Hoskier was educated at Eton and in France and Germany. He came to the United States, where he became a successful banker and broker before retiring in 1903 to devote the rest of his life to Biblical scholarship. He was also a well-connected and distinguished collector of ancient coins (his collection was sold by Jacob Hirsch in 1907) who, in December 1905, wrote to Theodore Roosevelt about new coinage designs.
During the work on the exhibition a small series of hitherto unknown and important letters from Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens to Hoskier about the commission were discovered, which shed new light on the earliest days of the project (Fig. 12).
Fig. 12. Letter to Herman C. Hoskier from President Theodore Roosevelt
The timing of Hoskier’s letter, wrote Roosevelt (December 19, 1905), was “a very curious coincidence,” as he had “already got Saint-Gaudens at work to try to design a gold coinage that shall be artistic and at the same time possible from a business standpoint.” Hoskier had suggested reproducing a Greek prototype, to which Roosevelt replied, “I do not want a merely servile copy,” and concluded (with marvelous understatement) that “Saint-Gaudens is no mere copyist but an originator and I think he can be trusted to do good work.”
Roosevelt forwarded Hoskier’s letter to Saint-Gaudens, who in a letter to the businessman-turned-scholar candidly revealed that “I have long wished to do what little I could to improve the shameful condition of our money, but now that I have the opportunity, I approach it with fear and trembling.”
Saint-Gaudens’ December 24, 1905, reply to a (lost) letter of Hoskier also reveals that Hoskier was the first to suggest the use of a flying eagle for the reverse. Saint-Gaudens, who initially envisaged a winged effigy of Liberty on the obverse, gently dismissed Hoskier’s suggestion by explaining that he feared “overdoing the spread wings.”
Saint-Gaudens’ letters also touch on the “wear and tear” of circulating coins, practical worries about the use of high relief, his knowledge of “most of the good coins,” and his one-time use of the head of Arethusa on Syracusan coins as a model when he was a cameo cutter (which, he also notes, with wry amusement, were virtually unsaleable).
Flying Eagle Cents and In God We Trust
After agreeing to the commission Saint-Gaudens was sent a copy of Laws of the United States Relating to the Coinage (Washington, 1904), so that his designs would conform to the relevant coinage laws. This may have been the result of mixed messages from the director of the Mint who, in a June 1906 response to an inquiry from Saint-Gaudens, erroneously informed the artist that there was no legal objection to the use of a flying eagle on a cent (Fig. 13). A few months later he was forced to rescind his opinion after Saint-Gaudens had been hard at work on the design (which he ultimately adapted for use on the double eagle, Fig. 14).
Fig. 13. United States. 1857, one cent. Breen 1927 (ANS 0000.999.3313).
Fig. 14. Reverse of Saint-Gaudens’ double eagle gold coin (ANS 1907.454.1, gift of J. Sanford Saltus).
Saint-Gaudens’ copy of Laws of the United States Relating to the Coinage at Aspet, which has never before been exhibited, has his handwritten notation: “Passed after ’57 cent” and refers to “the law of 1873,” which banned the use of an eagle on the cent. The same paragraph also notes that the motto “In God We Trust” was not mandatory.
An Edgy New Discovery
There is a dearth of correspondence regarding the development of the edge devices and alignments for the double eagles, and for years it has been assumed that these details were essentially left up to Charles Barber. Certainly the December 12, 1906, letter from Charles Barber to Mint Director Roberts, noting that “Mr. Saint-Gaudens need not go further that to furnish the sketches” would support this argument.
However, the preliminary cataloguing of the plasters (a number of which were loaned to the exhibition) for the catalogue raisonneé prompts another look at this aspect of the design process. Saint-Gaudens, in the interests of producing a clean, uncluttered work of art, strove to use as few words and mottoes as the law would allow. After considerable tinkering, he chose the edge of the coin to place the mandated “E Pluribus Unum,” and his elimination of the optional “In God We Trust” caused a furor of criticism after his death.
As with all things, no detail was too small for Saint-Gaudens, and before submitting his first plaster of the Extremely (or Ultra) High relief to the mint experimented with various edge designs.
The model sent to the mint on “Dec 14/5 ” has each letter (in his elegant Roman-face font) followed by a six-pointed star. It is a lettering pattern unknown on examples of ultra-high relief double eagles prior to 1992, when an example (but without Saint-Gaudens’ font) was discovered and sold by Sotheby’s (a second example appeared in 1995). In addition to the lettering pattern, Saint-Gaudens’ model also suggested the alignment in the so-called inverted (or more accurately, as in Burdette, “Alignment I”) position.
The series of plasters and key-molds currently being catalogued for future publication demonstrate that as commission continued, Saint-Gaudens experimented not only with the edge designs but their alignment. Saint-Gaudens left nothing to chance—and even less to Charles Barber’s clutches.
A Surprise Bounty
Finally. Although the remarkable and unique set of electrotypes of the standing eagle reverses for the double eagle, the extremely (or ultra) high relief’s hub, the set illustrating the progress of strikes needed to bring up its relief, as well as lead strikes of the Indian Head double eagle and high (or possibly “very high”) relief double eagle are known to have long graced the ANS’s collection, their ultimate source was not (Figs. 15-19). They were a gift of one-time ANA president Martin Kortjohn in 1949, but during the mounting of the exhibition, ANS archivist Joe Ciccone found the letter of gift that explained that Kortjohn had received them from none other than Henry Herring: Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ primary assistant, and the man who had become Saint-Gaudens’ hands during the modeling of these remarkable works of art (Fig. 20).
(left) Fig. 15. Electrotype of the first striking of the obverse of the 1907 double eagle (ANS 1949.156.2, gift of Martin Kortjohn). (right) Fig. 16. Electrotype of the second striking of the obverse of the 1907 double eagle (ANS 1949.156.5, gift of Martin Kortjohn).
(left) Fig. 17. Electrotype of the third striking of the obverse of the 1907 double eagle (ANS 1949.156.6, gift of Martin Kortjohn). (right) Fig. 18. Electrotype of the fourth striking of the obverse of the 1907 double eagle (ANS 1949.156.8, gift of Martin Kortjohn).
Fig. 19. Electrotype of the reverse of the 1907 eagle (ANS 1949.156.15, gift of Martin Kortjohn).
Fig. 20. Letter of gift from Martin Kortjohn to the ANS (ANS Archives).
What better discovery could there be?