What in the world is it about coins like these that bring
such stratospheric prices?
Partly it's the eye appeal. The Saint-Gaudens twenty dollar gold piece is regarded by many as the most beautiful
coin minted, anywhere, at any time. It combines 21.6 karat gold, or .900 fine (the remaining ten percent is copper),
a huge size (diameter of 34mm, or about 1-1/3 inches, among the largest of any circulating gold coins in history),
and a classically beautiful design.
Partly it's the rarity. Twenty dollar gold pieces are commonly called double eagles, and those designed by Augustus
Saint-Gaudens are commonly called Saints. But there's nothing common about these coins. Only about two dozen of
these Ultra High Relief pattern coins were minted. All are proofs, struck with special care. None entered circulation.
Reportedly, Theodore Roosevelt, the U.S. president responsible for the coin's existence, kept a few, two were melted,
and the rest went to Mint and government officials connected with the work. Even rarer are the Ultra High Relief
experimental coins, which were struck on small and very thick planchets, having the diameter of ten-dollar gold
pieces. All but two of these odd-looking coins were melted, with both today at the Smithsonian Institution, though
rumor has it that one additional piece may be in private hands.
Partly it's the allure of gold. Gold shines more warmly than any other numismatic metal, like the sun. As the least
chemically reactive metal commonly used for coins, it keeps its glow too, not fazed by its surroundings, satisfied
to stay just the way it is, for millennia. Gold in its pure state is very vulnerable to human contact, though--touch
this most malleable of metals too hard and it will dent. It's best not to get too passionate about it. With an
atomic number of 79, gold is extremely dense, each atom jam-packed with protons, neutrons, and electrons. You can
feel the heft of those minuscule atomic particles when you pick up a gold coin. And gold of course is rare, showing
up in small amounts only five times per billion in the earth's crust, typically hidden away amidst copper and lead,
quartz and pyrite.
Partly it's the history.