Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Designer of the Multi-million Dollar Coin

Augustus Saint-Gaudens rose to fame as the great designer of the world’s most valuable American coin ever.

In 1888, Augustus was born in Dublin, Ireland. When he was around six months old, his family moved to America. Born of a French father and an Irish mother and now, being raised in New York, Saint-Gaudens had a very rich and very diverse cultural background.

Being attracted to the world of the arts from an early age, Saint-Gaudens started taking art classes at the National Academy of Design and at the Cooper Union. At the same time, he also underwent apprenticeship to a cameo-cutter. He completed this apprenticeship at the tender age of 19. Wit his apprenticeship over, Saint-Gaudens looked for more ways to study art. He then moved to Paris and became a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, more specifically in Francois Jouffroy’s atelier.

Later, around 1870, he left Paris and travel to another great European city, Rome. In Rome, he studied art and architecture. It was also in Rome where he received his first commission as an artist. It was also in Rome where he crossed paths with an American art student by the name of Augusta Homer. He fell in love with her and by 1877, they were married.

In 1876, Saint-Gaudens received his first big break as an artist. He was commissioned to create a monument for Civil War Admiral David Farragut. The monument was to be done in New York’s famed Madison Square. Saint-Gaudens’ friend, Stanford White did the architectural setting of the monument. When Saint-Gaudens unveiled his work to the public in 1881, he was met with tremendous praise and success. Many applauded the naturalism in his work as well as the sincerity and lack of any whiff of pompousness or pretentiousness in his creation. With his triumph in this creation, he was established as a great sculptor.

After the Farragut monument, a string of great monuments followed. Saint-Gaudens did the Standing Lincoln in Chicago, a work still deemed as United States’ best portrait statue. Another famous work is the Robert Gold Shaw Memorial in Boston. This bronze bas-relief took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to make. And even after the work was debuted to the public, Saint-Gaudens still performed minor revisions.

Aside from sculptures, Saint-Gaudens took great interest in using his relief portraits for medallions. Eventually, this lead Saint-Gaudens to the path of designing coinage.  Personally chosen by Theodore Roosevelt to create a new design for American coinage, Saint-Gaudens set on to work on what is now considered the most beautiful American coin ever produced. Saint-Gaudens created a high-relief $20 gold coin. In order to make the coin design suitable for production, the US Mint adapted the design into a flattened-down version. The coin was so intricate that it took the US Mint eleven strikes to get all the details into the coin.

Dubbed as the Gold Double Eagle, Saint-Gaudens’ coin had two version, one was the ‘Saint-Gaudens Arabic Numerals’. The other one is the ‘Saint-Gaudens High Relief Roman Numeral’ for 1907. In a 2002 auction, the 1933 version of the coin sold for $ 7.5 million.