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December 26, 2010

A Type Set of Gold Eagles
by Mike Sussman

It’s not what you think. I don’t mean the ten-dollar coin. I mean the bird; yes, the bald eagle, our national bird. It is the only eagle that is unique to North America; its scientific name (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) indicates a sea eagle with a white head. In this case “bald” means “white” not hairless. Bald eagles are found throughout North America from Mexico to Canada. They flourish here because of the salmon, which are an important part of their diet. No longer considered an endangered species, the bald eagle is still protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

Our nation’s coinage, especially our gold coinage, has tried to depict this magnificent bird as the emblem of the United States because of its long life, strength and majestic looks.

The first eagle portrayed on a gold coin was the five-dollar half eagle of 1795. It was a pathetic, scrawny thing standing on an olive branch, with out of proportion wings outstretched, holding a wreath in its mouth. The same bird was used on the ten-dollar coin for that year.

The next year, in 1796, a heraldic $2.50 coin was issued. The quarter eagle showed an upright heraldic eagle with stars and clouds above and the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM on a ribbon across its neck. Robert Scot, who was the first Engraver at the Mint, made a significant error in the design of this coin. He placed the arrows in the eagle’s right talon, when they should have been in the left one. This error in heraldry shows extreme militarism, something that a young country probably did not want or should not have wanted to signify. Despite this problem, the same reverse design was used for the half-eagle and eagle coins until 1807 for the two lower denominations and 1804 for the ten-dollar coin. (Silver coins from half-dimes to dollars also used a similar reverse.)

In 1808 John Reich corrected Scot’s error with a new heraldic eagle for the $2.50 coin. Even Robert Scot got into the act and designed a new capped head and reverse quarter eagle with the correct heraldry. The reverse remained substantially the same even with Christian Gobrecht’s Coronet Head design. The essential difference is that the motto on the ribbon above the eagle was now omitted. Similarly, the half eagle went from the Capped Draped Bust to the Capped Head to the Classic Head, and finally the Coronet motif. During this time the E PLURIBUS UNUM was dropped and, in 1866, IN GOD WE TRUST was added.

The $10.00 coin went through fewer design changes. From Scot’s large eagle it went to Gobrecht’s coronet design. Like the half-eagle, in 1866 the motto was added. The double eagle had three design changes during this period of time. James Barton Longacre’s design was issued from 1850 to 1866. It shows a large heraldic eagle with two ribbons on it sides and an oval of stars with rays above. It added the motto in 1866, and its denomination changed from TWENTY D. to TWENTY DOLLARS in 1877.

For me the modern era began with the designs of Augusts Saint-Gaudens and Bela Lyon Pratt. Saint-Gaudens’ standing eagle on the ten-dollar coin is a magnificent rendition. It is reminiscent of the coinage of the ancients and captures the spirit of courage, strength, and majesty that the Founding Fathers were looking for in our national symbol.

Similarly, on the twenty-dollar coin, we see a striking representation of an eagle in flight. What could be more majestic as it flies over the sun’s rays?

Both of these sensational designs are available in high and regular relief. Pratt’s eagle on the $2.50 coin and the five-dollar piece, like Saint-Gaudens’, presents a standing eagle; however, the entire design for both denominations is incuse. These coins have a completely different look from all that preceded them.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to put together a type set of these eagles, from the scrawny, pathetic early edition to Saint-Gaudens’ magnificent presentation? Counting all denominations and designs the type set would consist of 25 coins.


Mike Sussman

Mike can be reached at mikesussman@usrarecoininvestments.com or call us at 1-800-624-1870

U.S. Rare Coin Investments


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