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Mint dates: 1849-1907
Subsets of Liberty Head $20 coin
Also known as a “double eagle,” the twenty dollar Liberty Head is not to be confused with the one dollar Liberty Head coin, the first gold coin struck by the U.S. Mint. First authorized in early 1849, both coins were struck in that same year as a response to the sudden flow of gold, first in North Carolina in the 1830s, then compounded by the California Gold Rush in 1849. Size is the primary difference between the two, with the one dollar Liberty Head being the smallest U.S. coin ever minted. Prior to the Liberty Head, all U.S. coinage was made of silver, with the largest denomination being $10, or one eagle, hence the nickname, double eagle.
The coin is evidence of the standardization, and capitalization, of the gold rush.
A German jeweler by the name of Christopher Bechtler offered a service to prospectors in the 1830s: he would take their raw gold and strike coins, in exchange for a small fee. He produced 2.2 million dollars of these private gold coins, well before the U.S. government got into the business of gold coinage by 1840. Congress had attempted to launch gold coins in 1836, authorizing the Mint to begin to offer the service, but the issue was avoided until a second act of Congress in 1849.
It should be noted that until the Coinage Act of 1857, the U.S. Mint would strike coins from any silver brought to Philadelphia by anyone and allow any coinage from any nation to be used as currency. That Bechtler was coining gold was not only legal, it was only unusual in that he was bothering with gold.
The $20 Liberty Head coin was quite practical in its design. Its artwork is the same as that of the one dollar coin. Originally designed by James Longacre, the obverse shows a woman wearing a crown with “Liberty” inscribed on the side. She is encircled by 13 stars, one for each colony. On the reverse, with the help of his assistant Peter Filatreu Cross, the denomination of the coin and the date of its minting are wreathed from beneath. The words “United States of America” wrap around the design, closing the top.
The coins were produced until 1907, when the heralded Saint-Gaudens double eagle came into production.