The Liberty Head Double Eagle is an American twenty-dollar gold piece struck from 1849-1907. After considerable infighting at the Philadelphia Mint, Chief Engraver James B. Longacre designed the double eagle, and it began to be issued for commerce in 1850. Only one 1849 double eagle is known to survive; it rests in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian.
The coin was immediately successful; merchants and banks used it in trade. It was struck until replaced by the Saint-Gaudens double eagle in 1907, and many were melted when President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled gold coins from the public in 1933. Millions of double eagles were sent overseas in international transactions throughout its run to be melted or placed in bank vaults. Many of the latter have now been repatriated to feed the demand from collectors and those who desire to hold gold.
The obverse depicts a head of Liberty in the Greco-Roman style, facing left, with her hair pulled back—according to numismatists Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth, “attractively”—in a bun. Some of her hair descends the back of her neck. She wears a coronet, inscribed “Liberty”, and is surrounded by thirteen stars, representative of the original states, and the year of issue. The reverse features a heraldic eagle, holding a double ribbon, on which “E Pluribus Unum” is inscribed. The design is a variant on the Great Seal of the United States; the eagle protects a shield, which represents the nation, and holds an olive branch and arrows. Above the bird, Longacre again placed thirteen stars, arranged as a halo, together with an arc of rays.
The double eagle soon became the most popular gold coin in terms of the number of pieces struck. During the denomination’s life, from 1850 to 1933, far more gold was struck into double eagles than into all other denominations combined. Of all gold coins struck from the start of gold coinage for circulation in 1795 to the end in 1933, just under half of the coins struck were double eagles, but 78% of the gold used was struck into twenty-dollar pieces. A shortage of gold coins occurred in California and the Far West in the early 1850s; federal authorities refused to accept gold dust for payment of customs duties and private minters soon stepped into the breach. California Senator William Gwin proposed legislation to establish assay offices in California and for the issuance of high-denomination gold coins. The $20 dollar liberty gold double eagle stems from 3 other denominations in a $10 half ounce piece, a $5 quarter ounce piece and finally a $2.50 eighth ounce piece.