If there is a more popular United States gold coin than the 1907 High Relief double eagle, I’ve yet to encounter it. This is a coin that just about everyone aspires to own. It is beautiful, historic and, in its own way, extremely desirable. The story behind this issue is interesting. I won’t go into the full detail here (it would take many pages to be properly told). Theodore Roosevelt hated the Liberty Head design and secretly hired the famous sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens to redesign the larger gold denominations. St. Gaudens produced what is now regarded as easily the most spectacular imagery ever seen on a United States pattern issue (the Ultra High Relief of 1907).
This design proved to be impossible to strike and it incurred the wrath of the Mint Engraver Charles Barber who felt slighted that an outsider was hired to design a United States coin. He eventually “improved” the design in such a way that the final product in 1907 barely resembled the majestic Ultra High Relief that St. Gaudens produced.
The “normal” High Relief coins also proved to be very difficult to strike and, of course, met with strong opposition from Barber. There were 11,250 examples produced before the design was changed again later in the year. A remarkably high percentage of these coins have survived. PCGS shows over 4,000 graded as of the middle of 2006 and, in my opinion, there are as many as 5,000-6,000 High Reliefs known.
There are two varieties of High Reliefs. The more common is the so-called Wire Edge. The Wire Edge coins were the first High Reliefs struck and they show excess metal on the edge which produced a sort of “fin.” This problem was later corrected and the final High Reliefs struck are known as “Flat Edge” coins. In my experience, the Flat Edge coins are about four or five times scarcer than the Wire Edge coins. The Flat Edge coins sometimes bring a 5 to 10% premium but, more often than not, they do not command a premium. I think they are excellent value, especially if priced as a “common date.”
NGC has designated a number of High Reliefs as Proofs. While there are unquestionably such things as Proof High Reliefs, it is my opinion that the coins marked as such by NGC are NOT actual Proofs. The coins in NGC proof holders clearly have a number of raised die swirls on the surfaces and are probably among the first pieces struck. But they have the same edge as a “normal” High Relief and the true Proofs have a noticeably different edge with different shaped and positioned edge lettering.
In recent years, prices have shot up for High Reliefs. This has been the result of a number of well-managed promotions. But High Reliefs, if you think about it, are coins that sell themselves and it is inevitable that in a strong coin market, they are the sort of coin that is likely to show a strong level of appreciation. New collectors and investors are always attracted to High Reliefs and I expect that prices for these coins in MS60 and higher will continue to be strong for some time.
When buying a High Relief, there are a few things I would suggest you look for. First and foremost is coloration. An original, untampered-with example should display very rich green-gold or yellow-gold color. Look for a piece that has even color with similar hues on the obverse and the reverse.
You should also avoid pieces that show obvious friction on the relief details but you need to understand that because of the nature of this coin’s design, most examples do show some “rub” on Liberty’s and the eagle’s breasts. Finally, you need to look carefully at the surfaces and make certain that the High Relief you are being offered does not have any serious marks or prominent abrasions. This is a coin that is common enough that if you do not like what you see, be patient and wait for the right example.