Matte & Roman Finish Proof $20 Saint-Gaudens
By Silvano DiGenova
The pinnacle of U.S. coinage or an unpopular anomaly? Regardless, Proof Saint-Gaudens represent a very rare and short-lived series that clearly should be at the absolute pinnacle of the coin market. They represent the Impressionist paintings of the rare coin market. They have great beauty in their needlepoint stitching and flawless surfaces. In the case of the two years, 1909 & 1910 with the Roman Finishes, they additionally have magnificent eye appeal. The $20 Saint-Gaudens is America’s most popular gold coin by a large majority, and Proofs of the series are an anomaly by contrast, and an exceptionally rare series.
The Saint-Gaudens series in Proof (excluding the Proof High Relief & Ultra High Relief, and a few others that are extremely rare sub varieties, and will be covered later) stretches from 1908 to 1915. The 1908, 1911, 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1915 are “Matte Finishes,” while the 1909 & 1910 are known as “Roman Finishes.” The Romans very much look like a Proof Like Morgan Dollar with mirror and some contrast, but no cameo effect. They are extremely beautiful and full of eye appeal. The Matte has the classic “sandblasted” look, usually flat, with very fine “needlepoint” detail. The individual dates, if completely original, look as follows, and the individual rarity is also discussed.
1908: Dark brown to olive in color, the ’09 sometimes is not struck as well as the others. Being the first year of issue, the finish probably had not been perfected. Typically, the 1908 comes very dull, and is one of the most unattractive of all the Matte Proofs. It is also the least rare of the series overall, but in PR67 it is tied for fifth according to the PCGS/NGC combined population reports.
1911: Next in the series of Matte Proofs is the 1911 which is possibly the prettiest. The 1911 is generally has the lightest coloration of any of the Mattes. It is a yellow to pale gold in color, with an occasional orange toning. The strike on most 1911s is usually exceptional. This issue ranks sixth as far as rarity among the series of eight Proof Saints, with only 1908 and 1912 being more available. In PR67 or better, it is the most available.
1912: The next date is very similar to that of 1911 in both overall rarity and appearance. The 1912 is relatively light in color, usually a yellow or pale gold, and also occasionally has a light orange tint. Like its predecessor, this date has a fantastic strike. As far as rarity, the 1912 ranks seventh in PR65 or better. In PR67 or better, it is tied as the second most plentiful, only behind the 1911.
1913Rather olive in color, the 1913 is much closer to 1908, in contrast to the 1911 and 1912. The strike is not as fine as the 1911 or 1912. In general, the overall look of the 1913 Matte Proof Twenty is not very appealing. In Proof 65 or better, it ranks as the fifth-rarest, and in PR67, it’s also the fifth-rarest (tied with that of the ’08).
1914: The 1914’s appearance is similar to that of 1913, but slightly brighter and more coppery. The strike for most 1914s is superior to that of 1913, and nearly as perfect as 1911 and 1912. Also in many specimens that I have examined, the 1914s appear to have striations that may look to most people like hairlines. The 1914 is the third-rarest of all the Mattes in PR65 or better. It’s also the second-rarest of all the mattes in PR67 or better for all dates.
1915: This is the final year for the Matte series, and by far the rarest. The 1915 in original condition is quite dark and dull, very similar to the 1908, but sometimes can be a lighter shade. The strike is often weaker than most other dates. With a mintage of only 50, it is no wonder why it’s the rarest of all Proof Saints in our survey. The 1915 has only a total of 20 coins graded in PR65 or better, of which I estimate only 13 are still in holders (due to re-submissions). The 1915 ranks first in PR65 or better, and also first in PR67 or better. In PR67, only one lone coin has ever been graded.
Now we move to examine the Roman Finish dates, of which there are only two. Note: A few 1908 Romans exist, as well as a 1907, but we will cover these in the future.
1909: The 1909 is one of the most attractive of all the Proof Saint-Gaudens, generally exhibiting superior eye appeal. The coloration tends to be slightly coppery and very brilliant. Overall, the 1909 is the third-rarest in PR65 or better, and fourth-rarest in PR67 or better.
1910: Generally, the 1910 looks very much like the 1909, although they tend to be even better in appearance, being more mirrored and golden in color, as opposed to the coppery color of the 1909. Overall, the 1910 is the fourth-rarest, and in PR67 or better, it is the third-rarest.
Although the 1909 and 1910 are not the rarest, they do tend to command the highest prices. This is for several reasons: first, their overall beauty, which, being a Roman finish is much easier to understand than a Matte finish, and as far as eye appeal, they are clearly far superior. Secondly, as a two-year Type, the total number of available coins is far lower for the Romans than the Mattes.
The key element to note about this series is its extreme overall rarity. First, only 687 coins were minted for all the dates: 1908 through 1915. The lowest being that of the 1915 at 50, and the largest 1910 at 167 (although this number is inaccurate as many have been melted).
Of this scant number of production, famed author David W. Akers estimates that only 170 to 210 total coins exist today. Although the total population of grades coins by PCGS & NGC are reported at 322, we are certain that it is overstated by quite a bit. My estimation is approximately 228 as the current graded population (slightly higher than David Akers’ total estimate of survivorship). The following assumptions were used to calculate my estimate of the populations: Firstly, in Proof 65, I believe the reported population numbers are overstated by 40 percent. In Proof 66, they are overstated by as much as 30 percent, and in Proof 67, by as much as 15 percent. Finally, in Proof 68, we will assume the population data is 100 percent accurate, not because anyone has attempted to breakout a PR68, but because anyone doing so and possessing such a coin would have returned the tags.
Therefore, the reason for this large discrepancy in population revolves around the resubmission of many of these coins for profit. However, the next result is a much tighter spread of valuation between grades, except in the case of Proof 67 and Proof 68. My philosophy has always been to recommend the grade which has the lowest premium overall to the previous grade. My feeling is, as in most series, that Proof 68s are overvalued, in relation to the 67s. As time passes, this too will contract. Overall, in the saint-Gaudens series, it’s all about the rarity, and not the grade.
The Proof Saint-Gaudens series is clearly very undervalued relative to the other popular, big, important coins. Let me illustrate some examples. First, lets look at a few “common date” Proof Twenty Dollar Liberties. Grade for grade, compared to Saints, these sell for a large premium. For example, in PR65, the Greysheet Bid is $86,500 for the $20 Liberty, versus $52,500 for the $20 Saint Gaudens. Furthermore, the Twenty Liberty Series is far more extensive, with many more common dates to choose from. So the total population for a Type coin is far greater in PR65 or better. Additionally, even though the Twenty Dollar Liberty premium in the PR65 grade is nearly 65 percent, in higher grades, the Twenty Dollar Liberty has an even larger premium.
Another key example of a coin that illustrates how much Proof Saint-Gaudens are undervalued is the Mint State High Relief Saints. In MS65, a total of 685 have been graded by both PCGS & NGC, while only 108 Proof Saint-Gaudens have been graded in PR65. The Proof 65 Saints have a Bid of $52,500, while the MS65 Saints are Bid at $45,500, 7 times rarer. In grades above MS65, the Mint State High Relief actually sells for more than the Proof Saint-Gaudens. In fact, in MS67, the Mint State High Relief sells at a 25 percent to 60 percent premium to the Proof Saint-Gaudens. The total population of High Reliefs in MS65 or better is 947, while the total population of Proof Saint-Gaudens is a mere 322. Based on this information alone, one would conclude that the Proofs are remarkably undervalued. However, one additional key piece of information must be disclosed, which is that in all probability, 90 percent to 95 percent of all existing Proof Saints have been graded. While in the case of the 12,367 mintage Mint State High Reliefs, with extreme certainty, I can state that the majority of known specimens have not been graded.
I must discuss one final, but controversial, and very important point regarding the Proof Saint-Gaudens series. At this time, many Matte $20s have been dipped, and some individuals, as well as one grading service, look very harshly at this. I say, to each their own taste. However, in nearly all series, dipping is looked upon very favorably (how many Morgans have not been dipped?). I feel discounting value or grade due to dipping is not appropriate. So, I can certainly see paying a premium for a fully original coin or giving it a slight edge when grading such a coin.
The Proof Saint-Gaudens series is certainly one of the most interesting, beautiful, rare and extremely undervalued series in all of American numismatics. I highly recommend it to all who can afford this great series.
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