Indian Head gold pieces

Indian Head quarter eagle ($2.50)
United States
Value 2.5 United States dollars
Mass 4.18 g
Diameter 18 mm
Edge reeded
Composition .900 gold, .100 copper
Gold .12094  troy oz
Years of minting 1908–1915, 1925–1929
Mint marks D. Located to left of arrowhead on reverse. Philadelphia Mint pieces lack mint mark.
Obverse
Design Native American male in headdress
Designer Bela Lyon Pratt
Design date 1908
Reverse
Design Standing eagle
Designer Bela Lyon Pratt
Design date 1908
Indian Head half eagle ($5)
United States
Value 5 United States dollars
Mass 8.359 g
Diameter 21.6 mm
Edge reeded
Composition .900 gold, .100 copper
Gold .24187  troy oz
Years of minting 1908–1916, 1929
Mint marks D, O, S. Located to left of arrowhead on reverse. Philadelphia Mint pieces lack mint mark.
Obverse
Design Native American male in headdress.
Designer Bela Lyon Pratt
Design date 1908
Reverse
Design Eagle
Designer Bela Lyon Pratt
Design date 1908

The Indian Head gold pieces or Pratt-Bigelow gold coins were two separate coin series, identical in design, struck by the United States Mint: a two-and-a-half-dollar piece, or quarter eagle, and a five-dollar coin, or half eagle. The quarter eagle was struck from 1908 to 1915 and from 1925–1929. The half eagle was struck from 1908 to 1916, and in 1929. The pieces remain the only US circulating coins with recessed designs. These coins were the last of their denominations to be struck for circulation, ending series that began in the 1790s.

President Theodore Roosevelt, from 1904, vigorously advocated new designs for United States coins, and had the Mint engage his friend, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to design five coins (the four gold pieces and the cent) that could be changed without congressional authorization. Before his death in August 1907, Saint-Gaudens completed designs for the eagle ($10 piece) and double eagle, although both required subsequent work to make them fully suitable for coining.

With the eagle and double eagle released into circulation by the end of 1907, the Mint turned its attention to the half eagle and quarter eagle, originally planning to duplicate the double eagle's design. The Mint had difficulty fitting the required inscriptions on the small gold coins. President Roosevelt, in April 1908, convinced Mint Director Frank Leach that it would be a better idea to strike a design similar to that of the eagle, but below the background, to secure a high-relief effect. Such coins were designed by Boston sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt at the request of the President's friend, William Sturgis Bigelow. After some difficulty, the Mint was successful in this work, though Pratt was unhappy at modifications made by the Mint's engravers, headed by longtime Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber.

The two pieces were struck until World War I caused gold to vanish from circulation, and then again in the late 1920s. Neither coin circulated much; the quarter eagle saw popularity as a Christmas present. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt stopped the issuance of gold in coin form, and recalled many pieces which were in private or bank hands.

Inception

In 1904, US President Theodore Roosevelt complained about the artistic quality of American coinage to his Secretary of the Treasury, Leslie Mortier Shaw, and asked if it were possible to hire a private sculptor such as the President's friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens to give modern, artistic designs to US coins. [1] At Roosevelt's instigation, Shaw had the Mint (part of the Department of the Treasury) hire Saint-Gaudens to redesign five denominations of US coinage that could be changed without an Act of Congress: the cent and the four gold pieces (the quarter eagle, half eagle, eagle and double eagle). [2] By the Mint Act of 1792, an "eagle" was made equivalent to ten dollars. [3]

Mint officials originally assumed that whatever design was selected for the double eagle would simply be scaled down for the three lower denominations. In May 1907, however, President Roosevelt decided that the eagle and double eagle would bear very different designs, a departure from past practice. [4] In August (the month of Saint-Gaudens' death from cancer), [5] outgoing Mint Director George E. Roberts wrote, "no instructions have been received from the President as to the half and quarter eagle, but I expected that the eagle design would be used upon them". [6] After considerable difficulties, the Mint issued the eagle and double eagle based on Saint-Gaudens' designs later that year. The eagle featured Liberty wearing an Indian headdress on the obverse and a perched bald eagle on the reverse; the double eagle featured Liberty striding forward on the obverse and a flying eagle on the reverse. [7]

Due to the difficulties with the two larger coins, little attention was given to the half eagle and quarter eagle until late 1907. On November 28, 1907, Treasury Secretary George Cortelyou wrote in a letter that the double eagle design was to be used for the two small gold pieces. On December 2, Mint Director Frank Leach instructed the Philadelphia Mint to prepare coinage dies for the small pieces, using the double eagle design. Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber replied a week later that it would be difficult to put all the legends that were required by law on the new pieces, such as the name of the country. On the double eagle, " E Pluribus Unum" is placed on the edge, an impractical setting on pieces about the size of the nickel and dime. [8] Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John Landis forwarded Barber's letter to Leach with his own note, stating, "I know it will be difficult to put the inscription 'E Pluribus Unum' on the periphery of a quarter eagle, but I do not see where else it can [go] and we must try to do it". [9]

Barber was assigned the task of solving these difficulties. He planned to use his low-relief version of Saint-Gaudens' double eagle design, but he made slow progress on the assignment. Leach wrote to Saint-Gaudens' attorney to ask if the sculptor's assistant Henry Hering could do the work. Hering was willing, and asked for enlarged models of the double eagle designs. Barber opposed bringing in outsiders, citing delays in the preparation of the earlier gold coin designs which he attributed to the Saint-Gaudens studio: "it is entirely unnecessary to trouble Mr. Hering any further, unless another year is to be wasted in vain endeavor". [10] On January 3, 1908, Leach wrote to Hering to inform him that all work would be done by the Mint. [10]

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