Titans of U.S. Coinage: The Engraver and the Sculptor

Over the last few hundred years, the United States Mint has produced many coins with striking, unforgettable designs. Collectors the world over treasure these coins and swap stories about the rarest of them, including the 1804 Draped Bust Silver Dollar, the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, and the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel (perhaps the only coin ever produced without the knowledge of the U.S. Mint). But few know the stories of the artists who designed some of America’s most revered coins.

The Engraver
Christian Gobrecht was born in 1785 and began his apprenticeship in engraving after showing artistic ability at a very young age. He soon became an expert craftsman, engraving seals, ornamental clockworks, dies for striking brass ornaments for military equipment and more. But his first love was always currency. In 1823, the director of the U.S. Mint, Robert Patterson, tried to hire Gobrecht as the assistant director, but Gobrecht had his heart set on the position of chief engraver. He wrote to President James Monroe, but Monroe tabbed William Kneass for the job.

Still, Gobrecht seemed to be always nearby, engraving and selling numeral punches to the mint and even serving as second engraver after Kneass suffered a stroke. Shortly after Kneass’ death in 1840, Gobrecht realized his dream and became chief engraver of the U.S. Mint until his own death in 1844.

While in the position, Gobrecht engraved the iconic “Seated Liberty” design that was featured on most U.S. coinage until near the end of the 19th century. He also designed the Gobrecht dollar, which was the first silver dollar struck for circulation by the mint after production of the denomination was halted in 1806. In addition to his skills as a master engraver, Gobrecht moonlighted as an inventor, designing musical instruments, a talking doll, and a tool to help artists and designers trace a drawing.

The Sculptor
If Christian Gobrecht was primarily an engraver and an inventor on the side, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was certainly a sculptor first and a coin designer second. Still, Saint-Gaudens designed what many collectors believe to be the most beautiful coin ever produced by the U.S. Mint.

Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, to a French father and an Irish mother, but his family immigrated to New York when he was still a baby. At the age of 13, he was apprenticed to a French stone cameo cutter, but he supplemented this real-world training with studies at the Cooper Union and then the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

He soon became famous — largely as a result of the stunning Admiral David Farragut Monument — and received more than 20 commissions for large public monuments. However, when family friend and President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt asked him to redesign the $10 and $20 gold pieces for the U.S. Mint, Saint-Gaudens eagerly accepted. His designs for these gold coins remain some of the most gorgeous in the history of American numismatics, and coin collectors treasure high-quality specimens.

Want to learn more about the fascinating history behind America’s coins and the artists who designed them? Come talk with the expert numismatists at Liberty Coin & Currency.

Liberty Coin & Currency specializes in gold buying and dealing in rare coins. We are a family-owned business that was first established over 16 years ago and is now located in Vancouver and Portland. We also buy gold, silver, diamonds, currency and jewelry. Visit us first for a free evaluation.