The artistic success of the 1907 $10 and $20 gold coins of Augustus Saint Gaudens made President Theodore Roosevelt want to continue the overhaul of United States gold to include the $2.50 and $5 coins. Unfortunately, Saint Gaudens died in August 1907. Roosevelt, in his usual impetuous way, asked his friend, Dr. William Bigelow, to come up with a new approach and a qualified sculptor for the two coins; and fast!

Bigelow was a third-generation Harvard-trained surgeon who chose to follow the art world instead of the scalpel. He became enamored of Asian art and philosophy. Several trips to Japan later, he had amassed a huge collection of Asian ceramics, prints and paintings. He would eventually donate his collection to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where it is considered to be the finest collection of Japanese and Chinese art in the United States.

Dr. Bigelow met Bela Lyon Pratt at his studio in January 1908. Pratt was a Boston sculptor who had attended the Yale School of Fine Arts and the Art Students League of New York City, where he studied under Saint Gaudens, eventually becoming his assistant. After further studies in Paris, Pratt became Professor of Sculpture at the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts. Pratt had a great deal of confidence in himself, and that impressed Bigelow who knew that Roosevelt was not fond of those who were timid or shy. Bigelow explained to Pratt that he was interested in a sunken relief design for the new coins. This statement astonished Pratt, for just a couple of days before their meeting he and his assistant had been discussing the very same idea!

Pratt immediately started work on models for the $2.50 and $5 gold coins. He believed that the headdress on Saint Gauden’s $10 coin was not natural looking, so he modeled an Indian chief (possibly Chief Hollow Horn Bear), wearing a headdress with feathers lying in a more natural position. For the reverse, President Roosevelt was adamant that the reverse of the $10 coin must be used. He was pleased that this powerful eagle was featured not only on the $10 gold coin, but on his inaugural medal of 1905 as well.

The $2.50 and $5 coins were minted around October of 1908. The radical sunken relief design was an artistic if not popular success. These coins were the opposite of the higher relief $10 and $20 coins of Saint Gaudens, because they stacked easily in banker’s trays. There was some comment by concerned citizens that the recessed areas of the coins might harbor germs. These concerns were unfounded. The coins would continue to be struck through 1929.

These United States gold coins of 1908, under the aegis of President Theodore Roosevelt, were more than worthy of comparisons between the finest gold of Europe, or of the ancient world of Greece or Egypt. America had finally utilized the talents of its best sculptors to show the world that their coinage was second to none!