Ron Guth: The 2009 Ultra-High Relief was a reprise of the extremely rare, double-thick, small diameter patterns proposed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1907. Only two such patterns remain today, both of which are part of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. The original patterns weigh as much as a normal $20 gold piece but they were struck to the diameter of a $10 gold piece. Thus, they are much thicker and smaller in diameter than a normal $20 gold piece. The 2009 version is slightly different than the original patterns in that the rim is slightly flattened and does not come to the sharp, knife edge as seen on the originals.
Public response to the new Ultra-High Reliefs was tremendous. Though considered bullion coins, they were sold by the Mint at a hefty premium over the value of the gold they contained. In 2011, the price of gold rose so high that many of the Ultra-High Relief coins were melted down. However, collectors rallied and the "ultras" are now commanding premiums over their intrinsic value, putting an end to their destruction.
The finish on the modern version is unlike the brilliant Proof finish on the original patterns. Though not quite matte, the surfaces have more of a satiny appearance. Because of the increased depth of the designs, the Ultra-High Reliefs sport a medallic appearance quite unlike that of a normal coin. The striking, unusual appearance is a large part of the coin's appeal.