Tripp adamant: Every 1933 double eagle 'accounted for'

Government concludes examination of its first witness in trial
Published : 07/12/11
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The government’s star witness adamantly maintained in a full day of testimony Monday, July 11, that no 1933 double eagles left the U.S. Mint through legitimate channels.
David Enders Tripp, the government’s numismatic witness, was the only one to testify during the third day in Philadelphia’s Federal District Court, where ownership of  10 1933 gold $20 double eagles is at issue.
The trial seeks to answer the question of who owns the rare gold coins — the government or the Langbord family, who allegedly discovered them in a safe deposit box in 2003.
The trial started just after 9 a.m. in a muggy courtroom, with Tripp taking the stand to help describe evidence that filled at least five 6-inch thick three-ring binders. In characterizing the letters, records and other documents that composed the evidence binders, Tripp said that the disparate pieces “fit together like a jigsaw,” and in total, tell the story of the “life and death of 1933 double eagles.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero began by asking Tripp how he would describe the Mint’s vault logs of the 1930s. Tripp described as “untidy” and “scruffy.” He then presented a detailed analysis of all the deliveries of 1933 double eagles within the Mint. When asked if records show that any 1933 double eagles were released, Tripp confirmed his oft-repeated opinion that no 1933 double eagles left the Mint through legitimate channels.
‘Every one was accounted for’
Tripp followed with a breakdown of the role of assay coins at the time, before presenting a flow chart of the disposition of the 445,500 1933 double eagles that were produced, showing that after the assay examples are removed, two went to the Smithsonian institution and the others destroyed. He stressed that those contemporary records fit together to show what should have happened to each of the 445,500 examples produced. In short, that “every one was accounted for.”
When asked if the condition of Mint records affects his perception of what happened to the 1933 double eagle production, Tripp replied that they do not, as each coin can be accounted for, nor do errors in the Mint Director’s Annual Report change his opinion.
Next the March 7, 1933, wire stating that Mint supervisors could continue exchanging gold for gold coins was brought up. Described on July 8 in the courtroom as an “orphan” document, Tripp admitted that the wire gave him pause, and that he had never been able to find its place in the context of other documents.
The morning’s testimony was not without its lighter moments. When describing the request process at the Mint in the 1930s, Tripp noted similarities to ordering from the U.S. Mint today in that “you don’t always get what you ask for.”
Detailed analysis was presented on several institutions that requested 1933 double eagles for their collections, but were denied by the government. These included the Connecticut State Library, which had no problem receiving 1932 double eagles, but could get no 1933 double eagles. The library had a substantial coin cabinet and as a condition of the collection’s gift, the donor required the library to acquire new coins produced by the Mint. The library’s request was denied and in 1934, perhaps in desperation and fear of losing the collection, the curator wrote dealer Henry Chapman for help in securing an example. Chapman said that the government had denied a collector the prior year, and said he could be of no help.
After a short break, Judge Legrome D. Davis allowed the chronology and summary charts prepared by Tripp to be used in the trial, as they accurately summarized the immense amount of materials. Judge Davis added that he had read through the five binders three times in completion, and that if the Langbord’s attorney Barry Berke had issues with Tripp’s structure of the summaries, that the concerns could be addressed at cross examination.
Others who were unsuccessful in obtaining a 1933 double eagle included John Work Garrett, who created one of the finest coin collections ever put together, and the American Numismatic Society. In showing the relationship between the ANS and the Mint, Tripp shared a story of how the ANS curator requested that the Mint director personally select replacement 1932 double eagles because the originally provided examples were of low quality. Even that strong relationship could not secure the ANS an example of the 1933 double eagle, and a request that the ANS exchange an example of another date for a 1933 example — a gold for gold exchange — was denied.
To show how dire the U.S. economy was in the early 1930s, Tripp referred to an April 1932 advertisement in The Numismatist, the publication of the American Numismatic Association, which offered collectors a list of coins available at face value plus postage. One of the double eagles listed: the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle — a coin of which around a dozen are known today and an example sold at auction in January 2010 for $1.495 million. The Mint’s 1934 The Numismatist ad made no mention of 1933 double eagles.
Yet, 1933 double eagles did appear on the marketplace, despite legitimate requests that were denied by the Mint.
Secret Service investigation
Tripp described the Secret Service investigation in the 1940s involving the 1933 double eagles that were appearing in the marketplace as seeking the answers to four main questions.
1. Are the coins genuine or counterfeit?
2. How did they get out of the Mint?
3. Who was in possession of the coins?
4. What was the source of the coins.
The Secret Service’s conclusion, as well as Tripp’s, was that the coins were genuine, and left the Mint through nonlegitimate channels; that the source was an inside source — Philadelphia Mint Cashier George McCann — and that the coins could be linked to Israel Switt who served as the source to dealers.
To show the high value of these coins at the time, Tripp considered their cost in the framework of other coins at the time. The dealer-to-dealer wholesale price of the coins was $500 as that is what Switt charged Ira Reed — another dealer — as evidenced by a canceled check.
When compared to the top 10 coin prices realized at auction in the 1930s, which ranged from $650 to $1,250, $500 for a coin that was just a few years old represented a huge amount. Tripp further opined that this high price meant that those trading in the coins knew that the source — Switt — had a lock on the market. When Switt was asked by the Secret Service how he got the coins, he replied with various answers at various times, namely that they came out of multiple collections purchased separately.
The government then brought up Switt’s 1934 arrest for carrying $2,000 face value in contemporary gold coins in violation of the 1934 Gold Reserve Act. In context, $2,000 represented two teacher’s salaries for the year and if melted, these coins would have been worth a 70 percent premium on top of that as the Gold Reserve Act had revalued gold to $35 an ounce.
Tripp was asked if he believed that Switt only sold nine coins and Tripp replied no, as the nine did not account for the coin allegedly owned by King Farouk and the 10 at issue in the current trial.
Late in the afternoon, Judge Davis presented the jury with an instruction that Berke had requested multiple times during the proceedings: that the results of the Secret Service investigation of the 1940s is relevant in that it was used by Tripp as an expert witness. Judge Davis reminded the jury to use independent judgment in determining if the coins were stolen and that Switt’s gold hoarding in 1934 is relevant in that he had notice that possession of gold may be illegal under some circumstances.
Collectors put on notice
The 1947 United States v. Barnard case — where owners of several 1933 double eagles fought for ownership rights and lost — was again brought up. Evidence of its widespread publication including in The New York Times and The Numismatist provided further notice to collectors at the time that 1933 double eagles were illegal to own privately.
The case of Louis Eliasberg Sr. was cited as an example. Eliasberg finished the only complete regular-issue coin collection in history, and on Aug. 21, 1952, surrendered his example of the 1933 double eagle to the government. Eliasberg had purchased the coin from Ira Reed for $1,000 — and Reed likely purchased the coin from Switt for $500. The government’s Sept. 24, 1952, reply said that it was not able to return the coin, citing United States v. Barnard in that it was not legally issued.
When asked what happened to the 1933 double eagles that were turned in, Tripp cited records showing that they were destroyed in 1956.
The surrendering of the Eliasberg example meant that there was just “one hanging out there.”
'One hanging out there’
Egypt’s King Farouk purchased his 1933 double eagle from B. Max Mehl and the government issued an export license for the coins just two weeks before the Secret Service investigation. This was during World War II where Egypt was a strategic ally to the United States. Later, Egypt’s control of the Suez Canal would make the government’s interest in the coin secondary to national security. The government requested that it be withdrawn from the 1954 Sotheby’s auction of Farouk’s coin collection and the coin disappeared.
In 1995 the coin emerged after four decades in hiding, with dealers Stephen Fenton and Jay Parrino involved in the attempted sale of the coin. Tripp said that regarding the 1933 double eagles, “most dealers would not get near one.” The litigation was briefly described as was the settlement negotiated by Berke and the government, which hinged on what Tripp defined as the government’s erroneous export license.
The “Farouk” coin was offered in a 2002 Sotheby’s/Stack’s auction and realized $7,590,020 — the “quirky price” a result of $20 added to the price to monetize the coin. The coin sold with the caveat that the sale created no precedential value — in other words, the sale of this coin did not make other 1933 double eagles legal to own. It remains the most valuable coin sold at public auction.
Tripp stated that Sotheby’s press book was one and a half inches thick, with global mainstream press coverage that put the world on notice of the value of these coins.
Ending with a ‘family tree’
This lead to the current coins, which Tripp gave the provenance as Israel Switt, passed down to his daughter Joan and her two sons, Roy and David. When asked if the coins were legally obtained from the Mint, Tripp emphatically said no and reiterated that no evidence he had seen in his decades of research indicates that a single 1933 double eagle went out of the doors of Philadelphia’s Mint through legitimate channels.
He closed his testimony with a flow chart, a “family tree” of sorts, with Israel Switt in the center and the 10 coins that went to collectors (nine that were confiscated plus the Farouk example) and the 10 that went to the Langbord family.
On the morning of July 12, Berke will cross examine Tripp, in what will surely be an energetic and entertaining battle of wits. ■
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