Even after the jury verdict, we still don't know for certain

Published : 08/03/11
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Although a 10-member federal jury unanimously rendered a verdict July 20 declaring that the U.S. government in their minds had met the burden of proof that the 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles allegedly found by the Langbord family of Philadelphia in 2003 belong to the government, it’s unlikely this decision has changed the minds of most who have followed this case and earlier ones involving 1933 double eagles.

The government had long contended and many people accept that no 1933 double eagles could have legally left the Mint; therefore, the coins were stolen and are government property.

Others — including many in the numismatic community — have long maintained that a “window of opportunity” existed for 1933 double eagles to have been exchanged for earlier dates and that such exchanges were both legal and common practice at the time.

The “window of opportunity” camp was energized with the publication of Roger W. Burdette’s research in the Sept. 6, 2010, issue of Coin World, which presented documents from the National Archives that appeared to provide circumstantial evidence to question the accuracy of Philadelphia Mint vault records from 1933 to 1934. And even more important was a letter dated Sept. 26, 1945, from William Bartholomew, superintendent of the Coinage Department of the Philadelphia Mint, indicating that production of the 1933 double eagle began on March 2, 1933, not on March 15 as generally believed and the government had long maintained. The March 2 date was believed to be a “smoking gun” because it was before President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order halting production of gold coins. Another document was cited that seemed to bolster the position. It was prepared prior to a trial in Memphis, Tenn., in June 1947, that focused on the “cashier’s daily statement” for the period of March 7 through April 12, 1933, indicating $3,180 in double eagles were paid out by the Philadelphia Mint cashier during the period.

Burdette’s articles must have given government lawyers heartburn. When it became known in early 2011 that Burdette had been retained as an expert numismatic witness to testify for the Langbord family during the already scheduled July trial, the government’s wheels went into overdrive. Burdette was at the time beginning the third of his four-year appointed term as a member of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee. Treasury officials ruled that since he received reimbursement for travel while serving in the unpaid CCAC position, he was considered a “special government employee” and it would therefore be a conflict of interest for him to testify as an expert unless he did so for the government. Burdette appealed the ruling, but lost and resigned from the CCAC on March 1 so he could testify.

If you read closely Steve Roach’s daily coverage of the trial, it’s clear that government lawyers spent a lot of time digging to find anything they could to discredit Burdette in the eyes of the jury. They found a treasure trove of musings and comments Burdette had posted in an online forum, most of which date years before his published research in 2010. Nevertheless, their strategy proved effective in drawing attention away from the importance of the documents he had found and brought attention to in the Coin World articles.

Unless new documentation is found, we are not likely to ever know for certain when and how the 1933 double eagles that are known today, including those found by the Langbord family in 2003, left the physical confines of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.

One aspect of the government’s argument seems somewhat illogical. The government contends that its records show that all 1933 double eagles were accounted for. What that really means is that all of the gold contained in the number of 1933 double eagles struck was accounted for. If we grant that as being undisputed truth, what harm did the U.S. government suffer? All of its gold was account for. So how can it contend that its gold was stolen? The existence of 1933-dated coins confirms that swaps were made, but how many and by whom? And of, course when? We still don’t know. ■

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