US Coins

1933 double eagle tops $18.8 million for new record

A record for any coin at auction was set on June 8 in New York City as Sotheby’s sold the sole privately owned 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagle for $18,872,250.

The single-owner sale in New York City on June 8 was titled “Three Treasures – Collected by Stuart Weitzman.”

In the press materials for the sale Sotheby’s wrote, “The world-renowned high fashion shoe designer had a childhood dream: to one day own the two greatest stamp treasures in the world, and the most famous coin on the planet.” The famed double eagle was joined by the 1856 British Guinea 1-cent magenta stamp and a four-stamp plate block of the 1918 “Inverted Jenny” 24-cent stamp, carrying high estimates of $15 million and $7 million, respectively, in an offering the auctioneer called “three treasures that are small in size but of colossal importance; each historic and singular in its own way,” before concluding, “Individually each is a star, together they are a galaxy.”

Sotheby’s originally stated a price of more than $19.5 million for the coin, but lowered the total after a few minutes had passed.

The three lots all together realized $32,039,250, below the high estimate of $37 million. While the double eagle exceeded the pre-sale estimate of $10 million to $15 million, the Inverted Jenny four-stamp plate block sold for $4,860,000 and the British Guiana 1-cent black on magenta stamp realized $8,307,000, falling below the low estimates. The funds will go to charitable ventures, including The Weitzman Family Foundation.

Graded, not slabbed

Graded Mint State 65 by Professional Coin Grading Service and with a green-level Certified Acceptance Corp. approval, though not holdered or stickered by the services, the handsome double eagle is described by Sotheby’s as follows: “Creamy, orange-yellow surfaces with deeply frosted devices and proof-like bloom in the obverse field between the rays. A small semicircular lint mark below Liberty’s left arm, a tiny nick in the fifth ray on the left, a ‘D’-shaped mark on Liberty’s left knee, and minuscule copper-spots to the right of Liberty’s neck and to the right of the T in LIBERTY are identifiers. The reverse exhibits full cartwheel effect.”

Benjamin Doller, executive vice president and chairman, Americas, of Sotheby’s served as the auctioneer, opening bidding at $7 million, moving quickly in $500,000 increments to $10 million then moving quickly in $1 million increments until $14 million on the phone was bested by a $500,000 increment on the floor, before moving to $15 million from a phone bidder, then to $15.5 million from a floor bidder. A bid of $16 million on the phone was quickly followed by a floor bid of $16.5 million. Bidding slowed down once a bid of $16.75 million was taken on the phone from a specialist in the firm’s Impressionist and Modern department, and Doller brought down the gavel after five minutes of spirited bidding for a final price realized of $18,872,250 (originally stated as $19,509,750).

Symbols in the catalog indicated that it was guaranteed property and that the double eagle was subject to an irrevocable bid. The guarantee symbol means that the property had been guaranteed a minimum price (either as an individual lot or for the group of three) while an irrevocable bid means that a party has provided Sotheby’s with a bid on the lot that will be executed during the sale at a value that ensures the lot will sell. The terms add, “The irrevocable bidder, who may bid in excess of the irrevocable bid, will be compensated based on the final hammer price in the event he or she is not the successful bidder or may receive a fixed fee in the event he or she is the successful bidder. If the irrevocable bidder is the successful bidder, the fixed fee (if applicable) for providing the irrevocable bid may be netted against the irrevocable bidder’s obligation to pay the full purchase price for the lot and the purchase price reported for the lot shall be net of such fixed fee.” The terms of these types of pre-sale arrangements, which are used to redistribute risk between the auctioneer, consignor and potential bidders, are not disclosed.

The coin and stamps were displayed to a range of potential bidders in May at Sotheby’s major spring Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art auctions where the coin was simply labeled: “The 1933 Double Eagle. The only example of America’s last gold coin legally sanctioned by the United States government for private ownership,” with the estimate of $10 million to $15 million. Wall text emphasized that the display marked the first time these three rarities have been brought together under one roof, adding, perhaps optimistically, “Each of these treasures is not merely admired by specialist collectors, but has entered the subconscious of us all — warmly embraced by popular culture.”

Sotheby’s summarizes the appeal of the 1933 double eagle — which Weitzman purchased in July 2002 at a Sotheby’s and Stack’s auction for $7,590,020 — writing, “designed by a genius and America’s last gold coin, it has been hunted by the United States Secret Service, and the subject of innumerable ‘tribute copies,’ thrillers, history books, documentaries, and primetime tv crime shows.” Weitzman had previously not been publicly named the owner, avoiding publicity but generously lending it to the Federal Reserve in lower Manhattan, the New-York Historical Society, and other venues where it could be seen by the public.

Others illegal to own

Although U.S. Mint records indicate that 445,500 double eagles dated 1933 were struck, the mintage was supposed to have been melted at the Mint after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting private ownership of gold. A few — including one that was part of the collection of Egypt’s King Farouk and granted an export license — left the Mint through legitimate or illegitimate channels. The Farouk coin was set to be offered in a 1954 Sotheby’s auction, but was withdrawn at the request of the U.S. government and its whereabouts were a mystery for the next few decades. It turned up in 1996 during a sting operation led by the U.S. Secret Service.

The 2002 auction was the result of a legal settlement, where the rediscovered coin was called the Farouk example, and was deemed the only example that could be legally owned by a collector. At that time two additional examples were in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

A 1944 report from a Secret Service investigation regarding 1933 double eagles that had appeared on the market concluded that none were released legally. Since 2002, others have subsequently turned up, most notably 10 from the Langbord family (inherited from Israel “Izzy” Switt, who Sotheby’s characterizes as “one of the prime suspects of the 1944 Secret Service investigation”) that were the subject of more than a decade of litigation, but none of these is authorized for private ownership by the government and all are called government property.

Sotheby’s commented on Weitzman’s purchase at the conclusion of the 2002 auction, “In an historic moment, the Director of the United States Mint signed a Certificate of Monetization that, in return for twenty dollars, authorized the issuance of this single example.” In 2002 the government wrote that Weitzman’s example was “the only example the United States Government has ever authorized, or ever intends to authorize, for private ownership.”

The 2021 Sotheby’s sale was announced on March 10 and covered in a two-page article in the New York Times the next day, previewed on the front page of the issue. Weitzman said, “No one takes a U-Haul to the cemetery,” adding on his treasures, “We have to figure out what to do with all this stuff.” His children aren’t interested in the collectibles and Weitzman said, “They say, ‘It’s great to do with them what you did, but we don’t want to have to worry about them, fuss with them, protect them, figure out what to do with them.’ ”

Prior to the auction some well-heeled collectors expressed concern that the 1933 double eagle was an “artificial rarity,” with Bruce Morelan writing on the PCGS Message Board in March, “Just because the government deems only one legal to own doesn’t change the fact there are at least 13 [and most likely more] in existence.” Sotheby’s had partnered with Stack’s Bowers Galleries to market the D. Brent Pogue collection starting in 2015, though the collaboration did not seem to attract widespread attention outside of the coin market. The sale of the 1933 double eagle for nearly $20 million seems to confirm that the strategic marketing of a great American rarity can extend beyond numismatics, potentially attracting new money and interest in the hobby.

Connect with Coin World:  
Sign up for our free eNewsletter
Access our Dealer Directory  
Like us on Facebook  
Follow us on Twitter

Community Comments