US Coins

Supreme Court declines 1933 double eagle case

The U.S. Supreme Court will not take up the case involving ownership of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles, meaning the coins will remain the property of the federal government.

Original images courtesy of Thomas Mulvaney from the United States Mint.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case involving ownership of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold double eagles, thus apparently bringing to an end a decade-long legal battle over who gets to keep the coins.

The Supreme Court’s decision means that the coins will remain the property of the federal government and will not be returned to the Langbord family, which reportedly discovered the 10 coins in a family safe deposit box in 2003. The family — Joan Langbord and her sons, Roy and David — turned them over to the United States Mint in 2004 for authentication. Mint officials informed the family in 2005 that it was keeping the coins. A legal battle over ownership ensued, with both parties to the suit at different points being awarded the coins. The last court decision, made Aug. 1, 2016, by an appeals court, found that the government repossessed its own property and in doing so, asserted its ownership rights to the coins.

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As Steve Roach reported in the April 17 issue of Coin World, the case had moved beyond the 10 coins that were allegedly found by Joan Langbord in her family’s safe deposit box in 2003 and had grown to revolve around two key questions with broad implications. “The first question is whether, when the government seizes property from private citizens and intends to retain it indefinitely, it can avoid the procedures, deadlines and penalties set forth in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 by merely asserting that the property was stolen from the government and declaring that it has no intention of seeking forfeiture. The second question is whether the government can avoid CAFRA’s protections by strategically waiting for years and then filing a declaratory judgment claim that seeks essentially the same relief as is barred by CAFRA,” Roach reported.

The government has held since at least 1944 that 1933 double eagles are illegal to own, citing executive orders by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 that  halted the release of gold coins from government inventories, among other provisions. The government contends that Roosevelt’s orders meant no 1933 double eagles could have been released legally (other than two presented at the Smithsonian Institution) and that any surviving examples in private hands could only have been obtained illegally.

However, at least 10 of the 1933 double eagles entered the marketplace in the 1930s and 1940s, all or most originating in the hands of Israel Switt, a Philadelphia jeweler and coin dealer, and father of Joan Langbord. Examples of the 1933 double eagle were sold openly in the marketplace for years, even being advertised in hobby publications, with no government interference.

In 1944, however, officials made two contradictory decisions in short order that forever changed how the coins were perceived. The first decision was to grant Egypt an export license for one of the coins for the collection of King Farouk; officials determined that the coin fit the standards that permitted some rare gold coins to be privately owned. Shortly thereafter, another example of the coin was scheduled to appear in an auction by Stack’s. A journalist covering the auction queried the Mint on why the 1933 double eagle was considered rare, as stated by Stack’s; Mint officials who looked more deeply into the records determined that none of the coins had been released to the public through normal channels.

An ensuing investigation by the Secret Service led to Switt, who acknowledged having sold 10 of the coins, including the piece that King Farouk eventually acquired. Agents tracked down the nine remaining coins over a period of years, and all were confiscated and eventually melted. Egypt refused to return the Farouk coin and when the Farouk Collection was sold at auction in 1954, the 1933 double eagle was removed from the sale at the request of the U.S. government; the coin then disappeared from public view.

A coin alleged to be the Farouk example resurfaced in 1996 and was seized by U.S. authorities. A long legal battle ended when the government and the dealer claiming ownership of the coin reached an agreement that permitted the coin to be sold at auction with the two parties splitting the proceeds. The coin sold for $7.59 million in a July 2002 auction. Officials have never disclosed why they agreed to allow the coin to be sold, and they continue to hold that no other examples can be owned.

Nonetheless, in addition to the two coins held by the Smithsonian, the 10 Langbord coins held by the Mint, and the coin owned by an unnamed party since its purchase in the 2002 auction, at least one other 1933 double eagle is known to be held in an unnamed collection. It is also uncertain whether the coin sold in 2002 truly is the Farouk coin or whether it is another piece with an unpublished pedigree.

What will now happen to the 10 double eagles currently being held at the Mint’s Fort Knox Gold Bullion Depository? Mint officials have said the coins will not be melted (as were the pieces that were confiscated from collectors and dealers more than 60 years ago). Beyond that, though, little has been revealed publicly about the future of the coins.

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