1933 double eagle trial: Roger Burdette takes the stand
- Published: Jul 18, 2011, 8 PM
Shown is one of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles that remain the subject of a suit to determine ownership of the coins.
The government rested its case and numismatist Roger W. Burdette testified as to how 1933 double eagles could have left the Philadelphia Mint in 1933, on day eight of the Langbord 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagle trial.
However, the expert testimony of Burdette — the Langbord’s numismatic expert witness — was overshadowed by something that the government presented during its cross examination: prior comments Burdette made to an online message board that threaten his credibility with the jury.
Langbord brothers speak via recordings
The day started with the government placing the finishing touches on its case. The government played a brief five-minute clip of a 2007 taped deposition of David Langbord, who with his brother, Roy, and mother, Joan, is fighting the government for 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles allegedly found in the family’s safe deposit box in 2003.
In the taped deposition, David Langbord said that he first had discussions with his family about the 1933 double eagles in the summer of 2002 after seeing a Sotheby’s advertisement in The New York Times promoting the then-upcoming auction of the “Farouk” example. He said he knew that, “at one point in time the coin was supposed to be in the possession of my grandfather” — Philadelphia coin dealer Israel “Izzy” Switt — and that the story was like the “basis of a historical novel.”
That tape was followed by a much longer series of clips from a 2007 deposition from his brother, Roy Langbord, who recalled that he would work at his grandfather’s shop on weekends and summers as a teen. When asked if the store sold coins, Langbord said, “There were coins for sale” and he then recalled a 1977 telephone conversation with his grandfather about 1933 double eagles. Langbord said that Switt called and “asked me to find out for him the value of a 1933 $20 gold piece.”
In response to his grandfather’s request, Langbord went to Stack’s in New York, looked at coin books in the reception area and saw that the 1933 double eagle was not listed. The Stack’s representative — Langbord could not recall his name — said 1933 double eagles were not “publicly traded” but rather, traded privately, suggesting a value level of $250,000, but not elaborating further.
Roy Langbord recalled that discussions with his mother about 1933 double eagles were piqued by a Sotheby’s New York Times ad, but when asked if he kept a copy of the ad to send to his mother, Langbord replied that he did not. When he asked his mother if the family had any of these coins, she replied: “I don’t know. It’s busy in the store right now. I’ll talk to you later.”
The government rests its case
The government’s final expert witness, Eric Rauchway, a professor of history at University of California, Davis, was extremely brief. He stated that his research focus was on economic history with an emphasis on the New Deal. He was asked how much $500 was worth in 1937; $500 being the amount that Switt sold 1933 double eagles for in 1937. Rauchway replied that $500 in 1937 would be $30,000 today, and that he came up with that number by examining comparatively “how much work does it take to buy something,” rather than relying solely on indices such as the Consumer Price Index.
The cross examination by the Langbord’s attorney, Barry Berke, was brief. Berke asked if Rauchway went to a website and plugged in a number to get his value, bringing up a prior statement where Rauchway said that calculating purchasing power was a “notoriously squishy area of economics.” After it was revealed that Rauchway was getting paid $350 per hour for his work and time, the government declined an opportunity to re-examine the witness and rested its case at 9:57 a.m.
More details on the coins’ discovery
Berke called Roy Langbord as his first witness. Langbord described that the 1933 double eagles as he found them were in a “rolled up sandwich bag” with two smaller bags inside. Upon finding them, he and his father, Stanton, discussed what to do next. After contacting several attorneys who could not provide assistance, Roy Langbord read an article by Alison Frankel, who would write the book Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World’s Most Valuable Coin. He read that Berke successfully negotiated the split sale of the Farouk coin. Berke became the Langbords’ attorney, and they subsequently turned the coins in to the government for authentication in 2004.
Langbord again reiterated that before the coins were found, he had no idea that the family had them, no clue as to how they were obtained and that he was not involved in the estate probate for his grandfather.
The government’s cross examination was short, asking Langbord if he was familiar with A Guide Book of United States Coins, or the “Red Book.” He replied that he was not. When asked if he was aware that he could look at this book at a library, he said no, and that the book he looked at in 1977 during his visit to Stack’s just had numbers and no number for 1933. Contemporary Red Books including those from 1974 to 1977 had the notation that no 1933 double eagles were issued for circulation and do not include a price for the coin.
The government confirmed that Roy Langbord’s understanding was that privately the value of a 1933 double eagle was $250,000 while the public value — as evidenced by the 2002 sale of the Farouk example — was more than $7.5 million. With that, the government had no further questions.
Roger Burdette, with a staccato rhythm
Roger Burdette next took the stand as the Langbords’ expert numismatic witness to testify that 1933 double eagles could have left the Mint through authorized channels. Burdette, a prolific and well-respected numismatic researcher, perhaps best known for his book trilogy Renaissance of American Coinage, described his day job as a system information engineer and his thousands of hours spent fueling his passion for coin research.
His testimony covered much of the same ground as the government’s numismatic expert, David Enders Tripp, in describing the practices at the time. Tripp was in the courtroom to observe much of Burdette’s testimony.
There was a staccato rhythm to Burdette’s testimony as Assistant U.S. Attorney Nancy Rue frequently objected on the grounds that Berke’s questions strayed from the subject that Burdette wrote his report on and, as such, was an expert on: numismatics, numismatic research and historic Mint practices of the era. Judge Legrome D. Davis said Burdette’s expert report, which was filed on Feb. 14, “defines the territory on which conflict will be waged.”
Burdette expressed his opinion that 1933 double eagles could have left the Mint through proper and legitimate channels based on historic practice, the fact that gold coins went out March 7 to April 12, 1933, the fact that the cashier had a quantity of 1933 double eagles, and that the “Mint wasn’t doing anything different” and the fundamental operations of the Mint stayed the same during the time period.
Perhaps at the core of Burdette’s testimony was a 1945 memo between coiner William Bartholomew and Helen Moore, the assistant superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint, which Burdette interpreted to show that 43 1933 coins were substituted for 1932 coins and used to balance the books with regards to 458.1 ounces of gold. These 43 1933 double eagles were allegedly comingled with 1932 double eagles on March 4, 1933, and went to the cashier. At this point, Burdette speculated, the pieces lost their distinction as 1933 double eagles and could have been given out.
Many of the issues of the prior week were addressed, including the fact that just four 1933 $10 eagles were released, yet 20 to 30 are freely available to collectors today, along with the ongoing issues of “counter cash” and the absence of certain records which would aid in researching the issues.
A ferocious cross examination
Quite possibly the most spirited moments of the trial thus far came with the government’s cross examination of Burdette. Almost immediately, Rue brought up Burdette’s involvement with the U.S. Coins message board on the Collectors Universe forums, where he once described the government’s attempt to keep the 1933 double eagles as a “witch hunt.” The government read multiple messages out of the more than 8,000 that Burdette has posted at the CU forum under the user name RWB since April 2006.
An Aug. 18, 2008, thread was cited, titled, “Ok you fellow lawyers, what if Izzy Switt videotaped a ‘Dying Declaration’ telling his story of the 1933 Saints?” Burdette replied the next day to the posting, presenting a “Saturday Night Live” theme, writing, “Hmmm...now if Izzy died while trying to swallow one of the 1933s, and his last gasping breaths were videotaped by his daughter and three off-duty Secret Service agents (now living in Florida) as he related how he bought the coins from the Cashier’s window at the Philadelphia Mint in March 1933 for face value, and kept them because he was a coin collector, and they were highly desirable pieces of unusual numismatic significance.” This statement was read to the jury in its entirety.
Perhaps more problematic was a Feb. 10, 2009, posting that has since become inaccessible where Burdette wrote to the effect of mustering all the hearsay and innuendo required to obfuscate the facts; adding, “I’ll do it at $300 an hour.” Rue wasted no time in asking Burdette, “Isn’t that what you’ve done here today?” attacking the credibility of his findings. Burdette replied that his comments on the message board were sarcastic and didn’t reflect his research, frequently asking to be shown the statements as he didn’t remember them individually.
Rue was relentless in suggesting that Burdette was more creative than factual in his theory that 1933 double eagles might have been included in the March 4, 1933, shipment to the cashier as the 1945 statement that Burdette relied upon said “43 pieces” and not double eagles. She added that if Burdette’s interpretation that “43 pieces” meant 43 1933 double eagles was true, it would compromise each document provided to Mint officials afterwards.
Burdette was also questioned about his familiarity with his expert report, specifically statements addressing the relation of the number of coins struck versus the number of coins delivered, and the importance of this. When Burdette couldn’t recall what he stated on this in his 20-page expert report filed earlier this year, Rue read him his statement in his submitted report that it was “impossible” to know how many coins were struck in any one year. After the reading, Burdette added with a smile, “I appreciate knowing how nicely I wrote it.”
Rue at times seemed unprepared in her cross examination. This was likely due in part to the unexpectedly short direct examination of Burdette by Berke, especially in light of Berke’s two-and-a-half-day cross examination of Tripp, the government’s numismatic expert. She hammered the point that nothing in the documents explicitly say that any 1933 double eagles were sent back as 1932 double eagles. Burdette countered that it was “normal common sense” and Mint usage to assume that “43 pieces” represented 43 coins.
Court adjourned early at 3:30 p.m. after several long breaks while Rue went through files. Her cross examination of Burdette continues today, likely followed by a redirect by Berke that should provide some of the more interesting moments in the trial, as Berke fights to help Burdette regain his credibility with the jury. ¦