One of the great mysteries in American numismatics is how many 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles escaped the Philadelphia Mint and remain hidden in private hands, held clandestinely in collections both here and abroad.
Judge Legrome D. Davis’ Aug. 29 ruling put further closure on a 2011 jury decision that the Langbord family did not own the 10 coins that Joan Langbord testified she found in a safe deposit box nearly a decade ago.
Judge Davis put the matter in plain terms: the disputed coins were not lawfully removed from the United States Mint and accordingly, as a matter of law, they remain the property of the United States.
The family’s lawyer, Barry H. Berke, said that he has plans to appeal the ruling. A decade ago, Berke was successful in persuading the government to dismiss criminal charges against the owner of another 1933 double eagle found under mysterious circumstances.
That coin was allegedly once in the collection of Egypt’s King Farouk and the government once, perhaps inadvertently, granted an export permit for the Farouk coin. The proceeds from the sale of the “Farouk” coin were divided between Berke’s client and the government after the piece set a record for a rare coin at auction in 2002 when it sold for $7,590,020.
Most collectors think that the jury, and now Judge Davis, made the wrong decision in the Langbord case and that the 10 coins belong to the family that found them. In absence of live testimony from those at the Philadelphia Mint in the 1930s, one must examine handwritten, dusty and often incomplete records to piece together a history.
The jury and Judge Davis considered the record documenting the movement of 1933 double eagles from minting to melting complete enough to establish that no 1933 double eagles legally left the Mint to private citizens.
Is it possible that some coins escaped through the back door? Yes.
Does that fact that some may have left the Mint under possibly shady circumstances make those back door escapees legal to own? No.
As both sides at trial pointed out and Judge Davis noted in his Aug. 29 ruling, 1933 Indian Head $10 eagles provide a useful counterpoint. Mint records reflect that just four left the Mint through authorized channels, yet many more exist and trade — legally — in today’s coin market.
Judge Davis clarified this fact, stating, “But this does not necessarily mean that the Mint kept shoddy records. It could also reflect that the ’33 Eagles left through the back door.”
1933 $10 eagles are different from the 1933 $20 double eagles in that the government has not maintained a vigorous, sustained effort to recover them. Gold expert David Akers has noted that the legality of private ownership of the 1933 eagle has never really been in question. Whether or not privately held 1933 double eagles are legal to own rests on assuming that a 1933 double eagle could have lawfully left the Mint.
It is a theoretical question, in the absence of proof that any actually did. Perhaps further research will reveal a smoking gun that proves that a few 1933 double eagles did escape the Mint legally to private individuals, and disproves evidence that Judge Davis — and the jury — interpreted to show that no 1933 double eagles were ever lawfully issued to the public.
However, until that evidence is discovered, privately held 1933 double eagles — but for the “Farouk” example — are fugitives of the law.