US Coins

What makes the 1933 double eagle so fascinating?

The 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagle is a coin that captures the imagination, with a story that wraps in international intrigue, glamorous auctions and legal battles, and each twist and turn seems to present more questions. It been the subject of several mainstream books, and television shows including a documentary produced for the Smithsonian Institution and an episode of The Closer. In Coin World alone since 2009 I’ve written nearly 100,000 words on a family’s quest to keep 10 examples it, allegedly discovered in a family’s safe deposit box years ago, against the government’s interest in reclaiming what it sees as stolen government property. 

In 2002 following the record sale of an example allegedly owned by Egypt’s King Farouk for nearly $7.6 million, Coin World’s former editor Beth Deisher described it as the Mona Lisa of coins, and I would later call it the Hope Diamond of American numismatics due to its combination of beauty, desirability and mystery. 

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That the lead actress in the tale — or actresses — is beautiful certainly helps draw interest from noncollectors. The Saint-Gaudens double eagle was first struck in 1907, and the coin, designed by famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is often called the most beautiful American coin. Some fancy it the most attractive coin ever minted. 

It enjoyed a run spanning four decades, though its fate was sealed on April 5, 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order No. 6012, which banned “the Hoarding of Gold Coin, Gold Bullion, and Gold Certificates within the Continental United States.” The order required people to deliver most gold coins and all gold bullion and gold certificates to a Federal Reserve Bank or a branch of agency of the Federal Reserve Bank by May 1, 1933. America was still in the midst of the Great Depression and the economic outlook looked grim. Under the order, citizens could retain up to $100 in gold coins and collectible coins were exempted from being turned in.

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Before the order was signed, the Philadelphia Mint had struck 445,300 1933 double eagles. More specifically, the first 100,000 were struck between March 15 and March 24; 200,000 more were struck between April 7 and April 27; and still 145,500 more were struck between May 8 and May 19. None were officially released — the last shipment of gold coins left the Philadelphia Mint on March 6, 1933, and that shipment contained no 1933 double eagles — yet some left the Mint. These examples have caused a headache for the U.S. Mint and the government, but by the 21st century they have become legendary. 

Opportunities at the Mint

Though they could not be released, 1933 double eagles did not head straight to the melting pot. On Feb. 14 and 15, 1934, the U.S. Assay Commission met in Philadelphia and examined 1933 gold double eagles and Indian Head $10 eagles. Prior to the meeting, the Mint set aside 500 1933 double eagles, of which the Assay Commission examined 446, 20 were reserved for the Mint’s own assaying, and 34 were returned to the Mint vaults. As Q. David Bowers wrote in a 2012 article in The Numismatist, “At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it seems that there was every indication these coins would be used in circulation (despite a growing set of rules and the gold recall of December 28, 1933), or else the time and expense of assaying was deliberately wasted.”

At the time, it wasn’t explicitly made clear that 1933 double eagles were illegal to own, and at the same time it was a somewhat common practice for the Philadelphia Mint to receive older gold coins and substitute new coins for them at its cashier’s counter. By September 1934, however, all gold coins remaining at the Mint were melted into gold bars. 

The Coinage Act of 1965 legalized all $20 double eagles, but the question of 1933 double eagles — which may or may not have left the Mint through legitimate channels — remained murky.

The coins were considered rare within several years. The April 1937 issue of The Numismatist records F.C.C. Boyd as acquiring an example of the 1933 double eagle and 1933 eagle, and the May 1937 issue includes a small ad by Stack’s at 690 Sixth Ave. in New York City seeking 1931, 1932 and 1933 double eagles. Boyd would freely display these coins, including a publicized presentation at the Dec. 10, 1937, meeting of the New York Numismatic Club and later at the 1939 ANA convention in New York. 

Those who handled 1933 double eagles include a veritable “who’s who” of numismatists active in the 1930s and 1940s including B. Max Mehl, Abe Kosoff and a Philadelphia dealer named Israel Switt. Ads offering examples appeared in several publications, such as in the February 1941 issue of The Numismatist by Smith & Son of Chicago, where a 1933 double eagle is offered described as “Uncirculated, the rarest of all Double eagles with the exception of the 1949; only 3 pcs. known to exist at the present time.” The price was not listed and the firm added at the top of the ad: “Rarities That Are Seldom Offered For Sale Is Our Specialty.” 

While the private ownership of gold did not extend to numismatic coins with clear value to collectors, contemporary publications provide evidence of there being an uncomfortable line between what the government considered illegal, private holding of gold coins and legitimate collecting. Executive order 6102 provided that individuals could keep gold coin and gold certificates valued up to $100 in total and “gold coins having a recognized special value to collectors of rare and unusual coins.” Wasn’t a 1933 double eagle a rare and unusual coin? 

The Mint became aware of the continuing existence of 1933 double eagles in 1944, first when approached by a representative of the government of Egypt, which sought permission to export one (the Mint granted permission), and a second time a few weeks later, when a reporter asked about the publicized upcoming auction of another piece. This latter inquiry prompted the Mint to look at its records, with officials then concluding that not only should an export license not have been granted to Egypt, but also that it was illegal for a private person to own one of these coins. The Secret Service began an investigation of the market for the coins and began requiring their owners to relinquish them, though not all did so willingly. As reported in the January 1948 issue of The Numismatist, “Interest in the double eagles of 1933 for collectors will probably be lessened due to the fact that the government has won its case in Tennessee in which a specimen of this date was confiscated.” Then, like today, “The government maintained in its prosecution of this case that no coins of the double eagle denomination with the date 1933, left the Mint through normal channels. Several collectors are known to have turned in the specimens which they once had in their possession.” 

The Tennessee case involved Memphis collector L.G. Barnard. His attorney, Harry J. Stein, argued that the double eagles were obtained through legal channels and that the collector purchased his example from a reputable dealer. Stein would later explain to the Bronx Coin Club in New York on Aug. 20, 1947, that the loss of the case would give purchasers of 1933 double eagles the right to recover the purchase price from the dealers who sold them under their implied warranty of good title. The Barnard case effectively established the government’s title to 1933 double eagles. 

The Farouk Example

There is one 1933 double eagle where the legal status is clear: what has been identified as the King Farouk example that sold at Sotheby’s on July 30, 2002, in a single-coin auction for $7,590,020. The coin was originally purchased by the Egyptian king with a voracious appetite for collecting — and other things — from Mehl in 1944 and the coin was accompanied by the export license granted by the Treasury Department. Prior to granting the export license, the Treasury Department sought the guidance of Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross, who reached out to the Smithsonian’s curator who reported that the collection had two examples. From there, one assumes that the Treasury Department and curator surmised that the 1933 double eagle had been regularly issued, though hard to find, and examples were rare coins that were collectible as defined by the law. 

Soon after, following the inquiry in March 1944 from a newspaper columnist about an upcoming Stack’s auction that offered one of the coins, Acting Mint Director Leland Howard sent a memo to the Secret Service saying that Farouk’s 1933 double eagle should not have been granted an export license, but by then it was too late. The situation helped raise the Secret Service’s attention to the issue, resulting in its active recovery of examples in the 1940s. 

At least nine 1933 double eagles were recovered by the Secret Service in the 1940s and 1950s and subsequently destroyed. Even famed collector Louis Eliasberg Sr. turned in his 1933 double eagle in 1952. He had purchased it in 1944 from dealer Ira Reed and hoped that the Mint would return it to maintain the completeness of his U.S. gold coin collection, but the Mint retained Eliasberg’s coin. 

The Farouk example proved problematic. It was not good diplomacy to ask for the coin’s return, and it remained in the King’s collection until he was overthrown in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and forced to abdicate. His coin collections were sold as the “Palace Collections of Egypt” by Sotheby’s in London in 1954 in a sale that totaled $616,000. The 1933 double eagle was set to be offered as part of a lot of 17 Saint-Gaudens double eagles from 1924 through 1933, grading “mostly extremely fine” (which, using contemporary English grading terms, equates to today’s Uncirculated grade). 

Some of Farouk’s coins were withdrawn, including various gold and silver Egyptian coins and medals, all ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine gold coins, early Argentine doubloons, an 1864 Napoleon III 100-franc piece encrusted with rubies and diamonds that was a diplomatic gift, and the 1933 double eagle. The 16 remaining double eagles would sell to David Spink bidding on behalf of Ambassador and Mrs. R. Henry Norweb for the U.S. equivalent of around $8,500 and the double eagles — sans the 1933 — were the top lot in the sale. 

Farouk’s 1933 double eagle was not included in the sale, nor was it returned to the U.S. government. It disappeared, and while rumors ran in numismatic circles about its location — a sighting in Switzerland, rumblings about it being in France — it remained elusive. 

More than 40 years later, a 1933 double eagle turned up in New York as English dealer Stephen Fenton had purchased it in London in the summer of 1995. On Feb. 8, 1996, he was arrested with Kansas City dealer Jay Parrino as they attempted to make a deal to sell the coin. Litigation ensued, and before the case went to trial a settlement was reached where neither Fenton nor the Mint would own the coin. It was ultimately decided that the missing coin was the Farouk coin though this linkage was made in absence of any photographs or specific description of the Farouk example that would allow for a match between Fenton’s 1933 double eagle and the one once owned by Farouk. 

Despite this, The Treasury Department agreed to divide the proceeds between Fenton and the U.S. Mint Public Enterprise Fund. The curious $20 at the end of the then-record setting price for a U.S. coin at auction represents the amount the Mint said was needed to monetize the coin so it would become legal money (a requirement some researchers said was legally unnecessary). 

As Alison Frankel, who published a book on the 1933 double eagle wrote in a 2003 article in The American Lawyer publication, the day of the auction “was a brutal day in Manhattan, air hanging like a hot, wet curtain over the city. Outside of Sotheby’s auction house on the East Side, limousines idled with the air-conditioning on. Cameramen climbed out of television news vans, sweat beads popping across their foreheads as they swung equipment onto their shoulders.” 

The buyer remains unknown, although the coin has been on public display and enjoyed by millions of visitors in venues such as the New-York Historical Society in a display titled “The “World’s Most Valuable Coin: The Unique United States 1933 Double Eagle.” It was listed as coming from a private collection, though Sotheby’s David Redden has called the buyer not a coin collector, but rather, “a fabulous collector who was completely captivated by the story of the coin.” Prior to that it was included in the American Numismatic Society’s long-running exhibit at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Drachmas, Doubloons & Dollars: The History of Money.”

Two examples are housed in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, where an example is routinely on public display. In 2012 one went on a whirlwind tour of Europe, and the Smithsonian’s Karen Lee wrote in a Coin World Guest Commentary, “Seven countries, eight bodyguarded flights and 100 million ‘household views’ later, the 1933 double eagle has added another important chapter to its legendary status.” 

Philadelphia’s Izzy Switt

Lurking in the shadows of the 1933 double eagle story is Philadelphia coin dealer and jeweler Israel Switt, who worked on Philadelphia’s Jeweler’s Row and had been described by contemporary associates as a “gold coin bootlegger.” Frankel wrote, “Philadelphia was a hub of the gold trade in the early part of the [20th] century, with jewels, coin dealers, and scrap gold traders clustered in offices near the Mint.” He worked within and outside of the confines of the law, losing his scrap-gold dealer’s license and it was well-known by dealers, collectors and (beginning in 1944) the Secret Service that he was a source for 1933 double eagles. He was arrested in 1934 at a Philadelphia train station for carrying a briefcase of gold coins in violation of the law, and he had a somewhat mixed reputation among his peers.

Switt had a good relationship with those who ran the Mint’s operations, including those who helped manage the background operations, among them Cashier of the Mint George A. McCann, who assumed his position on March 19, 1934, and had access to the 1933 double eagles. A Secret Service investigation found that McCann’s wealth far exceeded what would be expected on his salary of roughly $2,500 a year. McCann denied being involved with the 1933 double eagles and the Secret Service had said there were other limitations in prosecuting Switt, the primary one being that the statute of limitations had passed since the production of the coins in 1933. 

In 2003, Switt’s daughter Joan Langbord allegedly discovered 10 1933 double eagles among other items in a family safe deposit box. The family’s lawyer, Barry Berke, who successfully represented Fenton leading to the 2002 auction, contended that Switt acquired the coins legally during a window of opportunity when the Mint cashier could trade old coins for new and the Mint cashier had access to 1933 double eagles. 

Berke submitted the coins to the Mint for authentication, carefully making it clear that he was not surrendering the coins. 

The Mint retained the coins and the Langbords sued the government in 2006, asking for the coins’ return. Rulings before the July 2011 jury trial shifted the burden of proof to the government in some ways, including requiring the government to show that the coins were likely stolen from the Mint.

Much of the continuing litigation today rests on the Mint’s adherence to relevant judicial forfeiture statutes under the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. When the case went to a Philadelphia District Court in 2011, a jury ruled in favor of the government. Subsequently, Philadelphia’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that a 2009 ruling that allowed the Mint to make the relevant forfeiture filings was invalid, which vacated the 2011 civil trial. The Appeals Court wrote that the government ignored CAFRA and concluded “the Langbords are entitled to the return of the double eagles.” 

The case was heard before the en banc panel of judges of the Third Circuit on Oct. 14, 2015, to look at two narrow questions: First, whether the 1933 double eagles should be considered “monetary instruments” or “merchandise” under certain statutes and second, whether the government has waived certain rights on appeal. The hobby awaits the court’s decision.

The Langbord’s position is that the coins are “monetary instruments” and “coins” and should have been subject to administrative forfeiture and that the government unconstitutionally seized the coins.

The government contends that the 1933 double eagles were never issued as money, and were valued at more than $500,000 and were not subject to administrative forfeiture. It added, “The 1933 Double Eagles have been correctly treated by all parties at all times as items of numismatic interest, not as currency, because their value is measured by their value as numismatic items, not their value as currency (which is nil).”

Going forward

At the trial, a key limitation is that everyone who was around in the 1930s and 1940s and could speak to the goings-on at the Mint in that era is dead, and records are incomplete and at times contradictory. Mint records established that in early March 1933 there were 43 1933 double eagles delivered to the Cashier’s Office to replace 43 1932 double eagles. There was a window where people could bring up to five common $20 double eagles to the Philadelphia Mint and receive five new 1933-dated coins. It happened with at least one 1933 $10 eagle — itself a rare coin with a large mintage of 312,500 coins of which most were melted, leaving around 40 to 50 known to collectors today. It might have happened other times. 

Since 1933 $10 eagles were known to have left the Mint via legitimate channels, these have been openly traded. 

What’s the value of the “Langbord 10” that are locked up in government vaults?

We know what the coins grade since Numismatic Guaranty Corp. reported Nov. 3, 2009, that it had graded one coin Mint State 66, two MS-65, six MS-64 and one with an NGC Uncirculated Details, Improperly Cleaned grade. The “Farouk” example graded MS-65 and brought $7,590,020. Yet, that coin was sold under the assumption that it was unique, and making an additional 10 more available would likely decrease the value, as the coin market is small when compared with more global art or gem markets. 

Some non-numismatic media outlets put a value of $80,000,000 on the 10 Langbord coins, simply by multiplying the one known sale by ten, and adding another five million for good measure. While the coins would benefit from extra exposure that could attract people who don’t normally buy coins, consensus among dealers I’ve talked to is that the top graded examples may be $3 million to $5 million coins, while others may be at the $1 million to $2 million level. Still, even with these conservative values, it’s clear why the Langbord family has been fighting for 13 years to keep these coins. 

As Frankel wrote in 2003, “Good litigators say they win by telling compelling stories. Few have worked with raw material as rich as Berke’s in the Double Eagle case. That $20 piece has been involved in some of the greatest historical events of the last 70 years, as well as the pettiest of crimes. It’s been owned by an Egyptian playboy king and a shady Philadelphia jeweler. 

“It’s been the subject of rumors and legends and diplomatic appeals across three continents, spawning a 1944 Secret Service investigation and a 1996 sting operation at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Now, thanks to Berke’s advocacy, the story of the 1933 Double Eagle would continue.” 

And now, 13 years later, the story continues to develop as the hobby waits for what the Appeals Court will rule. Do other examples remain in the shadows awaiting discovery, perhaps waiting for a friendlier legal climate into which they can emerge? The story of the 1933 double eagle is far from over. 

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