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.
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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.