Roy Langbord divulges details on 1933 double eagles
- Published: Jan 27, 2017, 6 AM
The 2003 discovery in a Pennsylvania bank safe-deposit box of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagles once owned by Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt changed the course of history for Roy Langbord and his family.
Israel Switt, known as “Izzy” to most of those with whom he conducted business, was Roy Langbord’s maternal grandfather.
In an exclusive interview granted to Coin World on Jan. 25, Roy Langbord says if the family had the chance to do it all over again, the course taken as to what to do with the coins, once they were found, and the outcome might both have been different.
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The 10 coins became the subject of costly, protracted litigation between the federal government and the Langbords, as the family fought to retain ownership of the coins.
The case has seen decisions made in favor of both sides, with the most recent ruling occurring in August 2016 in favor of the Mint.
The next step in the legal process is fast approaching, with the federal government expected to file arguments early in February to stifle the Langbord family’s bid to bring the case before the U.S. Supreme Court and possibly overturn the lower court ruling that delivered ownership of the 10 coins to the federal government.
Roy Langbord, himself an attorney, says he knows getting the case before the Supreme Court is a long shot.
The case has taken an emotional and financial toll on the Langbord family, he says. During the litigation in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia and subsequent appellate court proceedings, the Langbords were advised by their New York attorney, Barry H. Berke, not to discuss the case publicly. That is, until now.
Berke is the same attorney that represented British dealer Stephen Fenton with the purported King Farouk 1933 double eagle that was declared to be the only example legal to own; it was sold at auction in 2002, with the net proceeds from the $7.59 million sale split between Fenton and the Mint.
In a one-hour-and-40-minute telephone interview with Coin World, Roy Langbord discussed the details of the case from the family’s point of view and how it affected each person, including his brother, David, and especially their mother, Joan Switt Langbord, Israel Switt’s daughter, now in her late 80s.
What the family initially thought was serendipitous, discovery of the 10 1933 double eagles gradually turned sour once the family decided to entrust the gold pieces to the federal government.
Langbord said his mother’s first suggestion was to return the coins to their resting place in the Switt family’s bank safe-deposit box, where they were found. Final disposition could be pursued by the family after her death, she said.
Roy said his father, the late Stanton Langbord, however, recommended the family seek an opinion as to the legal status of the gold pieces. The coins were among 445,500 double eagles struck in 1933 at the Philadelphia Mint, with most melted without being released into general circulation.
Stanton Langbord, who owned and operated an optical company in Philadelphia, was a heavily decorated World War II veteran who experienced extensive combat in the Pacific Theater.
Roy Langbord said his father, who died in 2006 at age 85, strongly believed the government would do the right thing for its citizens. What eventually transpired was outright zeal on the part of the government to win an all-out legal war at all costs, Langbord said.
And it all started with the coins.
Langbord said his mother informed him of the discovery of a bag of coins, found in the safe-deposit box, but its contents weren’t known until he could go through them with her in an office at the family jewelry shop. The contents had reportedly been in the same safe-deposit box since the 1950s, and remained there as the bank underwent multiple ownership changes.
Roy said going into the safe-deposit box wasn’t even planned. The facility had experienced flooding, causing the frames of some safe-deposit boxes to warp, requiring the locks to be drilled open and the boxes made sound again. The process required the contents of each box to be removed by its owners.
Roy said the coins were held in a crumpled department store bag from a since-defunct business. All of the coins in the bag were gold — Mexican, Roman and assorted U.S.coins.
One of the first coins he pulled from the crumpled bag was in a 2-inch by 2-inch manila coin envelope marked LLDE.
Roy had worked summers at his grandfather’s store, where the pricing code involved using, in place of digits, a nine-letter word with no repeating letters. Israel Switt’s code word was “Baltimore.” The LL translated to “33,” with the “DE” as “double eagle.” Roy’s suspicions were proven true when he removed a 1933 double eagle.
There were nine more such envelopes, each containing a 1933 double eagle, inside the bag. When the coins were turned over to the government in the envelopes, Roy says Mint officials wondered if the LLDE was some sort of Mint code.
Seeing the contents of each envelope, Roy said, “I knew it could be life-changing.” He added: “When I first told my mother, she said she didn’t want her life to change. She said, ‘put them back and you deal with it after my death.’ ”
She must have had a premonition, Roy said. There were enough bad things and worse that ended up happening, Roy said. His grandfather was accused of trading in stolen property; his mother, of knowing much earlier about the existence of the 10 1933 coins. Roy said there was never any determination that the coins were stolen from the Mint.
Roy Langbord said his grandfather was small in stature but loomed large in the business world of Philadelphia. He was a fair and honest businessman who lived frugally, was well-respected and wouldn’t have stolen anything from anyone, unlike his portrayal in government proceedings.
“He’d bring scrap metal to the Mint daily to be melted, sometimes twice a day,” Langbord said. “He was likely given those coins or purchased them. Was it legal under the circumstances he got them? I don’t know, and neither does the government.”
In the years before he became a teenager, Roy said, his grandfather would take him and Roy’s brother, David, annually to the Philadelphia Mint where they would get a VIP behind-the-scenes tour, after which each received a current year’s set of Proof coins.
Over lunch with his father the same day the 1933 double eagles were discovered in 2003, Roy said they discussed what the family should do with the coins. They began the search for legal counsel for direction. What was finally decided was diametrically opposed to what his mother had proposed.
Unlike his father, Roy said, his grandfather and grandfather's business partner, Edward Silver, were distrustful of the federal government and President Roosevelt, and didn’t like banks. Switt preferred doing business in cash, Roy said. He installed two stand-up safes in his shop in the 1930s that are still in the shop today.
Switt had cause to dislike the government. During the 1930s, he was arrested by authorities while carrying a suitcase full of U.S. gold coins to the Philadelphia Mint for melting. This was after Roosevelt in 1933 had issued an executive order limiting private ownership of U.S. gold coins.
Switt was never charged, but the contents of the suitcase were confiscated and melted without Switt ever being compensated, Roy said.
Roy Langbord was generally aware of the rarity of 1933 double eagles before the family discovery. He said he had seen a New York Times article discussing the July 30, 2002, public auction by Sotheby’s, in conjunction with Stack’s, of the purported King Farouk example.
Langbord said he then talked to his mother about whether the family had any such coins extant. A subsequent hunt yielded nothing.
Langbord said he remembers his grandfather only discussing the 1933 double eagle once, in general, as a U.S. Mint issue.
During his last year of law school in New York City in 1977, Langbord said his grandfather had asked him to stop at the Stack’s coin shop on West 57th Street in Manhattan and ask what a 1933 double eagle was worth. While waiting to talk to a Stack’s numismatist, Roy said he spied a printed reference of U.S. coin values and looked up 1933 double eagles, for which he found no listed value.
The unidentified numismatist with whom he eventually spoke at Stack’s stated 1933 double eagles had “no public value” and were “largely privately traded,” and if he had to guess, placed a value of $250,000 on one.
Roy said he relayed the information to his grandfather and the issue of 1933 double eagles was not brought up by him again.
Switt was known to have traded in 1933 double eagles earlier and, in the mid-1940s, had been interviewed by the Secret Service about his marketing of the coins.
The Secret Service subsequently tracked down nine coins that Switt had reportedly admitted to selling; all nine coins were either confiscated or voluntarily turned over to the government by their owners, and all were eventually destroyed.
Introduced to Berke
Langbord said he initially tried to enlist the services of Peter E. Fleming Jr., a high-profile criminal defense lawyer, who was preparing for a major trial at the time and could not take on the case. Roy then directed his attention to Berke and was able to make his introduction through a Berke colleague that Roy knew worked at the same firm.
Langbord said David Tripp — the federal government’s expert witness against the Langbords — while preparing the catalog for the 2002 sale of the purported Farouk coin had contacted his mother asking about the possible existence of any other 1933 double eagles in the family’s possession, since the Switt connection to the coins was known.
At the time, the existence of the 10 examples in the safe-deposit box was not yet known to the family, Langbord said.
Nothing to hide
“We never had anything to hide,” Roy Langbord said. “We didn’t know the legal status of the coins. We were looking to make a deal if it was OK to sell them. Dad said, ‘Don’t worry.’ ”
Roy said Berke approached U.S. Mint officials concerning the coins, optimistic that something positive could be worked out to the benefit of all sides. Mint officials asked if it was possible to take the coins to determine authenticity. Langbord said officials were told the coins could be relinquished temporarily for that limited purpose, “but we never gave them carte blanche.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” Langbord said. The family would soon find out. By this time, the coins had been moved from the Switt family’s bank’s safe-deposit box to Stanton Langbord’s bank, where he held a safe-deposit box.
Roy Langbord said he suspected something sinister was afoot when, in 2004, with Mint and Secret Service officials present along with his dad and Berke, he noted that the removal of each of the 10 coins from the envelopes was being videotaped, before the coins’ inspection and documenting. Not long after, one of the Secret Service agents approached him and began reading him his rights.
Langbord said legal pressure was being exerted for the coins to be turned over to authorities for the authentication process. The coins were turned over to the Mint through the Secret Service, but with the family’s stipulation that custody was for the limited purpose of authentication.
As court proceedings evolved, Langbord said, it quickly became clear that his family would likely have a difficult time succeeding in their pursuit of the 10 coins’ return.
Langbord said he and his family would not agree to participate in a 2005 press conference announcing the discovery of the coins by the Langbords and what Mint officials referred to as a “recovery.” The U.S. Mint retained possession of the coins until Aug. 11, 2005, when officials announced to the public the bureau’s “recovery” of the 10 1933 gold coins.
Mint officials do not consider the 10 gold pieces to be “coins,” under government claims they were never officially released as such, thus none of the 10 double eagles will be monetized as legal tender as was done for the single example sold in 2002. Many numismatists dispute the Mint’s claims that the double eagles even had to be “monetized,” given how coins were distributed in the 1930s.
During the course of court proceedings, Langbord said, it became painfully obvious that U.S. Mint records were woefully incomplete, and those documents that did exist raised red flags.“It seems like the documents were created to make it look like nothing was missing and that nobody did anything wrong,” he said.
The Secret Service, Roy said, had not been actively seeking out the existence of any 1933 double eagles for some six decades until the Langbords’ case was brought to them.
In 2006, the Mint used the 10 coins as the centerpiece of an exhibit during the American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Denver. The Langbords expressed their objection to the display to both Mint and ANA officials. “We were disgusted and disappointed,” Roy Langbord said. “The exhibit was a clear violation of the rules of seizure.”
Langbord said it was also a violation when it was reported that Numismatic Guaranty Corp. had graded the coins, a notification that was quickly removed from the grading service’s website.
There is evidence that other examples of 1933 double eagles exist beyond the two in the National Numismatic Collection in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and the purported Farouk coin and the 10 Langbord coins. Langbord added: “I think everyone knows that there are others out there. They will surface again.”
At least one dealer active in the business today has said he participated in the sale of one that is not among the 13 identified pieces.
In retrospect, based on the events that unfolded, “we should have sold some of them and put others in museums,” Roy Langbord said. “We should never have turned them over to the Mint. They just took our property and ran.”
What advice would he give to anyone with a genuine 1933 double eagle in their possession?
“The last thing to do is inform the Mint,” he said. “Enjoy the unique piece as long as you can.
“And if you want to sell it, do it outside the borders of the United States.”
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