US Coins

Supreme Court to consider whether to hear 1933 case

The Langbord family’s quest to keep 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles will reach what may be its final step on April 13, when the Supreme Court will consider whether it will hear the case.

Supreme Court image courtesy of Wikicommons user 350z33. Coin images by Thomas Mulvaney courtesy of U.S. Mint.

This article comes from our April 17, 2017, weekly issue of Coin World. Want to get all of our content, including special magazine exclusives? Subscribe today!


The Langbord family’s quest to keep 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 double eagles will reach what may be its final step on April 13, when the Supreme Court will consider whether it will hear the case.

Barry Berke, the Langbord’s attorney, filed a petition for a writ of certiorari on Oct. 28, 2016, asking the nation’s highest court to overturn a district and an appellate court who each found that the family’s 10 1933 double eagles were stolen government property. The government responded to the family’s petition on March 8 requesting that it be denied, which would result in the government keeping the coins. The Langbord family filed a response on March 20, reiterating past arguments and warning that if the current ruling is not reviewed, “The government will thus have vastly expanded powers to seize and retain property, powers not enjoyed by private property owners, and powers unconstrained by the very rules Congress enacted to reign in government overreaching in this precise context.”

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On March 22 the Supreme Court reported the case as being distributed for conference on April 13. When a case is docketed at the Supreme Court it is eventually distributed for a conference — typically on a Friday — where the court discusses some but not all of the petitions distributed during the conference. Petitions not discussed are automatically denied. 

The odds are not in favor of the Langbords since the Supreme Court only hears a small portion of the cases presented before it. It receives approximately 7,000 to 8,000 petitions for a writ of certiorari each term and the court grants and hears oral argument in about 80 cases.

More than gold coins

The case has moved beyond the 10 coins that were allegedly found by Joan Langbord in her family’s safe deposit box in 2003 and now revolves around two key questions with broad implications. The first question is whether, when the government seizes property from private citizens and intends to retain it indefinitely, it can avoid the procedures, deadlines and penalties set forth in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 by merely asserting that the property was stolen from the government and declaring that it has no intention of seeking forfeiture. The second question is whether the government can avoid CAFRA’s protections by strategically waiting for years and then filing a declaratory judgment claim that seeks essentially the same relief as is barred by CAFRA.

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In its Oct. 28 petition the Langbords warned that if the appellate court’s decision is left to stand, “the government will now be free — in every case involving allegedly stolen government property — to seize and keep that property without following CAFRA’s dictates.” 

The coins were among 445,500 double eagles struck at the Philadelphia Mint and most were melted. A few escaped, including 10 that were discovered by Joan Langbord in the family’s safe deposit box. In a January interview with Coin World, her son Roy Langbord said that the double eagles were among coins and other items that had been in the box since the 1950s. He said that his mother told him to leave the coins in the box. She told him, “put them back and you deal with it after my death.” The coins initially belonged to his grandfather — Israel “Izzy” Switt — a dealer who frequented the Philadelphia Mint in the 1930s. Switt acknowledged to Secret Service agents in the 1940s to selling other examples of the 1933 double eagle, nine of which were then tracked down by agents and confiscated or acquired by the government in the 1940s and 1950s and subsequently destroyed. 

The Langbords voluntarily turned the coins over to the U.S. Mint for authentication. In 2005 the family was told that the coins would be retained by the Mint and would not be the subject of forfeiture proceedings. The next year the family filed a civil action against the government to recover the coins and in 2009 a district court determined that the government had two choices: return the coins to the family or initiate a judicial forfeiture proceeding. 

On July 20, 2011, a jury ruled in favor of the government in a Philadelphia District Court and this decision was later overturned at the appeals level by a three-judge panel. The case was then considered by the full panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, who agreed with the district court that a seizure alone does not initiate a forfeiture proceeding because it does not necessarily mean that a transfer of legal title took place. In its Aug. 1, 2016, decision the appeals court found that the government repossessed its own property and in doing so, asserted its ownership rights to the coins. 

This may not be the final chapter on the coins, as Roy Langbord told Coin World that the roster of known examples — which includes the Langbord 10, the coin that was authorized for public sale in 2002, and two additional ones housed in the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution — likely will be added to by more examples awaiting discovery. He said: “I think everyone knows there are others out there. They will surface again.” 


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