US Coins

U.S. government pursuit of 'fantasy' pieces highly

Is there new jeopardy for the private ownership of all coins that might have “escaped” from the United States Mint?

Recently, a guard at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia named William Gray was arrested for the theft of more than $2 million of numismatic error coins that somehow “escaped” from the Mint. It has been speculated that this is evidence of a new aggressive stance by the government, supported by the legal precedent set in the most recent 1933 double eagle case.

It also has been speculated that the new aggressive stance of the government puts such rarities as the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins in jeopardy. This seems unlikely.

I’m still in awe of the job that Barry Berke did in liberating the first 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. Berke was the attorney for the private owner of the supposed King Farouk specimen of the 1933 double eagle in the legal action against the U.S. government seeking the return of the coin to the private owners.

It required inspired work to uncover the distant and time-faded evidence required to compel the government to agree to private ownership of the coin, and to conduct an auction to sell the coin.

The more than $7 million was split 50/50 between the private owners and the U.S. government. All of this happened without the cost of a trial.

In the more recent case where the Langbords were seeking the return of 10 1933 double eagles from the U.S. government, the jury voted for the government. From Coin World’s excellent report of the trial, I can see that Berke again did a remarkable and thorough job, but the facts were different from those in the first case, and, pending appeal, it appears that the government will keep the 10 Langbord coins.

As one can see from the two different results in the two 1933 double eagle cases, each case depends very much on its facts, and the facts will be paramount in the case of each alleged escape from the Mint.

The likelihood that the government would seek ownership of the 1913 5-cent coins depends not only on the facts, but also on the policy reasons for pursuing the coins.

In the cases of the 1933 double eagles and the recent error Presidential dollar coins, all of the coins were authorized and produced by the Mint. The policy behind those government actions seems to be to protect the integrity of U.S. coinage and prevent the theft of government property.

In the case of the 1913 coins, their production was not authorized. There are no Mint records of their production, and it is not known whether the Mint’s materials or equipment were used to make them. Therefore, the 1913 Liberty Head 5-cent coins actually are “fantasy” coins selling at fantastic prices.

If the government could prove that Mint equipment and planchets were used to make the 1913 coins, they might be able to make some type of a property claim like a “shop right” in the coins. However, the facts supporting the claim might be almost impossible to prove at this late date, and more expensive to prove than is worthwhile.

Finally, it could be that the pursuit of such fantasy pieces is not supported by the present government policy — unlike the 1933 double eagle and other recent actions, such action probably would do little to deter theft of authorized coinage. Of course, as we all know too well, policy can and does change.

As to other alleged “fantasy” pieces, such as the 1804 Draped Bust silver dollars, similar reasoning also makes government pursuit of those rarities unlikely.

Gregor N. Neff of New York City is a former law partner of Barry Berke.

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