US Coins

U.S. Court of Appeals hears arguments in 1933 double eagle case

Representatives of the Langbord family and the government met before all of the judges in Philadelphia’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Oct. 14 as the fate of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagles allegedly discovered in the Langbord family’s safe deposit box remains up in the air after nearly a decade of litigation.

The oral arguments before the en banc panel of judges — as opposed to the three judge panel for the initial appeal — were limited to two definitional 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. 

Both sides were allotted 30 minutes to make their points, which were further enumerated in briefs submitted to the court on Oct. 12. Each side received five minutes of uninterrupted time, after which the court questioned attorneys representing both sides.

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The Langbord family’s attorney Barry Berke contended that the coins were “monetary instruments” and “coins.” As such, they should have been subject to administrative forfeiture and that the government unconstitutionally seized the coins. The family seeks to overturn the a jury’s 2011 decision, confirmed by the district court’s decision in 2012, that awarded the coins to the government. 

The government’s representative Robert Zauzmer argued that the double eagles, referred to as “gold pieces” (though also referred to as “coins” for ease of reference), are not monetary instruments because they were never issued as money and were not in circulation, nor were they merchandise valued at or under $500,000, and therefore the government could not forfeit them in a nonjudicial (administrative) forfeiture proceeding. Further, the government contends that the double eagles were not subject to administrative forfeiture since their value was in excess of $500,000. 

The government 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).” 

The government’s brief added, “The coins must be treated, for purposes of the forfeiture statutes, the same way that ancient coins of archaeological interest are treated: as cultural property with a value entirely unrelated to their face denomination,” before concluding that the double eagles do not fall within the type of property for which administrative forfeiture is allowed.

About the coins

The 10 coins were allegedly discovered in a safe deposit box originally belonging to Joan Langbord’s father, Philadelphia dealer and jeweler Israel Switt. 

Switt admitted in 1944 in interviews with the Secret Service that he had sold a number of the coins to dealers and collectors. Secret Services agents tracked down nine of the 10 coins he admitted to having sold; all nine were eventually confiscated by the government and melted. 

The tenth, owned by King Farouk of Egypt, was out of reach. It surfaced in 1996 when it was confiscated in a sting; after a legal case, the coin was declared to be the only example extant in private hands to be legal to own. Its was sold at auction in 2001 for more than $7 million.

In 2004, the Langbords told the Mint that another 10 coins existed and submitted them for authentication. 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. 

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