In May 1933, the U.S. Mint printed the very last Saint-Gaudens double eagle. These $20 gold coins were never officially released to the public. A few managed to avoid destruction and the U.S. government has spent more than 60 years and untold millions of dollars tracking them down. Why is the 1933 double eagle the most controversial coin in history?
President Roosevelt Seizes America’s Gold
On April 5, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102 which, in effect, forced American citizens to turn in “all gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates” to the Federal Reserve. On January 30, 1934, Congress followed up that Order with the United States Gold Reserve Act, which allowed the President to seize the Federal Reserve’s newly-acquired gold supply. The federal government built Fort Knox in 1936 in order to store its newfound treasure.
The U.S. Government Declares War on the 1933 Double Eagles
Suddenly, gold coins became a thing of the past. The director of the Philadelphia Mint ordered the recently pressed 1933 double eagles to be melted down into gold bars and sent off to Fort Knox, a task which would take several years to complete. Only two of the coins were slated to survive. They were sent to the Smithsonian for safekeeping.
But, double eagles began to pop up. One coin made its way into the hands of Egypt’s King Farouk. Another one was offered via auction. The Secret Service quickly decided that someone had stolen the double eagles from the Philadelphia Mint. They actually debated the “advisability of trying to get [the] coin back from King Farouk.” However, since World War II was in progress and Egypt was an important American ally, they decided not to risk infuriating him. However, they did seize the other coin, an act which launched a decades-long war against private ownership of the 1933 double eagles.
“The government has been fanatical about seizing and destroying these coins. They’re famous because the government has been seizing them since the 1940s.” ~ Robert W. Hoge, American Numismatic Society
The 1933 Double Eagle becomes the Most Expensive Coin in History
The Secret Service traced the coins to a Philadelphia-based jeweler named Israel Switt. Switt claimed that he didn’t have any records pertaining to the eagles. However, he did state that they weren’t purchased from a Mint employee. The Justice Department disagreed but was unable to press charges due to the statute of limitations.
For the moment, the investigation was at an impasse. But after King Farouk was overthrown, his double eagle found its way into the hands of a coin dealer named Stephen Fenton. Fenton attempted to sell the coin in 1996 but the end buyer betrayed him. Secret Service agents rushed the room and seized the double eagle.
Incredibly, Fenton was charged with “conspiring to convert to his own use and attempt to sell property of the United States.” No one seemed to care that FDR’s ridiculous and unconstitutional Executive Order had been repealed in 1974 by President Ford. And the fact that there was no proof the coins were stolen in the first place didn’t seem to strike anyone as strange.
Fortunately, the charges were quickly dropped. And eventually, Fenton and the Justice Department agreed to auction off the coin and split the proceeds. After an extended publicity campaign, it sold for a grand total of $7.6 million, making it the most expensive coin in history until the 2010 sale of a 1794 silver dollar. The anonymous buyer lent it to the American Numismatic Society, which in turn lent it to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The Double Eagle Double-Cross?
The story of the 1933 double eagle should’ve ended with that auction. But there was still another chapter to come. In 2004, Israel Switt’s only child Joan Langbord along with her son Roy discovered ten 1933 double eagles in a safety deposit box. She took the coins to the U.S. Mint for authentication. The Mint agreed but ended up pulling a fast one. It refused to return the property and instead told the media that it had “recovered” ten additional coins.
The Langbord family sued. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero claimed that any 1933 double eagles that left the Mint did so illegally. The Langbord family argued that most of the Philadelphia Mint records, which were ill-kept, had been destroyed in 1978. Also, no surviving witnesses remained. Finally, they identified a “window of opportunity” where Israel Switt could’ve obtained the coins in a legal manner.Shockingly, the jury sided with the government. While the Langbord’s are expected to appeal the verdict, the story has come to an end, at least for now. And government representatives are quite pleased with their success.
“People of the United States of America have been vindicated.” ~ Jacqueline Romero, Assistant U.S. Attorney
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
The government spent more than six decades vigorously pursuing these coins. They confiscated private property. They treated citizens very differently, allowing Fenton to profit from his coin while not giving the same courtesy to the Langbords. And they paid untold millions of tax dollars throughout the investigation as well as during the court case. That leaves me with one question…Do you feel vindicated?