By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek …..
The 1933 double eagle $20 gold coin is one of American Numismatics’ most notorious coins. Only one surviving specimen was ever monetized and made legal to own, yet an uncertain number of examples still exist.
When the United States made the controversial decision in 1933 to suspend the gold standard that it had based its monetary policy on since the turn of the 20th century, most double eagles dated that year were summarily melted down. It was an ignoble end for the most spectacular of all American coin designs.
That American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens would have a hand in creating that design and remaking American coinage was no easy accomplishment. The world-renowned sculptor, venerated in his time and even more so sense, had a serious distaste for the Mint’s bureaucracy and an even lesser opinion of its chief engraver. He turned down more commissions than he could possibly accept. Commissions with even better terms. And he was dying.
In 1900, at the age of 52, Saint-Gaudens had to return to the U.S. after living in Paris. He had developed a serious condition that doctors would reveal to his wife to be a form of rectal cancer. According to researcher David Tripp, the seriousness of Saint-Gaudens’ illness made him contemplate suicide. His wife, fearing his mental state, never told him he had cancer. Doctors told her that it would likely come back.
He was America’s greatest living artist and he was running out of time.
President Theodore Roosevelt knew none of this, but he was sure that Saint-Gaudens was the man that would reinvigorate American coinage and make it appear as great as the country it represented. Roosevelt was a big man and he had a major appetite for American greatness. So as he had done to so many others, in January 1905, Roosevelt simply wore down the artist and got his commitment to begin work on the president’s “Pet Crime”.
The cantankerous Cornish, New Hampshire sculptor got to work and, over the course of the next two years, the president and the artist stayed in constant contact with one another. Roosevelt was a prodigious writer. In his letters, the president poured forth his ideas for how America’s coinage should rival those of the ancient Greeks. His enthusiasm for the project and the quality of the work that Saint-Gaudens was capable of propelled the project forward. As Saint-Gaudens’ health continued to decline, assistant Henry Hering worked to keep the project on track.
On August 3, 1907, Saint-Gaudens died. Although Roosevelt had hoped that the sculptor would reenvision the entirety of American coinage, only two designs were finished and put into production, and both required adjustments before they were suitable for commercial coinage. The ultra-high relief double eagle design would ultimately require the most work.
Miscommunication between the United States Mint and Saint-Gaudens rendered his revisions unusable. Hering produced a third model with lowered relief but by the time it was ready, U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber had already taken it upon himself to adapt the design to a lower relief form that could be struck with a single blow from the Mint’s coining presses.
The lower-relief version went into production in late 1907 and saw regular production at the Philadelphia Mint and its branch mints through the teens, twenties, and early 1930s.
The coin’s high $20 denomination precluded its daily use by most Americans. At the time, a loaf of bread could be bought for 12 cents and motion pictures could be seen at theaters called “nickelodeons” because you could get a ticket to watch a double feature for a nickel. In 1930, a wealthy American could buy an electric washing machine for about $75, though the purchase of one would have probably been facilitated by paper money backed by either silver or gold coin.
The End of Gold and the Striking of a Consequential and Controversial Coin
A cascading series of global economic crises gave way to the Great Depression. Deflation and bankruptcies led to massive job losses and the displacement of millions of Americans.
President Herbert Hoover’s approach to the crisis greatly contributed to his drubbing by Democratic challenger Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 presidential election. The Republican incumbent from California garnered just 59 electoral votes in that contest, taking only parts of New England and Pennsylvania.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the fifth cousin of the former president Theodore Roosevelt, took 472 electoral votes and ran on the promise of a New Deal for Americans and a big government plan to end the country’s financial woes. It was a sea-change election for American politics.
A key economic measure employed by the Democrat called for the untethering of the U.S. dollar from gold in order to provide the Federal Reserve System a mechanism to reflate the national currency. Roosevelt and his Treasury Department acted quickly, issuing a series of executive orders.
On March 6, Roosevelt signed Proclamation 2039, which forbade payment in gold, the hoarding of, and the exportation of gold coin or bullion. With this policy in place, the United States Mint at Philadelphia continued to strike $20 gold coins, producing 100,000 pieces between March 15 and 24; 200,000 pieces between April 7 and 27; and 145,500 pieces between May 8 and 19.
Although each of these coins carried the standard $20 denomination, none of the coins of this issue had officially been monetized or authorized for release. Researcher David Tripp, in reviewing thousands of pages of government documents in preparation for his book Illegal Tender (2004), confirmed that the Mint tracked the movement of every single 1933 double eagle, sending 500 coins–the contents of two 250-coin bags, one from the March 15 delivery and the other from the April 26 delivery–to the upstairs Cashier’s Vault for assay. The remainder of the mintage (444,500 pieces) were placed in the Cashier’s Working Vault downstairs for storage. And regardless of where the coins were stored, the Mint’s cashiers were required by regulation to make a record of each transaction at the window in their official ledger.
Additionally, 20 of these 500 coins were sent to Washington for Mint assay and 446 were reserved for the 1934 Assay Commission. Mint documents reviewed by Tripp indicate that six of the 20 coins reserved for Mint assay were tested by Assayer Quirk and reported as satisfactory on March 29, 1933. By regulation, this would have been the earliest point that a 1933 double eagle could have been monetized and authorized for release.
No such authorization came, however, and on April 5, President Roosevelt slammed the door on any potential release by issuing Executive Order 6102, which forbade “the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States by individuals, partnerships, associations, and corporations.”
With the issuance of Executive Order 6102, the era of gold money in the United States was over and every gold coin issued by the United States as money of the realm was subject to confiscation unless there was a legitimate use for the metal or if the coins were deemed to be collectible.
At this time, the Mint accounted for 480 gold double eagles in the cashier’s vault and 445,500 in its Working Vault. On June 27, 445,000 coins were moved from the Working Vault to Basement Vault F and sealed in wax under the watchful eye of custodian Edward F. McKernon and the three members of the Mint’s Settlement Committee (including Mint Cashier George McCann). All four individuals signed their names on the ledger certifying the contents of the vault.
At the February 1934 meeting of the U.S. Assay Commission, the 446 coins (rounded to one-tenth of one percent of the mintage) reserved for the purpose were transferred from the Cashier’s Vault to the Commission. Nine of these coins were mutilated and melted down in the tests and the remaining 437 were placed back under lock and key in the Cashier’s Vault.
The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 sealed the fate of all of the gold coins in the possession of the Department of the Treasury. On August 4, Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross gave the order to all Mint branches to begin the process of melting down all of the gold coins on hand.
Two weeks later, Ross ordered the Philadelphia Mint to transfer two 1933 double eagles to the Smithsonian Institution to be kept in the National Numismatic Collection. At this point, the Cashier’s Vault should have contained 469 examples of the 1933 double eagle.
Between February 6 and March 18, 1937, the Mint melted down the contents of Vault F, including 445,000 of the 1933 double eagles that had been stored there undisturbed since McKernon sealed the vault in 1933. In June, the 469 double eagles kept in the Cashier’s Vault met the same fate.
Or rather, they should have.
In April 1937, readers of Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine would get their chance to dream about owning the rarest and most consequential U.S. gold coin struck in the 20th century as Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt would thrust himself into the annals of numismatic history.
The government, however, remained unaware of the situation for seven years.
But who released the coins?
Initially, all of the individuals involved with trading the coins denied knowing that the 1933 double eagles came directly from a Mint source. Various stories circulated among the involved dealers and collectors that gave the coins some space from their actual source and provided enough murkiness to insinuate that even if the coins weren’t officially released they could have been accidentally released.
After months of investigations, the United States Secret Service believed that Mint cashier George McCann was the source of the coins. McCann would have had access to the coins, was at the right place at the right time, and was already serving time for stealing from the Mint. Looking into McCann’s financial records, investigators discovered a series of large, unexplained deposits into his account in 1936 that corresponded with similarly sized payments made by Switt’s business partner and brother-in-law, Edward Silver.
McCann had access to the coins that were kept in the Cashier’s Vault and was the official responsible for shipping two coins to the Smithsonian at the order of the Mint Director.
Investigators would learn about McCann’s alleged involvement after the cashier had left the Mint’s employ in disgrace for an unrelated matter. While federal law enforcement opted not to prosecute McCann, Switt, and other collaborators citing the Statute of Limitations, the government maintained that the purloined coins were rightfully government property and subject to confiscation.
Fifty years later, that position would change only slightly when the government settled on the notion that all of the improperly released 1933 double eagles were illegal to own, with the exception of just one coin.
A Roster of Known and Rumored 1933 Double Eagles
A quick note: Piecing together a list of known or rumored 1933 double eagles is a daunting task. Much credit is due to numismatists David Tripp and David T. Alexander for their work on the subject in the early 2000s.
Tripp’s work proved to be quite valuable, as he was given access to thousands of pages of the federal government’s investigatory files. But Tripp’s narrative wove together a whodunnit and did not necessarily lock down the provenance of each known piece.
Alexander’s 2002 article in The Numismatist, which preceded Tripp’s Illegal Tender by two years, was likely the most complete accounting of each coin that had been published to that point, relying on news reports and information available within the industry.
The two sources do not always agree on the disposition of certain coins or the timeline. As to the inclusion of rumored pieces, certain details concerning who owned them, who sold them, and to whom they were sold have been necessarily left vague.
For the sake of transparency, we have no first-hand knowledge of any person that currently has ownership of a 1933 double eagle. As publishers of this piece, we welcome any feedback for the purposes of correcting errors that may remain on our list.
#1 & #2: U.S. Mint to Smithsonian Institution
The provenance of these two issues is rock solid and both coins have been publicly exhibited.
Upon receiving orders to destroy the unissued 1933 double eagles, United States Mint Cashier George McCann (who the government would come to believe embezzled a number of coins in 1936 on behalf of Israel Switt) sent two examples to the Smithsonian Institution for preservation in the National Numismatic Collection. As recently as 2017, both coins were on public display at the National Museum of American History.
The finer of the two examples was mounted for display in the National Numismatic Collection’s temporary exhibit, while the second piece was exhibited in the museum’s Value of Money exhibit, taking its place among such legendary numismatic luminaries as three 1804 dollars (one of each class), the unique 1849 double eagle, the 1877 Half Union $50 gold pattern, and the Brasher doubloon.
The coin illustrated here is the latter of the two coins.
#3: The Farouk Coin
The Farouk coin was sold by B. Max Mehl to an Egyptian official on behalf of King Farouk on February 23, 1944. It was not the first 1933 double eagle sold publicly, but it was the only example sanctioned for export by the United States.
Farouk’s representative purchased the coin from Mehl on the same day that the Fort Worth, Texas mail-order dealer had purchased the coin from Philadelphia coin dealer Ira S. Reed. Reed played an active role in the sale of a number of 1933 double eagles, purchasing at least a few directly from Israel Switt, the likely source of every 1933 double eagle that escaped the Mint.
Mehl completed both the sale with Reed and the sale with Farouk in the open, without fear of government confiscation or knowledge that the coin would soon be considered an illicit item. The King’s agent paid $1,575 USD – a high-end but not record price for the piece.
On February 25, 1944, the Egyptian diplomat arrived at the Treasury Department to seek an export license for the coin. The Treasury, after being informed by the diplomat that the coin was a rare collectible, sought guidance from National Numismatic Collection curator Theodore Belote. Belote informed the Treasury that the U.S. Mint had sent the Smithsonian two examples for the collection but he was personally unaware that the coin was never officially issued.
On February 27, 1944, satisfied with the results of their investigation, the Treasury Department issued Export License TGL-11-170, authorized by Treasury Secretary Henry C. Morgenthau, Jr. The coin was then shipped to Egypt where it took its place in Farouk’s massive collection.
The issuance of the export license and the subsequent departure of the coin from United States territory did not end the federal government’s inquiry into the coin, however. Days after it had left the country, Acting Mint Director Leland Howard conferred with Secret Service Chief Frank Wilson on the matter and relayed to him the fact that 1933 double eagles had never been officially released into circulation and should not have been cleared for export as they were likely stolen government property.
The State Department then made inquiries about the return of the coin, even asking the military junta that had deposed Farouk in 1952 and were selling off the royal collection, for the double eagle back. They were rebuffed.
Egyptian authorities consigned the Farouk coin collection to Sotheby’s and the historic sale was carried out in February 1954. Numismatist Fred Baldwin prepared the catalog.
The 1933 double eagle was listed en bloc as part of a 17-piece lot of Saint-Gaudens double eagles dated 1924-1933 but was withdrawn before the sale. Numismatist John Jay Pittman reportedly informed the auction house of the illicit nature of the coin, which led to its withdrawal.
Despite the removal of the ’33, the lot still carried some juice. The famous collecting duo of Raymond Henry Norweb and his wife Emery May Norweb posted the winning bid for the revised 16-piece lot, paying £2,800 ($8,467) for the run, or $81,462 in 2020 dollars. The same lot, if offered today, would sell for millions of dollars.
From 1954 onwards, the whereabouts of the Farouk coin were unknown until it turned up in London in 1995.
A jeweler from Cairo had been tasked, it was said, by the family of a colonel close to General Gamal Abdel Nasser, second President of Egypt after the overthrow of Farouk, with the responsibility of selling parts of the estate. The jeweler from Cairo sought the help of André de Clermont, one of the directors of Spink’s London. Since 1993, de Clermont had been working with Fenton and Spink to sell a number of rare American coins. It would turn out that these were unsold lots from the Sotheby’s 1954 sale. André de Clermont and London coin dealer Steve Fenton formed a profitable partnership and worked to dispose of the coins at good prices. Fenton focused on the American issues; Clermont, the world coins.
As the Farouk coins kept trickling in, Clermont asked the jeweler if he had seen a 1933 double eagle among the coins being disposed of by the family. The jeweler said he hadn’t, but that if he did, then he would try to acquire it. Late in the summer of 1995, the rarest and most controversial of all U.S. gold coins arrived. The jeweler wanted $325,000 for the coin; he had paid $210,000.
Over the course of the next several months, Fenton worked on a number of angles looking for a way to sell the 1933 double eagle. He was sure that it was the Farouk coin, given the origin of the rest of the material he and Clermont had been dealing in from the Egyptian, but he had little in the way of documentation to establish provenance.
Fenton sought the help of a handful of American dealers he knew and ultimately earned the cooperation of St. Louis dealer Jay Parrino. Fenton wanted $750,000 for the title of the coin and Parrino sought $1.5 million from a prospective buyer so that he could retain a sizable piece for himself. A wealthy Texan collector named Groendyke was known to be in the market for rare Saint-Gaudens double eagles. He was represented by a retired truck driver and small-time dealer named Jack Moore.
Moore had an ax to grind with Parrino and turned to a friend who had worked as an FBI agent. His agent friend put Moore in contact with a special agent at the United States Secret Service. From this point on, Moore worked with law enforcement to set up a sting wherein they would catch Fenton and Parrino in the act of selling a stolen coin, apparently unaware of the coin’s connection to Farouk.
Moore told Parrino that his customer was willing to pay $750,000 on the condition that the coin could be reviewed in person before payment and that the transaction takes place in the United States. After weeks of haggling, Parrino pushed the number up to $1.5 million. The government was never going to pay, so what difference did it make? Moore accepted the number, and then Parrino and Fenton agreed to Moore’s terms and set up a meeting for the sale of the coin in a New York hotel room on February 8, 1996.
For Moore, getting even with Parrino was only part of the picture. He also wanted to get paid. The government’s $5,000 reward for his cooperation was insufficient. So, two months before he executed the sting operation in New York, Moore negotiated the notional sale to Parrino of one of Groendyke’s 1907 High Relief double eagles back to Moore for $150,000, far above market price for the coin. To get Parrino to agree, he raised the price his client would be willing to pay for the 1933 double eagle by the same amount. Parrino saw the move as a way for Moore to frontload his commission. Moore insisted that Parrino bring the coin to New York and give it back to Moore when the sale of the 1933 was concluded.
It’s likely that Groendyke had no idea what Moore was up to regarding his coin or the plot to snare Parrino. A few years later, Groendyke would sue Moore for selling his coins without his knowledge and keeping all of the proceeds.
Moore met with Fenton and Parrino as scheduled. The three men made small talk. Moore inspected the coin, asked about the 1907 double eagle that Parrino gave back. Moore’s “expert” examined the coin, and, once he was satisfied that the 1933 double eagle was real, Moore authorized his coterie to wire the $1.65 million. Within moments, U.S. Secret Service agents stormed in with guns drawn and made the arrest.
Fenton and Parrino were charged, but their cases were dismissed. The government instead turned its attention to retaining the coin that it believed was stolen property. Fenton and Parrino, through their legal counsel, set out to prove the coin was the one that the Treasury granted an export license to on behalf of King Farouk.
After a five-year court case, the Treasury Department was satisfied that the coin in question was the Farouk coin and allowed its sale at public auction under very unusual terms.
The coin was consigned by the United States Mint to Sotheby’s and Stack’s for sale at a public auction held on July 30, 2002. The coin was sold in its raw form, sans encapsulation, and was described as “Gem Brilliant Uncirculated”.
It brought a then-record sum of $7,590,020. The sale of the coin took less than nine minutes and was witnessed by more than 500 spectators. The proceeds of the sale were split 50/50, with half going to Fenton and the other half going to the U.S. Mint’s Public Enterprise Fund. Since the sale, the owner of the coin and its whereabouts are not publicly known.
Incidentally, the extra $20 in the final bid was the amount of money the winning bidder had to pay the government in order to monetize the coin. Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore signed a Certificate of Monetization, which turned the object into a piece of legal tender. This was the first time such a process was ever undertaken.
#4: The Colonel James W. Flanagan Coin
The Flanagan coin is the example that ignited the firestorm surrounding the unauthorized (and unknown to the government) release of the 1933 double eagle.
The coin was one of many highlights from the Stack’s March 23-25, 1944 sale of the Colonel James W. Flanagan Collection of Gold Coins. The coin was scheduled to be the final lot called on the March 25 session.
Stack’s publicity for the sale of the Flanagan 1933 double eagle piqued the interest of New York Herald Tribune coin and stamp columnist Ernest A. Kehr. He sprang into action, seeking clarity from the United States Treasury Department concerning Stack’s claims about the coin’s purported rarity.
This query compelled officials at the Treasury and the Secret Service to initiate an internal review of the official disposition of all 1933 double eagles struck. The preliminary findings of their investigation, conducted in the days leading up to the sale, led to the government’s determination that no coins from the issue were ever authorized for release.
In the catalog, Stack’s described the auction as the first auction appearance of the “excessively rare 1933 double eagle.”
The coin’s provenance can be traced back to July 1937, when Israel Switt sold the coin to Philadelphia dealer James Macallister. It was not the first 1933 double eagle that the two had traded to each other; we’ll talk more about Macallister’s dealings with Switt and his involvement in the sale of other 1933 double eagles later.
Macallister paid $550 for the coin ($50 more than he had paid Switt for earlier examples) and sold the coin to B. Max Mehl on July 15 of that year. The Flanagan coin was the first of two coins that Macallister would sell to Mehl. Mehl had the coin in his inventory for much of the rest of the year, selling it to Flanagan on November 26, 1937, for $1,250.
When Macallister sold the coin to Mehl and Mehl sold the coin to Flanagan, there is no evidence that any of the three men knew of the illicit nature of the coins. They were aware of its rarity and Macallister was aware that some number could be acquired from Switt for a price. The dissemination of this modern rarity among the upper echelons of the dealers’ numismatic clientele was business as usual.
In their 1944 auction listing, Stack’s claimed that they were aware that eight to 10 pieces had sold privately. This was the first example that brothers Morton and Joseph had handled and it would be the first of the 1933 double eagles seized by the federal government.
Federal agents arrived at Stack’s offices on March 24, 1944, wanting to review the Flanagan coin and find out where it came from. They found Morton and Joseph to be very cooperative and at the conclusion of their meeting, Stack’s withdrew the coin from the sale and surrendered it to U.S. Secret Service Special Agents Harry Strang and James Haley.
Based on information gathered from the Stack brothers about the possible whereabouts of other coins, Agents Strang and Haley left the Stack’s offices and made their way across town to a jewelry shop operated by collector Max Berenstein.
The Flanagan coin was melted down in August 1956.
#5: The Max Berenstein Specimen
After leaving Stack’s on March 24, 1944, Secret Service Special Agents Harry Strang and James Haley traveled to Max Berenstein’s jewelry shop located at 435 Madison Ave.
Morton and Joseph Stack had just turned over the star of their March 24, 1944 auction and provided the agents information about the whereabouts of other 1933 double eagles. Max Berenstein had one, they said.
Berenstein confirmed that this was true and told authorities that he bought the coin from James G. Macallister. Macallister, in a later interview with the Secret Service, admitted to purchasing five 1933 double eagles from Switt in early 1937. He said that he purchased the first one on February 15, 1937, for $500–a high price for a modern coin, but at the time, Macallister was well aware that the 1932 double eagle, released in very small quantities the year before, was a rarity that Switt had been able to acquire in small numbers and that this was the first 1933 double eagle that he had ever seen.
The coin Macallister bought on February 15 would become the Berenstein coin as the Philadelphia dealer offered the New York jeweler the first 1933 double eagle he had ever seen for the whopping sum of $1,600. The sale was concluded on February 17, 1937.
After selling the coin, Macallister returned to Switt and bought a second 1933 double eagle for $500 on February 21. In total, Macallister admitted to buying five examples from Switt before stopping due to his inference that Switt had more coins on hand than he had originally allowed Macallister to believe.
According to research in the investigation files carried about by David Tripp, Berenstein revealed during his interview with the Secret Service agents that the 1933 double eagle in his possession was not the only example that he had handled.
He had kept one, he said, and had bought another from a New York collector named Taylor, which Berenstein later sold to R. H. Smith of Chicago. R. H. Smith sold coins through his firm Smith & Son and listed the piece in February 1941 ad in The Numismatist. According to Berenstein, Smith ultimately sold the coin to Philadelphia dealer Ira Reed.
Federal agents thanked Berenstein for his continued cooperation and seized the coin.
The next day, Strang and Haley again met with Berenstein, who told them that 1933 double eagle owners F.C.C. Boyd, Ira Reed, and J.F. “Jake” Bell would likely all be in attendance at the Stack’s auction. He also told them that New York dealer Abe Kosoff had sold another example to collector T. James Clarke of Jamestown, New York.
The agents left Berenstein’s offices and headed back to Stack’s.
The Berenstein coin was also melted down in August 1956.
#6: The F.C.C. Boyd Specimen
New York publisher F.C.C. Boyd bought his 1933 double eagle from James Macallister. This is the third of five 1933 double eagles on our list that Macallister admitted to agents that he had handled but it is the second one chronologically.
After completing a highly profitable sale with Berenstein days before, Macallister purchased a second 1933 double eagle for Switt, paying the Philadelphia jeweler $500 for the second coin. Boyd was one of Macallister’s better customers and drove a harder bargain than Berenstein did. The two men settled on $1,100 for the coin and completed the sale in late February.
Boyd was a wealthy businessman with an enormous appetite for coins. He was a pillar of the numismatic community and loved sharing pieces from his collection with his friends in the hobby. He was so enthusiastic about his purchase of a rare 1933 double eagle that he proudly displayed it at the December 1937 meeting of the New York Numismatic Club and then again at the 1938 American Numismatic Association Convention, held in August 1938 in Columbus, Ohio. Boyd also showed the coin off at the 1939 ANA Convention, which was held in his hometown of New York City.
Berenstein had tipped off Secret Service investigators Strang and Haley that Boyd owned the coin and the agents first confronted Boyd about it on March 25, 1944, at the third session of Stack’s Flanagan sale. Boyd was in attendance and had bid on a number of coins.
After hearing the agent’s version of events, Boyd was not convinced that the coin he owned was stolen property. He was not a dishonest businessman and did not consider that a reputable dealer like James Macallister would have offered him stolen goods. Boyd, therefore, refused to surrender his coin without proof. In Tripp’s book, Boyd is said to have told investigators that he was told the source of the coins was the son of the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. He would not be the only collector to have heard this story but it was not true.
The president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia at the time of the coin’s supposed release was George W. Norris. Norris, a San Francisco transplant, headed the bank from 1920 to 1936. Neither he nor his “son” would have had access to 1933 double eagles in any quantity as they were never released to the bank by the Mint, and all examples were officially kept under lock and key in the Mint’s Cashier’s Vault and Cashier’s Working Vault.
Although Boyd did not hand over his coin to the U.S. Secret Service immediately after his initial Secret Service interview, he was convinced a year later that the story behind the sourcing of his example was false and so he turned over his piece to the government in the summer of 1945.
The Boyd specimen was melted down in August 1956.
#7: The Walter Hammel – J.F. “James” Bell Specimen
J.F. “James” Bell was one of the three 1933 double eagle owners fingered by Max Berenstein during his interview with U.S. Secret Service Agents on March 24, 1944. Bell, like Boyd and Reed, were at Stack’s on March 25 to take in the third session of the Colonel Flanagan sale when approached by agents.
Bell, whose real name was Jake Shapiro, was a Chicago area collector and sometimes coin dealer who had built an impressive collection of U.S. coins, including a number of rarities beyond the notorious 1933 double eagle. He was also a regular Stack’s customer who would hire the firm to sell a portion of his holdings in 1944, and then another tranche in 1948 under Stack’s Numismatic Gallery imprint.
In his 2002 Numismatist article, “Selling America’s Rarest Gold Coin”, David T. Alexander writes that Bell told investigators that he had purchased his coin from Ira Reed two days earlier. Reed’s source for the coin, as relayed in this interview, was a collector named Walter Hammel. The Hammell coin, federal agents would learn later during an interview with coin dealer James Macallister, was likely brought into the numismatic market by Switt through New York coin dealer Abe Kosoff.
Kosoff confirmed Macallister’s account and put forth additional information during his April 24, 1944 interview with Secret Service Special Agent Mitch Lipson. According to what Kosoff told the investigator, Kosoff had only handled one 1933 double eagle–a coin that he purchased from Israel Switt in 1937. Kosoff claimed that he paid Switt $600 for the coin, but that it wasn’t a straight cash transaction.
Hammel grew tired of having the coin and wanted Kosoff to buy it back for $1,000. According to Kosoff, the two didn’t reach an agreement, so Hammel sold the coin to Reed.
Six years later, Reed sold the Hammel coin to Jake Bell – or so it is claimed. If the Hammel specimen was the coin that Bell turned over to the Secret Service, and Kosoff, Reed, and Bell’s testimony regarding this specimen was truthful and accurate, then Reed would have had to have held onto a rare and expensive 1933 double eagle at the height of its demand in the midst of the Great Depression.
Also interesting is the fact that the Hammel-Bell coin surrendered to the Secret Service wasn’t the only one Bell had owned or handled. The Secret Service was given this morsel of information by Ira Reed, with later corroboration coming from its mention on a list of coins from a collection that Bell planned to sell to B. Max Mehl in 1943.
Mehl and Bell had consummated the deal, but the 1933 double eagle listed in Mehl’s notes was stricken through with a pencil, indicating, according to Mehl, that the coin was not included in the delivery.
In the presence of Secret Service Agent Ralph Oates, with whom he cooperated, Mehl reached Bell by phone on April 4, 1944, to inquire about the whereabouts of the omitted and now apparently illicit gold coin.
Bell, having already been interviewed two weeks prior, played coy about the existence or whereabouts of the coin described on Mehl’s document. We’ll list this coin at the end of this run-down as a “rumored” coin. “Rumored” because it is possible that this was the same coin that he had bought from Reed “two days earlier” but the timeline that Bell gave investigators was purposefully misleading.
The eventual purchaser of the second Bell coin will be discussed later.
The first Bell coin was melted down in August 1956.
#8: The T. James Clarke Specimen
T. James Clarke was the 20th President of the American Numismatic Association, serving in that role from 1935 to 1937. Although the embezzlement and sale of the 1933 double eagles had likely taken place near the end of his term, Clarke did not come into possession of his coin until after he was out of office.
As a collector, Clarke had a penchant for coins of quality and deep enough pockets to acquire a deep selection of rarities. He focused much of his collecting on Massachusetts colonials, early copper, and U.S. gold and silver coins.
Clarke, like Boyd and Bell, was one of three 1933 double eagle owners that United States Secret Service Agents Harry Strang and James Haley were tipped off about during their March 24, 1944 interview with New York jeweler Max Berenstein.
Berenstein assumed Clarke would be at the Stack’s March 25, 1944 sale, but apparently, this wasn’t the case as investigators did not interview him until April. Ira Reed, who was in attendance, corroborated Berenstein’s assertion that Clarke owned a 1933 double eagle, telling agents that he had sold one to Clarke in 1941 in an over-the-counter transaction.
When agents interviewed Clarke, the 60-year-old collector shared his receipt. He had paid Reed the astonishingly low price of $550.
Clarke wasn’t immediately asked to hand over his 1933 double eagle but was later instructed to do so. He then sued for the return of the coin but lost his case.
The Clarke example was melted down in August 1956.
#9: The Charles Williams Specimen
Charles Williams, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was an avid coin collector of some merit and the owner of the Western and Southern Insurance Company. Federal agents learned that he owned a 1933 double eagle after interviewing Philadelphia coin dealer James Macallister on March 28, 1944.
According to Macallister, Abe Kosoff bought the coin from Switt and sold it to Williams. This turned out not to be the case, although Williams did buy one.
Williams had first sought to buy a 1933 double eagle through coin dealer Joseph Barnet. Barnet had previously marketed a number of late-date Saint-Gaudens gold coins, all sourced from Switt, in The Numismatist, then the publication of record for the coin collecting hobby.
Tripp says that Barnet inquired about the coin, getting in touch with Macallister, but Barnet thought the price of $800 was unjustifiably high. He advised Williams not to buy the coin as the price was likely to come down as more examples came to light.
So Williams went elsewhere to get his fix.
B. Max Mehl’s records indicate that he was the source of the Williams coin. Macallister had purchased the example from Switt for $550 on December 6, 1937. Williams told Secret Service Special Agent Ralph W. Robuck in an April 6, 1944 interview, that he had paid Mehl $1,000 for his coin.
Williams surrendered it to the Secret Service in the summer of 1945, and, like many others in this list, the coin was melted down in August 1956.
#10: The James A. Stack Specimen
New York collector James A. Stack (no relation to the Stack family of Stack’s) purchased a 1933 double eagle from Ira Reed. Reed probably purchased the coin directly from Switt. We have not pinpointed the exact date of the Switt or Stack transactions, but presume that they occurred after 1937.
James A. Stack’s first interview with the U.S. Secret Service occurred on April 3, 1944, when Special Agent Edward Connors showed up at his Broadway office in New York. Stack, clearly understanding the spate of seizures that had just taken place, tried to play coy about his involvement in the matter, but ultimately relented and surrendered the coin “under protest and under legal duress” on June 20, 1945.
Weighing his legal options and taking in the lay of the land, Stack finally decided to file suit for the return of his coin in New York State Court on March 16, 1950. He initially named Agent Strang as a defendant but amended his complaint to name the United States Government after his filing was dismissed. Stack died in 1951. The battle of the forms between the Stack estate and the federal government would continue for half a decade before the matter was ultimately dismissed. The government took final control of the coin in 1956.
It was melted down in August of that year.
#11: The Louis Eliasberg, Sr. Specimen
Ira Reed acquired the specimen he sold to Baltimore banker Louis Eliasberg, Sr. directly from Israel Switt and sold it for $1,000 on April 15, 1944, already fully aware of the confiscations and ongoing criminal investigation.
Although the matter was the subject of much discussion in numismatic circles in New York, it’s possible that word had not yet made its way down to Baltimore. Which is a bit hard to believe, considering that Eliasberg was a regular customer of Stack’s and secured the historic Clapp Collection from them.
Eliasberg voluntarily surrendered his double eagle in 1952. The coin showed up with a letter, unannounced, made out to the Superintendent of the United States Mint. Hitherto, the United States Secret Service was unaware of the whereabouts of the coin and Eliasberg was never on their radar.
He asked that the coin be returned if it were at all possible. His request was met with bureaucratic silence.
The Eliasberg specimen was melted down in August 1956.
#12: The L.G. Barnard Specimen
As discussed in entry #7, J.F. “James” Bell, alias of Chicago collector-dealer Jake Shapiro, had handled more than one 1933 double eagle. In the course of the investigation, he would eventually disclose that he purchased a second 1933 double eagle from Ira Reed for an undisclosed sum and sold it in the spring of 1943, charging Memphis, Tennessee dealer F.B. Trotter, Jr. $900 for the coin because he needed the funds. Trotter sold the coin to local collector L.G. Barnard.
Barnard had no intention to surrender his coin and sought to retain it through a filing in federal court. On July 22, 1947, the matter was settled in favor of the government. Barnard surrendered and the coin was handed over to the Secret Service by the Clerk of the Memphis District Court.
The Barnard coin was melted down in August 1956.
#13 – #22: The Langbord-Switt Hoard
In August 2004, attorney Barry Berke, reached out to the United States Mint Office of Legal Counsel to inform them that his new clients had in their possession 10 double eagles from 1933 and that he would like to discuss the matter.
Berke was retained by Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt’s heirs Joan Langbord (daughter) and Roy Langbord (grandson) to pursue their claim of ownership on the coins. Seeing that Berke had successfully negotiated a settlement with the government on behalf of his client Stephen Fenton, he was as good a choice as any to shepherd the case through the courts.
After a lengthy conversation with Mint attorneys wherein the two parties left with different understandings of what was conveyed, Berke and his clients agreed to hand over the 10 1933 double eagles to the Mint. According to Berke, the family thought they were doing so on a provisional basis for authentication and that the coins would be returned pending a legal challenge. For its part, the Mint believed the family had agreed to surrender the coins to them, compelled by law to return the government’s stolen property.
On September 21, 2004, Berke met with Mint representatives at the family’s bank box in Philadelphia. Inside were the 10 1933 double eagles individually stored in envelopes that look like they could have come from the Mint. The family’s attorney handed the coins over to the Mint representatives. The coins were then authenticated, and a die diagnostic review also revealed that the 10 coins were from the same dies as the coin sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 and the two examples housed at the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. This was sufficient proof that the coins were sourced from the same cache of unreleased double eagles kept in the Cashier’s Vault and smuggled out of the Mint in 1937.
The Mint informed Berke that the coins were authentic but stolen property and would not be returned.
The family decided to challenge the seizure of the coins in court. But even these matters were complicated by extraneous factors.
In 2009, the court surprised Mint legal counsel by shifting the burden of proof from the family to the Mint. The legal strategies of both parties developed accordingly and in July 2011, the matter was litigated in a 10-day-long jury trial in Philadelphia. Illegal Tender author David Tripp served as a key witness and the Mint’s legal team presented a trove of historical documents, all meticulously cataloged and ordered by Tripp during the year-long sabbatical he took in 2002 from his position at Sotheby’s to write his book.
The jury sided with the government after two hours of deliberation.
Verdict in hand, the judge ruled that the 10 disputed 1933 double eagles had been stolen from the U.S. Mint and therefore have always been the property of the United States. His order was formalized on August 29, 2012.
Not satisfied with the outcome, the family appealed the case on procedural grounds, first arguing against the government’s use of historical documents at trial and then on matters relating to forfeiture law.
The family appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals and in 2015, it briefly looked like the family would prevail. Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote that the government was obligated to bring a judicial civil forfeiture proceeding or return the property. It hadn’t done so and therefore must return the double eagles. This position was overturned a year later when the same court overturned Rendell’s ruling en banc, taking the position that the coins were stolen property and that the Mint, in keeping the coins, was simply recovering its own property. The family then attempted to take the case to the United States Supreme Court, but the high court declined to hear the case.
Luckily for the hobby–and unlike the coins seized by the Secret Service in the 1940s and ’50s–the Mint’s position on the 10 1933 double eagles recovered from the Langbord-Switt family is that they are “heritage assets” and would be cared for as such.
#23: Example Surrendered in 2017 (Rumored to be the 1980 Kodak-Naftzger-Browning Specimen)
One of the major revelations of U.S. Mint Senior counsel Greg Weinman’s 2018 presentation in front of the gathered members of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) was that the Mint believed that George McCann had smuggled out not the 20 coins that had now been accounted for but rather the 25 that coin dealer James Macallister claimed in his sworn testimony to the Secret Service that Switt had enumerated to him. Weinman said Kosoff made the claim in his presentation, but the records indicate that it was actually Macallister.
Assuming that Kosoff’s recollection of the conversation was accurately described and that Switt was being forthright about the actual number of coins that he had at one time in his possession, then the number of coins that might be squirreled away in secret collections equaled as many as five.
Of course, rumors always abound.
The hobby of numismatics rivals the sport of fishing for the number of fish tales that circulate about rare coins hidden away in some collection here or there. Usually, the construction of such stories begins with a secretive wealthy collector who showed so-and-so one once. Out in the open, anyone trying to find a buyer for a 1933 double eagle would have found the coin to be radioactive.
Certification companies wouldn’t authenticate the coin, major auction houses wouldn’t market the coin, and few dealers would risk their livelihoods, reputation, and freedom for a chance at the same kind of commission they would get off of the sale of a legitimate rarity.
Still, stories exist. Walter Breen, in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, claimed that one 1933 double eagle was thrown into the sea in the 1950s by a collector fearing it would be seized. That the laws of physics allow someone to throw a small golden object into a large body of water is one thing; common sense suggests that this unsourced rumor may not be based in reality.
Other rumors carried real weight.
As David Tripp put the finishing touches on Illegal Tender, an anonymous individual sent him full-color images of a 1933 double eagle filmed in 1980 using Kodak paper. The coin is illustrated in his book in a section Tripp devotes to various rumors he had collected over the years.
The 1933 double eagle depicted in the Kodak print was not a rumor. It was a real coin and it had markings not found on the two Smithsonian examples or the Farouk coin sold in 2001.
In 2015, Silver Spring, Maryland coin dealer Julian Leidman, a beloved and respected old-timer on the national numismatic circuit, revealed this curious tidbit: in 1975, he accompanied coin dealers Mike Brownlee and Stan Kesselman on an adventure, wherein the three men purchased a collection of Liberty Head and Saint-Gaudens double eagles from a wealthy California coin collector named Ted Naftzger. Ted was a big deal in early copper circles and had impeccable taste in coins. He also, it turned out, purchased a number of copper pieces that Dr. William Sheldon had swapped out of the collection of the American Numismatic Society.
(Naftzger doggedly proclaimed his innocence in that matter. A court ruled otherwise.)
According to Liedman, among Naftzger’s gold coin holdings was a 1933 double eagle. Liedman claimed that Brownlee negotiated the sale of the coins, including the ’33, to Texas oilman Jeff Browning. Tripp eludes to a similar story in Illegal Tender but does not name names. After Browning’s death, the majority of his numismatic holdings went to public auction. The 1933, Liedman claims, was spirited away quietly and into the collection of a close friend.
In 2018, the Mint announced that an anonymous collector had voluntarily surrendered a 1933 double eagle to the United States Secret Service. The diagnostics of the coin matched the coin imaged on the Kodak film. Whether this was the same coin alleged by Liedman to have the Naftzger-Browning pedigree we cannot say. But it certainly seems plausible, unlike some of those other fish tales.
The coin has joined the Langbord-Switt 10 and is being treated by the government as a Heritage asset.
#24 through #27: Unknown
As for the possible whereabouts of the remaining 1933 double eagles, no one knows for sure. The Mint’s counsel believes they know where one is, speculate strongly about the whereabouts of another, and theorize about the location of a third. As far as is known, the Mint has no plans to knock down anyone’s doors anytime soon.
A Hypothetical: The Value of the 1933 Double Eagle Had the Langbord-Switt Case Turned Out Differently
The only legal-to-own 1933 double eagle has been locked up in a collection since 2002. In the years since, the excitement surrounding the sale of the coin has diminished as its whereabouts are known by few within the industry and the coin has not been publicly exhibited, to our knowledge, since the sale.
The United States Mint has allowed for the public display of the double eagle that the Treasury Department seized in 2017, but permitting the numismatic community to review and enjoy a coin that can be acquired for a private collection is a different experience than seeing one that is permanently impounded.
Feelings in the numismatic community regarding the revelation that the Switt family had 10 examples in their possession ran the gamut. Some, no doubt, may have felt a tinge of jealousy.
Some wondered about the impact the dispersal of 10 coins might have on the Farouk coin.
Another question surrounded the legal implications the government might face, should the courts allow the sale of the Langbord-Switt 10, given that the 2002 sale occurred with the stipulation that Farouk coin would be the only legal example of the issue. What, then, would happen to the other coins seized? Would the heirs have a rightful claim for financial compensation for coins they were forced to surrender?
A question that could be asked is why is the government bothering to impound these coins so long after the fact? Why go after the 1933 double eagle and not the 1913 nickel, 19th-century pattern coins, or myriad unauthorized restrikes? For their part, even the courts found this issue difficult to navigate and for a time there seemed to be a very real possibility that the 1933 double eagle would go from an R-8 to an R-7 Low based on the Sheldon Rarity Scale.
We believe that, had the coins come to market, they would have breathed new life into the series. Conceivably, a 1933 double eagle could come to market once every couple of years. At least one of the Langbord-Switt coins, based on the opinions of experts we’ve talked to, would have graded higher than the Farouk coin, and the newfound availability and story behind the infamous 1933 double eagle would make the coin an essential 20th-century trophy for the affluent collector.
The finest 1933 double eagle, in such a hypothetical, might be a $4.5 to $5 million dollar coin, but each and every one of them would likely sell for $2 million or more. Think of it as a version of the 1927-D double eagle but with a notorious backstory.
Alas, this scenario will never come to pass. And so the numismatic community will have to wait and see if or when the Farouk coin ever comes back to the market. In the 19 years since its record-breaking sale, the Cardinal 1794 Flowing Hair dollar and the 1787 Brasher Doubloon have sold for more. The Pogue 1822 $5 gold coin conceivably could and the Childs Class I 1804 dollar would have had the Pogue family not set an unreachable reserve.
How would the Farouk 1933 double eagle perform in today’s market? Probably very well, but we’d like the issue even more if there were more coins to play with.
The obverse features a full-length image of Liberty, facing forward with an olive branch in her extended left hand and a raised torch in her extended right. Draped in a long, flowing classical gown, her hair is swept to the left. Some describe her as striding forward, but she appears instead to be in a pose, the foot of her left leg resting on a large rock – in front of which are oak leaves. To Liberty’s right at the bottom of the coin, the sun is visible behind a depiction of the U.S. Capitol building. Rays from the sun extend upward from behind the Capitol and Liberty to about the level of Liberty’s waist. At the top of the coin is the word LIBERTY, the torch separating the I and the B. Forty-eight tiny six-pointed stars are arrayed just inside the flat rim, forming a circle broken only at the bottom.
The date in ‘Arabic’ numerals is near the bottom on the right; a monogram of the designer’s initials ASG is below the date.
The crest of the sun appears again on the reverse, at the bottom with rays extending upward nearly to the top of coin behind a majestic left-facing eagle, wings uplifted in flight. In a clockwise arc immediately above the sun is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST, the words separated by centered triangular dots. At the top of the coin is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA in a concentric arc next to the flat rim, with TWENTY DOLLARS just below in another clockwise arc. The words of both phrases are separated by centered triangular dots, and the text is also in front of the sun’s rays.
The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM, in raised letters that alternate with 13 raised stars, is on the edge of the coin.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was a European-educated American sculptor, notable for numerous public monuments and other works in the Beaux-Arts style. Working with President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, he is responsible for some of the most beautiful numismatic designs in American history, such as the gold Indian Head $10 eagle and the gold $20 double eagle.
|Year Of Issue:
|1933 (never released into circulation)
|20 Dollars (USD)
* * *
Alexander, David T. “Selling America’s Rarest Coin: The 1933 Double Eagle”, The Numismatist. July 2002.
Gilkes, Paul. “More 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagles on Mint Radar”, Coin World. June 2019.
Guth, Ron. ““Behind the Scenes of the James A. Stack 1933 Double Eagle Gold Coin“, CoinWeek. April 2019.
Tripp, David. Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagles. Free Press. 2004.
Walker, Hubert. ““Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Langbord-Switt 1933 Double Eagle Case“, CoinWeek. April 18, 2017.