By Ron Guth …..
James A. Stack is well-known among collectors of high-quality U.S. coins because of the disposition of his collection in several auctions in the late 1980s and the early ’90s. Had his collection been sold in a single sale, it would have ranked as one of the greatest of the 20th century. There is a reason that the collection was split up over several sales, but that is another story. In this installment, the focus is on one of his best coins that never appeared at auction – his 1933 $20 double eagle.
Much of the story of James A. Stack’s 1933 $20 has been told in David Tripp’s Illegal Tender (2013). There, Tripp related that a fellow collector, F.C.C. Boyd, named Stack as an owner of a 1933 $20 when he was interrogated by the United States Secret Service in 1944. Several days after the Boyd interview, the Secret Service went to Stack’s office in New York (no relation to the Stack’s coin firm in the same city). Stack was reluctant to divulge from where he had purchased his 1933 $20. However, when presented with evidence that he had purchased the coin from Philadelphia coin dealer Ira Reed, Stack confirmed the information as being correct. Stack held on to his coin for over a year, but on June 20, 1945, he turned it over to the Secret Service “under protest and under legal duress” (per Tripp).
Stack would continue his fight for the return of his 1933 $20 until his death in 1951.
New details have emerged about the behind-the-scenes wrangling in the Stack v. Strang case. In a letter obtained from a descendant of Stack dated September 7, 1950, Stack discusses strategy concerning how the coin was originally obtained. The letter reads as follows:
- Based upon information given to us over the telephone by Mr. [Ira] Reed, our Mr. Gallagher went to Philadelphia yesterday to see the man from whom Mr. Reed presumably purchased the coin which was sold to you. Mr. Reed in his talk over the telephone was evasive and while we could gather from what he said that the coin was purchased from Mr. I[srael] Switt of 130 South 8th Street, Philadelphia, nonetheless, he said he was not certain and that he might have purchased it elsewhere as he had a number of these coins and they were not earmarked in any way.
To provide context, Ira Reed was the person who sold Stack his 1933 $20; Mr. Gallagher was a representative of Stack’s legal team; and Israel Switt was the person who obtained a number of 1933 Double Eagles from the Mint.
- As the writer told you over the telephone, Mr. Reed denied that he had obtained the coin from a bank or that he knew anything about the coin being obtained from a bank, and he said he never told you any such thing and he did not know from where you could have obtained the idea that this coin came from a bank. He says he does not know how the person from whom he purchased the coin obtained it, other than he maintains that it was lawfully and legally issued. Naturally, he would make that last statement. He also said he would make an affidavit but that we could see him at Willow Grove, where he now lives, in about ten days. At present, he is in Laconia, New Hampshire, R.F.D. No. 4.
These two paragraphs relate to what Stack told the Secret Service in his 1944 interview. According to Tripp, “Stack said he had ‘purchased it from a reputable dealer in rare coins’ who had told him ‘that a number of these coins had been shipped to a small country bank apparently in error.’” Either Reed was lying when he sold Stack’s his coin, Stack had been speculating in his interview with the Secret Service, or, most likely, he had misconstrued from hence the coins had come.
- Mr. Gallagher went to see Mr. Switt in Philadelphia and while he did not see Mr. Switt, who was ill at a hospital, he saw his associate, who says he knows about Mr. Switt’s business and also knows Mr. Reed. He also was evasive but Mr. Gallagher gathered from his talk with him that one of the gold coins had been sold by the Switt concern to Mr. Reed. How the coin had reached Mr. Switt’s hands, this man did not know. He says that they are constantly buying coins and would naturally make no record with respect to this particular coin but that it was simply purchased. From Mr. Gallagher’s talk in Philadelphia, he is firmly convinced that we can get no information there of the slightest value. Switt’s concern professed to be entirely ignorant of the coin having been picked up from a bank.
By 1950, both Reed and Switt were well aware of the Secret Service’s hunt for any 1933 Double Eagles and they were being very circumspect with their responses to any inquiries, realizing the consequences if they admitted to any activities that might be considered criminal.
- Mr. Carroad wrote to Mr. Barnard at Memphis saying that you understood that the coin in question had come from a small Pennsylvania bank, where the collector had access and made an examination of coins but Mr. Barnard quite apparently has no information on this point either, so it looks as if we are up against a blank wall in that regard, unless Mr. Reed can give you some definite information.”
Mr. Carroad was the head of his eponymous legal firm and Mr. [L.G.] Barnard was another owner of a 1933 $20 who, like Stack, was in a fight with the U.S. Government to retain ownership of his coin. If Barnard could confirm that his coin also came from a bank, Stack’s case would be bolstered. Unfortunately, Barnard could not. Barnard lost his case in 1947, but Stack persevered.
- You said in your telephone talk with the writer the other day that you would have someone get after Mr. Reed and I trust that you have already done this, but in the meantime, will you please tax your memory on this matter and give us all the information you have as to what was said to you and by whom as to this coin having been picked up from a bank. While you have signed an affidavit to the effect that ‘this particular coin had been issued by the Philadelphia Mint and had been delivered to a bank in Pennsylvania and there had been discovered by a coin collector and he had lawfully and legally procured it from the bank and added it to his collection’, we have not yet presented that affidavit to the court and it may be that you will not now wish to make such a definite statement but that you will want to qualify it by a statement as to your information with respect thereto. Up to this time we had supposed that Mr. Reed would support us on that point but since he now no longer will do so, we are hesitant about having you make such a positive affidavit.Please let us hear from you as soon as possible on this point because the motion is now set for Tuesday, September 12th, and there is not much time to act.
Yours very truly, Herbert D. Cohen
Stack’s affidavit was central to his legal ownership of his 1933 Double Eagle. Had Reed and Switt supported Stack’s affidavit, he might have been able to prove that his ownership of this coin was legal, thus forcing the return of his coin. However, with no testimony to rebut the Secret Service’s evidence, Stack lost his case.
Neither Stack nor his descendants ever saw his 1933 $20 again.
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Ron Guth is an award-winning writer and researcher and an expert on United States numismatics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.