By Eric Brothers for CoinWeek …..
If you ever thought that it would be cool to own a 1933 Double Eagle, think again.
The handful of people who have “owned” specimens of the notorious coin have been famously unlucky.
But what’s so unlucky about owning one of the most coveted American coins struck in the 20th century? A coin where only a handful are known and where one example sold at auction for millions of dollars?
Before I answer that question, let me tell you a story about the collaboration of a dying artist and one of our country’s most colorful presidents.
A Meeting of Minds
On December 27, 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote the following to Treasury Secretary Leslie Mortier Shaw:
“I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give a coinage that would have some beauty?”
Two weeks later, on the evening of January 12, 1905, acclaimed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was in the White House enjoying a glass of wine before dining with Roosevelt and Shaw. The two New Yorkers—the president and the artist—had an enthusiastic, animated conversation about the beauty of high-relief Greek coins. Dinner saw the three men discussing the scheme for redesigning the cent, the eagle (gold $10) and the double eagle (gold $20) behind the back of U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber.
“I would have the Mint stamp modern versions of those Greek coins in spite of itself,” said Roosevelt, if the honored sculptor would design them. “You know, Saint-Gaudens, this is my pet crime.”
Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens agreed that the new double eagle should be in high relief, similar to the beautiful gold coins of ancient Greece. January 2, 1906, saw Saint-Gaudens write to Secretary Shaw, asking whether high relief was practical on coins produced at the Mint. Shaw wrote back to the sculptor on January 13, attaching a copy of a letter from Mint Director George E. Roberts, who wrote, “[T]he judgment of the authority of all countries is that modern coins must be of low relief.” But since the President disagreed with Robert’s opinion, Saint-Gaudens was given the go-ahead to develop a high relief design.
Saint-Gaudens’ Famous Coin
The obverse of Saint-Gaudens’ Double Eagle features a female Liberty, who also represents victory. She holds a torch in her right hand, which represents enlightenment, while in her left hand is an olive branch, the symbol of peace. She walks upon rocks and behind her are the Capitol building and rays of sunlight. The rim is decorated with 46 stars, representing the number of states in 1907. “LIBERTY” is located above the figure of Liberty and the date 1907 is presented in Roman numerals, MCMVII. The artist’s initials are found below the date. The reverse shows the side view of an eagle in flight with a rising sun and its rays behind the bird. Above the eagle at the rim is “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and directly below that is “TWENTY DOLLARS”. The edge of the rim bears “E PLURIBUS UNUM” along with a series of six-pointed stars.
Based on Saint-Gaudens’ models, 24 pieces were struck as patterns. Today they are called “Ultra High Relief.” They took up to nine strikes of the press to bring out the design. A second set of dies was created, and over 12,000 of those “High Relief” coins were minted and released into circulation. Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber crafted his version of it with a greatly lowered relief and changed the date to ‘1907’. A total of 361,667 of Barber’s revised design were produced by the Mint and released into circulation.
Over the ensuing years, a few further changes were made to Saint-Gaudens’ original design. “IN GOD WE TRUST” had been left off the 1907 coins at the president’s insistence. Due to public outcry over its omission, Congress legally ordered the motto to be included. And, in 1912, two more stars were added to the obverse after New Mexico and Arizona became states.
Collecting Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles
The Saint-Gaudens series from 1907 to 1933 is a mixed bag of quite expensive type coins, high- and low-relief versions, easy-to-find coins, difficult-to-find key dates, and some issues that are virtually impossible to find. There are only 16 to 22 of the Ultra High Relief coins of 1907. A possible type set for the collector with deep pockets would be: the Ultra High Relief, Roman Numerals, Lettered Edge coin of 1907; the High Relief, Roman Numerals, Wire Rim coin, also 1907; the High Relief, Roman Numerals, Flat Rim coin, 1907; the Arabic Numerals, Low Relief no Motto coin, both 1907 and 1908; and the Arabic Numerals, Low Relief Motto coin, 1908 to 1933.
The key date and super-rare coins are not determined by their original mintage. Many millions of Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles were melted down in the 1930s. It is the survival rate of each issue that determines rarity. According to Jeff Garrett, the truly rare With Motto (1908-1933) coins are the following: 1908, 1909-D, 1913, 1920-S, 1921, 1924-D, 1924-S, 1925-D, 1925-S, 1926-D, 1926-S, 1927-D, 1927-S, 1929, 1930-S, 1931, 1931-D, 1932, and 1933. Garrett tells us that the 1927-D is more rare than the 1933.
The common date Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles include 1908 (No Motto), 1909-S, 1910, 1911-D, 1914-D, 1914-S, 1915-S, 1922, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, and 1928. A recent auction at Heritage saw a 1924 Saint graded MS 64 by NGC sell for $1,440.00. A 1927 Saint graded MS 64 Secure by PCGS realized $1,560.00 at Heritage. Lastly, Heritage sold a 1925 example graded MS 64 by PCGS for $1,560.00.
FDR Makes Gold Illegal
In early 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (cousin of Theodore) issued Executive Order 6102 in an attempt to end the 1930s general bank crisis. Part of that executive order is presented below:
Section 2. All persons are hereby required to deliver on or before May 1, 1933, to a Federal Reserve bank or a branch or agency thereof or to any member bank of the Federal Reserve System all gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates now owned by them or coming into their ownership on or before April 28, 1933, with the exception of the following:
(a) Such amount of gold as may be required for legitimate and customary use in industry, profession or art within a reasonable time, including gold prior to refining and stocks of gold in reasonable amounts for the usual trade requirements of owners mining and refining such gold.
(b) Gold coin and gold certificates in an amount not exceeding in the aggregate $100.00 belonging to any one person; and gold coins having recognized special value to collectors of rare and unusual coins.
(c) Gold coin and bullion earmarked or held in trust for a recognized foreign government or foreign central bank or the Bank for International Settlements.
(d) Gold coin and bullion licensed for the other proper transactions (not involving hoarding) including gold coin and gold bullion imported for the re-export or held pending action on applications for export license.
1933 Double Eagles Did Indeed Leave the Mint
At the Mint, 445,500 of the 1933 Double Eagles were struck, and production did not stop after the president issued his Executive Order. A number left the mint surreptitiously. According to a report on CNN.com, years later the Secret Service learned that George McCann, the Mint’s chief cashier, had taken 10 of those “illegal” coins out of the Mint. It has been determined that he was the only Mint employee who had access to the 1933 Double Eagles. Somehow, Philadelphia coin dealer Israel Switt had obtained those 10 coins and sold them to customers.
In 1944, representatives of King Farouk of Egypt–an eclectic collector of stamps, old razor blades, antique aspirin bottles, and coins–applied for an export license for a single 1933 Double Eagle.
“It wasn’t until a few weeks after that license was signed that suddenly everyone realized that an awful mistake had been made,” said David Redden, Vice Chairman and Auctioneer at Sotheby’s. “This coin was illegal to own, and in fact clearly had been stolen from the U.S. Mint.”
On February 29, 1944, one of the 1933 Double Eagles left the United States after being sold to a foreign national by a coin dealer in Texas; that must have been the Farouk coin. One by one, federal agents tracked down the other nine coins that left the Mint by way of George McCann. Somehow the agents were led to Israel Switt, who had sold the 10 coins in question.
Through Switt, nine of the 1933 Double Eagles were tracked down by the feds and eventually destroyed. Unbeknownst to the Secret Service or anyone else, however, Switt had 10 more of the “illegal” 1933 gold coins in his possession. He had put them away for safekeeping, and eventually they were secured in a safe-deposit box at a Philadelphia bank.
As for the Farouk coin, the United States had to sit on its hands until the Egyptian king was overthrown in 1952 to try to retrieve it.
“In 1944, we were in the middle of a world war, and Egypt stood at the crossroads in the middle of the Mediterranean,” said Redden. “It was not, perhaps, precisely the right moment in diplomatic history to go and try to make a claim on a coin.”
According to a report in the New York Times, when the U.S. government discovered that Lot 185 in the Farouk Sale was a 1933 Double Eagle, the Treasury Department requested that it be removed from the auction. It was.
But then the notorious coin disappeared for over 45 years.
A Sting Operation in New York City
After the Farouk auction, the coin is believed to have remained in Egypt until it was purchased by London coin dealer Stephen Fenton in 1995. He brought it to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to sell it for $1.6 million to an “American coin collector”. The ever-diligent Secret Service set up a sting, whereupon they seized the coin and imprisoned Fenton. It was after his release from jail that Fenton initiated a prolonged legal battle to retain the coin. His legal team argued that the United States had provided written permission for the coin to be included in a private collection: the export license of 1944.
Thus, from a legal standpoint, issues were murky enough to lead to a settlement.
During the years of the legal process, the 1933 Double Eagle rested in a U.S. Treasury vault at 7 World Trade Center (WTC). It was moved to the bullion vaults of Fort Knox, Kentucky, after the case was settled in late January of 2001, less than eight months before 7 WTC was destroyed in the 9/11 terrorist attack. According to the out-of-court settlement, the U.S. Mint agreed to declare the notorious coin the only 1933 Double Eagle ever to have been issued (monetized) by the U.S. government.
It was soon put up for auction. The winning bidder had to pay “a fee of $20 for the face value of the coin,” said David Pickens, who was Associate Director of the U.S. Mint at that time.
Since the moment it was moved to Fort Knox, the United States Mint Police guarded the coin until after the auction ended. It did not become legal tender until the Mint Director signed the relevant documents after the conclusion of the sale. The 1933 Double Eagle sold for $6.6 million, plus its $20 face value and a 15 percent fee to the auction house–a grand total of $7.6 million. The money from the sale was split evenly between the U.S. government and Fenton. According to Mr. Pickens, the amount going to the Mint was to be placed “in the general fund of the Treasury Department to reduce the national debt.”
More 1933 Double Eagles Show Up
One would imagine that finding 10 gold Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles in a long-neglected safe-deposit box would be an exciting find for those involved. The discovery of these coins, however, was the beginning of a nightmare for the heirs of Israel Switt.
Roy Langbord is Switt’s grandson and also an attorney. In a lengthy Coin World interview, Langbord said that in 2003 his mother, Joan Switt Langbord, told him of a bag of coins that was found in a safe-deposit box that had not been opened since the 1950s. Viewing the contents of the box had not been planned, but the bank in which it was kept had experienced some flooding that warped some of the frames of the boxes. The locks had to be drilled open to repair the boxes, and therefore the contents of each box needed to be removed.
The coins, stored in a crumpled department store bag, were all made of gold. Besides U.S. issues, there were also Mexican and ancient Roman coins. Among the selection were several gold coins placed snugly in 2×2 manila coin envelopes marked ‘LLDE’. Remembering his days working in his grandfather’s store, Langbord recalled that “LL” was “33,” while “DE” was “double eagle.” In total there were 10 envelopes marked “LLDE”, each containing one 1933 Double Eagle. Sitting there looking at the small hoard, Roy knew that finding those coins could be life changing.
“When I first told my mother, she said she didn’t want her life to change. She said, ‘Put them back and you deal with it after my death.'”
It was over lunch with his father that same day that Roy discussed what to do with the coins. They decided to seek legal counsel, ignoring his mother’s wishes. Roy’s father trusted the government, unlike Roy’s grandfather Israel Switt and Switt’s business partner Edward Silver, both of whom distrusted the federal government and President Roosevelt. The partners also did not like banks. Switt preferred to do business in cash, and had two stand-up safes in his shop in Philadelphia that are still there.
And Switt had good reason not to trust the government. He was arrested during the 1930s (sometime after Roosevelt’s proclamation outlawing the private ownership of gold) while carrying a suitcase of U.S. gold coins to the Philadelphia Mint for melting. Switt wasn’t charged, but the coins were confiscated and melted, and he was not compensated.
This was an omen of future events.
Roy Langbord knew of the scarcity of the 1933 Double Eagle before the discovery of the family coins. He had read an article in the New York Times about the public auction by Sotheby’s and Stack’s on July 30, 2002 of the alleged King Farouk specimen. Langbord recalled that when he was finishing law school in New York in 1977, his grandfather asked him to go to Stack’s coin shop in Manhattan to ask what a 1933 Double Eagle was worth. He was told that they had “no public value” but were perhaps worth $250,000. Roy told Switt the information and they never discussed the coin again. As written above, Switt was interviewed by federal agents in 1944 about selling 10 of those coins. Eventually the Secret Service tracked them all down and destroyed them (except for the Farouk coin). Langbord knew all of this when he and his father agreed to consult a lawyer about what to do.
Langbord Contacts the Mint
Langbord had an attorney named Barry Berke, who contacted Mint officials to discuss the coins. Those Mint representatives asked if it were possible to take the coins to ascertain their authenticity. Langbord said they were told they could be taken for a short time, “but we never gave them carte blanche.”
According to the Coin World interview, Roy suspected that Mint officials had ulterior motives when, in the presence of Secret Service agents, the officials were filming the removal of the coins from their envelopes. After all of the specimens had been removed, examined and logged, a Secret Service agent arrested Roy Langbord.
“These Double Eagles were never lawfully issued, but instead, were taken from the … Mint … in an unlawful manner more than 70 years ago,” said Acting Mint Director David Lebryk in a 2005 press release. A report published by Reuters said that Switt’s descendants were “the family of a thief” in the eyes of the government.
A Decade of Legal Wrangling
The Langbords decided to sue the government. In correspondence with the Langbords, the Mint said that they had “no intention of seeking forfeiture of these ten Double Eagles because they are, and always have been, property belonging to the United States; this makes forfeiture proceedings entirely unnecessary.”
That initiated a legal struggle that stretched out over a decade. The original 2011 jury verdict saw the Mint score a victory. Four years later, however, it appeared that the Langbords had a victory of their own. The Philadelphia federal appeals court ruled that since the government took too long to respond the Langbords’ claim, the 10 Double Eagles had to be returned to the family.
“The Court’s decision upholds the rule of law and makes clear that the government will be held accountable when it violates the rights of its citizens and the clear mandate of Congress,” Berke wrote to The Washington Post in 2015.
But the case again swung in the government’s favor. The Post reported that in a 9-3 vote, the federal appeals court ruled for the government’s side.
Judge Thomas Hardiman, who wrote the majority opinion, said that the coins were always U.S. government property. Therefore the 90-day time limit that typically applies to forfeited items did not apply. The Langbord family could not forfeit a U.S. government possession, argued the government, they could only surrender it.
Judge Marjorie Rendell wrote the dissenting opinion. She said that the majority’s decision was based “mainly on its buy-in to the Government’s audacity—the Government’s say-so that it owned the 1933 Double Eagles and had no intention of forfeiting them.” She said that the Civil Asset Reform Act was developed in order to prevent government seizure of civilian property, writing that the majority had set an “incorrect and dangerous precedent.”
There was only one more place to go.
“The Langbord family fully intends to seek review by the Supreme Court,” Berke explained to Reuters in 2016, “of the important issue of the unbridled power of the government to take and keep a citizen’s property.”
The hopes of the Langbord family were finally dashed on April 17, 2017, when the United States Supreme Court announced its decision not to hear the family’s appeal in the case.
It is ironic that while one Roosevelt helped give us the stunningly beautiful Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, another Roosevelt made it a federal crime to possess one dated 1933. As William Shakespeare wrote in his 16th-century play Merchant of Venice:
All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—
Cold, indeed, and labor lost.
* * *
Brothers, Eric. “New York City: Mecca of Numismatic Artistry”, The Numismatist. November 2013.
Gilkes, Paul. “How the discovery of 10 1933 gold double eagles altered life for Israel Switt’s heirs”, Coin World. January 27, 2017.
Collins, Glenn. “Unique Coin, and Unique Mystery; Back from a King’s Vault, the Lone 1933 Double Eagle”, The New York Times. April 19, 2002.
Nissen, Beth. “Auction brings $7.6 million for ‘Double Eagle’”, CNN.com. n.d. (http://www.cnn.com/2002/US/07/30/double.eagle/index.html)
Guarino, Ben. “ ‘A high-stakes dispute over ten pieces of gold’: Court reclaims priceless Double Eagle coins for U.S. government”, The Washington Post. August 2, 2016.
Garrett, Jeff. “Collecting Saint Gaudens, Parts I, II, III, IV, V”, NGC.com
NGC-Certified Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle Gold Coins Currently Available on eBay