The stuff dreams are made of: a 1933 Double Eagle $20 gold coin obverse.
The reverse of the 1933 Double Eagle $20 gold coin.
This famous $20 gold coin is a true rarity and an American numismatic icon, a coin which numismatists dream about owning. Yet, the beautiful and beguiling Augustus Saint-Gaudens-designed gold coin dated 1933 is not legal to own, that is for all but one survivor.
It has been nearly two years since the historic court decision regarding the famed cache of 10 legendary coins reverted ownership back to U.S. government. Yet none of the coins have made an appearance in public since their court date, still sequestered in some unknown location within the vaults of the Fort Knox Bullion Depository. So, just what makes the gold coin dated 1933 so special to collectors, history buffs and those who love a good Whodunit? Well, pull up a chair and read on.
Soon after taking office in March 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt declared a nationwide Bank moratorium in order to prevent a run on the banks by American consumers lacking confidence in the Great Depression era economy. On April 5, 1933, FDR ordered all gold coins and gold certificates in denominations of more than $100 turned in for other money, which was predominantly paid out in silver coin and certificates. The new law required all persons to deliver all gold coin, gold bullion and gold certificates owned by them to the Federal Reserve by May 1 for the set price of $20.67 per ounce. When the deadline came, the government had taken in $300-million worth of gold coin and bullion and $70-million worth of gold certificates. On June 5, 1933, United States officially went off the gold standard, when Congress enacted a joint resolution nullifying the right of creditors demand payment in gold. An exemption was stipulated for collector or numismatic coins.
Now enters the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles, of which apparently all of the recorded mintage of 445,000 was struck after this executive order. Since they were no longer technically legal tender, all of the 1933 gold coins were embargoed at the Philadelphia Mint and scheduled to be melted down in late 1934. Interestingly, virtually the entire mintage of 1933 Double Eagles would survive destruction until 1937, when the government finally got around to melting the majority of gold coins held in storage. Officially two of the 1933 dated $20 Double Eagles were rescued from the production line and blast furnace and presented by the United States Mint to the U.S. National Numismatic Collection; these two coins should have been the only 1933 Double Eagle coins in existence.
However, unknown to the Mint, a number of the coins escaped the melting pot, believed to have been stolen, possibly through the assistance of a U.S. Mint cashier, having found their way to the numismatic sector under clandestine circumstances.
A Life magazine photograph of King Farouk of Egypt, examining his extensive coin collection.
What is absolutely certain is that one of the missing Double Eagles was obtained by King Farouk of Egypt. The impudent ruler, whom always had a hand in the national treasury coffers, had an insatiable appetite for many lavish things, yet especially antiquities and was an avid collector and accumulator of postage stamps and rare coins. He had, eventually, amassed a collection of more than 8,500 prime numismatic pieces. In 1944, the impetuous Farouk had set his sights on the historic last year of issue Saint-Gaudens coin and set out to purchase a 1933 Double Eagle. The sale was brokered through well-known dealer—B. Max Mehl—for the king’s collection and in strict adherence with the law, the king’s ministers applied to the United States Treasury Department for an export license for the coin.
Timing was apparently off by the Feds as, mistakenly, just days before the Mint theft of the 1933 coins was discovered, the license for export was granted! It wasn’t until a few weeks after that license was signed that suddenly everyone realized that an awful mistake had been made. This coin was illegal to own by anyone and, in fact, it had clearly been stolen from the U.S. Mint. The Treasury Department and Secret Service attempted to work through diplomatic channels to request the return of the coin from Egypt, but the latter phases of the Second World War hindered their efforts to reclaim the Double Eagle.
The tale of the 1933 Double Eagle does not end in the “Land of the Pharaohs,” however, for in addition to the Farouk piece, a trail of nine more of the 1933 coins found their way into the hands of collectors during the late 1930s and quite possibly during the World War. The head broker of this enterprise was a Philadelphia jeweler, antique dealer and metal trader Israel “Izzy” Switt. How Switt came to have the coins in the first place is up for some conjecture, though it assumed he had an “in” at the Philadelphia Mint. Most probably Switt and the mint’s chief cashier had consummated some type of trade, Switt offering some valuable 1931-dated $20 Gold coins in exchange for the coveted 1933 bounty.
Regardless, the Secret Service was on the scent after the Farouk miscue and visited Switt in March 30, 1944, and questioned him about how he procured the coins and then sold them to various coin dealers, Switt, fearing federal prosecution, zipped his lips and he was not charged. As it turned out, by 1944, the statute of limitations on any illegal dealings going back to 1937 had lapsed anyway. In fact, Switt had a previous audience with the Feds in 1937. He was stopped as he attempted to board a train bound for Baltimore with more than 100 various pre-1933 Double Eagles in a suitcase, which he was planning on selling to a coin dealer.
Izzy Switt with some eclectic purchase in 1944.
The Switt family business was opened by Izzy in 1932. Here is the storefront today, still open for business at 130 S. 8th Street in Philadelphia.
Switt admitted that he was in the wrong and stated “I had planned on turning in the Double eagles anyway…” For his trouble his gold scrap metal license was revoked, which in effect precluded Switt from conducting business with the Mint. After his harrowing encounter with the Secret Service agents in 1944, Switt rarely spoke to anyone about the coins. Through subsequent years, nine of the 10 specimens were seized by, or were turned in to, the United States Secret Service in the 1940s and ’50s and were subsequently destroyed.
In 1952, King Farouk was overthrown in a coup d’état and many of his extravagant properties were made available through public auctions. In 1954, the deposed king’s rare coin holdings—referred to as “The Palace Collection”—was cataloged and auctioned by Sotheby’s, including the 1933 Double Eagle coin. World-renowned numismatists, dealers and serious collectors made the pilgrimage to Cairo, Egypt, to attend the momentous sale. The United States Government, too, caught wind of the auction in time to act and officially “requested” the return of the 1933 coin. The Egyptian government stated that it would comply with the request. However, around the time of the scheduled sale, the Double Eagle—slated as auction lot #185—quite suspiciously disappeared from the Farouk collection and was not seen again in Egypt.
Now we fast-forward approximately five decades. The trail of the Farouk 1933 Double Eagle was seemingly now lost in obscurity until a British coin dealer by the name of Stephen Fenton was arrested during a sting operation at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York by U.S. Secret Service agents, who had posed as anxious buyers of the 1933 Double Eagle Fenton was offering for sale. Although the dealer originally stated that he purchased the coin over the counter at his shop, Fenton later recanted his story, stating he acquired the coin from a jewelry dealer from Cairo. Under sworn testimony to U.S. government officials, he asserted the Double Eagle had indeed been a part of the collection of King Farouk. Although this claim was highly probable, it could not be categorically confirmed. Charges against Fenton were consequently dropped, primarily on the basis of the export license, which had been inadvertently granted back in 1944 for Farouk. Fenton defended his rights for ownership of the coin in U.S. court. Some five years later, in 2001, the case was ultimately settled when it was agreed that rightful ownership of the Double Eagle would revert to the United States Government and the coin could then legally be sold at public auction. The United States Treasury issued an official document to “issue and monetize” the coin, thus making the 1933 Double Eagle a legal-tender gold coin in the United States. Amazingly, during this litigation, the coin had been stored in a Treasury vault at the World Trade Center in New York and at the conclusion of the trial it was relocated to the Fort Knox depository, this happening a mere two months before the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The King Farouk ” Palace Collection” Sotheby’s catalog of 1954
The historic Sotheby’s/ Stack’s catalog of July 2002 says it all .One catalog and 41 pages all devoted to the landmark coin and sale.
On July 30, 2002, at Sotheby’s, in conjunction with Stack’s Rare Coins in New York, more than 700 people watched from the gallery as six different bidders battled back and forth for eight minutes until the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle—ostensibly and almost certainly once owned by Egypt’s King Farouk—sold for $7.59 million, plus $20 to officially monetize the coin. The pre-auction estimates were between $4 and $6 million. The buyer of the coin has remained anonymous. Amazingly, for more than a decade, that fantastic and storied Double Eagle held the record price ever paid for a coin, only recently dethroned by the $10,016,875 paid at a Stack’s-Bowers Americana sale in January 2013 for the exemplary first-strike 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar, graded PCGS SP66.
It was assumed that all the 1933 coins were accounted for with the sale of the Farouk coin in 2002. Yet, the cupboard was apparently not bare of the famed coin. A new revelation of a hoard of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles miraculously surfaced in 2003 when Joan Langbord, the daughter of the now-deceased Philadelphian, Israel Switt, allegedly learned that a family safe deposit box she inherited contained the 10 coins!
Thus, a new and compelling legal dispute began. Langbord and her two sons, Roy and David, voluntarily transferred the coins to the Secret Service then to the U.S. Mint, ostensibly for authentication, in September 2004.
In May 2005, working in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, the coins were authenticated by the United States Mint, but authorities refused to return the coins to the Langbords and would initiate forfeiture proceedings. The coins were then transported to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The finest of the known survivors of the “Langbord 10.” The 1933 Double Eagle graded NGC MS66.
After the announcement that the U.S. Secret Service had recovered the coins and that they had been authenticated, Ms. Langbord publicly claimed that she inherited the coins from her father via legal means and continued to threaten a federal suit concerning the surrendered coins. To that effect, Langbord retained the services of the attorney, Barry Berke, who represented dealer Stephen Fenton with the only monetized 1933 Double Eagle.
According to various recollections, Israel Switt had many contacts and friends within the Philadelphia Mint, and reportedly had access to many points of the minting process. It is believed that Switt obtained the prized 1933 Double Eagles through his personal relationship with Mint Cashier George McCann. One plausible theory is that McCann swapped previous year Double Eagles for the 1933 specimens prior to melting, thus avoiding compromise of accounting books and inventory lists.
During litigation, the “Historic Ten” did make an appearance at the American Numismatic Association’s World’s Fair of Money in Denver in August of 2006. The unveiling by United States Treasurer Anna Escobedo Cabral and Acting United States Mint Director David A. Lebryk marked the first time the United States Mint had put the 10 iconic 1933 Double Eagles on display for, as the mint stated, “their owners, the American people.”
Ultimately, the Langbords sued the government in December 2006. On July 28, 2009, Judge Davis ordered the government to file a forfeiture action, ruling that the coins were unlawfully seized. The government filed its amended complaint for forfeiture and declaratory judgment against the Langbords and the 10 coins on Nov. 10, 2010.
The government’s case endeavored to create an agenda for the 10 1933 Double Eagles as being embezzled or stolen from the Mint and wrongfully retained. The Langbords argued that there was a brief window of opportunity where people could have legitimately obtained 1933 Double Eagles from the Mint cashier, and that some pieces may have left the Philadelphia Mint that way.
At the heart of the case was the problem of substantiating actions purported to have taken place in the 1930s and 1940s. To this conclusion, both sides had retained three experts each, including numismatic authorities David Enders Tripp, who was testifying on behalf of the government, and Roger Burdette, a numismatic expert retained by the Langbords.
If the Langbord coins were declared legal to own, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) Million Dollar Coin Club estimated that they would realize $2.5 to $3.5 million each at auction.
Roy Langbord (right) and his lawyer, Barry H. Berke. (Photo: N.Y. Times)
Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC) posted a prominent press release to its website on Nov. 3, 2009, announcing that it had graded the Langbord coins. One was graded Mint State 66, two were MS-65, six were graded MS-64 and a single one received an NGC UNC Details, Improperly Cleaned grade. However, that very informative press release was removed from the NGC website several days later, adding conjecture and further mystery. In a broader sense, any current court ruling that would challenge a collector’s right to own coins not issued as legal tender could potentially jeopardize other legendary U.S. rarities like the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, which also has clandestine existence and whose official status is certainly is up for debate.
This complex case went to trial on July 8, 201,1 in Philadelphia. Present were all 10 of the glorious 1933 Double Eagles for the jury to inspect. After 10 days of heated deliberations, the jury of two men and eight women unanimously reached on a verdict on July 20, 2011. They found that the 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles allegedly found by the Langbord family of Philadelphia in 2003 belong to the U.S. government, as they actually always had.
After the verdict was announced, Joan Langbord and sons Roy and David made a speedy exit from the courtroom. Although the Langbord’s were seeking declaration of authenticity back in 2003, the legitimate ownership was challenged by federal authority and dealer Israel Switt was accused by the government of illegally obtaining the coins at some point during the Great Depression era. For the time being, the 10 coins have been returned to the bullion depository at Fort Knox for safe keeping.
As for the ultimate disposition of the coins, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero stated, “I don’t believe they’ll be melted down and that they will probably be displayed in some capacity.”
Tom Jurkowsky, director of the U.S. Mint office of public affairs, seemed to corroborate that sentiment. “A decision on where the coins will be stored or displayed as not been made, however when the decision is made United States Mint will make an appropriate announcement,” said Jurkowsky. “Until then the pieces will remain at United States bullion depository at Fort Knox.”
Perhaps the historically infamous Switt/Langbord lost bounty will make another “roadshow” type of appearance at major numismatic events, such as the ANA World’s Fair of Money. The collecting public would love to see them. It would be a thrill to view and admire the 10 coins alongside other U.S. numismatic icons such as the 1804 Dollar or the 1913 Liberty Nickels, Brasher Doubloons, etc.
Are there other 1933 Double Eagles not accounted for? Time will only tell. But for now, the 1933 Double Eagle that sold at public venue 11 years ago is the only coin of the famous 1933 vintage which has appeared for public admiration and purchase.
Until next time, happy collecting!
Jim Bisognani has written extensively on U.S. coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in New England and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.
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