The $7.59 Million Coin That Was Never Meant to Be
Few coins have a story as compelling as the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle. From the origin of the coin’s design in 1905 to its final production in 1933 to legal battles that persisted until just a few years ago, it has been engulfed in controversy and intrigue.
Along the way, it’s become one of the most valuable coins ever produced in the United States. Here’s a timeline of all the twists and turns of this incredible saga.
January 12, 1905: The Inspiration
While hosting revered American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens at the White House, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt discussed the lack of artistic inspiration in U.S. coins and raised the possibility of a new design, including the Double Eagle ($20 piece).
January 2, 1906: Roosevelt Opens the Door
Looking to emulate ancient Greek coins, Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens envisioned the new Double Eagle gold coin in high relief. On January 2, 1906, Saint-Gaudens wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortier Shaw to inquire whether this would be practical.
Shaw replied in the negative. Roosevelt didn’t take his answer to heart. He gave Saint-Gaudens the go-ahead to develop a high-relief design.
1907: The Coin's Debut
This new Double Eagle featured a full-body image of Liberty walking forward, carrying a lit torch and an olive branch; it debuted in 1907.
The reverse depicts an eagle in flight. Using Saint-Gaudens’ models, 24 pieces were struck as patterns with the date in Roman numerals, MCMVII. Subsequently, 12,000 high-relief coins were minted for circulation before Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber developed a more practical, lower-relief version with the date in the more standard Arabic, 1907.
While minor changes were made over the years, the basic design stayed the same through 1933.
March 15-May 19, 1933: The Alleged Meltdown
Over 400,000 1933 Double Eagles were minted, though none were approved for circulation, and all but two were reportedly melted down.
Years later, officials determined that George McCann, cashier of the Mint, had stolen ten of these coins to resell for profit, as he had done with other coins. In 1940, he pleaded guilty to stealing silver coins, but by the time this investigation concluded, the statute of limitations had passed. These coins had reportedly been transferred to Israel Switt, a Philadelphia coin dealer who, in turn, had reportedly sold them.
Since the coins had not been legally released, it was illegal for the public to own these coins, but this fact was not well publicized.
April 20, 1933: Suspending the Gold Standard
In an attempt to halt the bank crisis, President Franklin D. Roosevelt suspended the gold standard through Executive Order. The order required all persons to deliver any gold coin, bullion and certificates to a Federal Reserve Bank, with a few exceptions. Citizens were permitted to keep up to $100 in gold coins as well as collectible coins.
January 30, 1934: The Gold Reserve Act
Roosevelt signed the Gold Reserve Act, which made the possession and circulation of gold coins illegal, though collector coins were exempt. Gold coins could no longer be used as currency, and all 1933 Double Eagles, with the exception of two presented to the Smithsonian (one pictured), were ordered to be melted down.
1944: A King Steps Into the Picture
Egypt’s King Farouk (pictured) purchased a 1933 Double Eagle from a dealer in Texas and, following protocol, his representatives applied for an export license. After government officials completed the paperwork, they realized that the coin in question was not legal to own and concluded it must have been stolen from the Mint. They would later discover this coin had changed hands eight times after McCann sold it to Israel Switt.
1945-1952: And Then There Was One
Through an investigation into the Farouk coin, federal agents learned that ten 1933 Double Eagles had left the Mint and that Israel Switt was the dealer responsible for selling them. The statute of limitations had passed, so the government was unable to prosecute him for unlawfully possessing these coins.
The remaining nine coins of the 10 that left the Mint were tracked down and destroyed.
1952: The Disappearance
King Farouk was deposed, and his possessions, including his coin collection, were dispersed via auction. The U.S. government requested that the coin be returned. Though the Egyptian government indicated a willingness to comply, the coin disappeared.
It wasn’t seen again for more than 40 years.
1996: The Reappearance
Stephen Fenton, a London coin dealer, arrived in New York City to sell a 1933 Double Eagle. Instead, he was arrested for possessing it, then released on bond.
Further investigation determined that this was most likely the Farouk coin, as it included written documentation (the export license) of its authenticity.
January 2001: A Twist of Fate
The Professional Numismatists Guild filed an amicus brief on Fenton’s behalf, and the Justice Department agreed to a settlement four days before the trial date. The settlement provided that Fenton and the U.S. Mint would share in the proceeds of the sale of the coin.
The coin was moved from the Treasury Department vault located in 7 World Trade Center (where it had been stored for safekeeping) to the bullion vaults at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Had it stayed in New York, it would almost certainly have been destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
While at Fort Knox, the United States Mint Police guarded the coin until after the auction was completed.
July 2002: The Anonymous Bidder
In July of 2002, the Fenton coin sold at auction for a record-breaking $7.59 million. The only item on the auction block that day, it attracted the attention of 500 collectors, reporters and observers who had followed the multi-year court battle.
Bidding started at $2.5 million and jumped in $100,000 increments. An anonymous phone bidder placed the winning bid.
As part of the court agreement, the final amount was split between the U.S. government and Stephen Fenton. At this time, this coin was decreed to be the only one of its kind that could be legally sold. It has since been displayed at both the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the New York Historical Society.
To much surprise, ten more 1933 gold Double Eagles emerged. These were found in a safe-deposit box that had been untouched since the 1950s. After discovering the coins, Switt’s daughter, Joan Langbord, and her family contacted the Mint and brought the coins in to be examined.
The government authenticated the coins and then refused to return them. Instead, they arrested Roy Langbord, Switt’s grandson, for unlawful possession.
2004: Making Copies
The National Collectors Mint produced gold-plated replicas of the 1933 Double Eagle. Though they were sold with a certificate indicating that they were legal currency from the Commonwealth of the North Mariana Islands (a U.S. territory), there is no evidence that this was true.
The coins were subsequently reissued with the word “COPY” stamped across the reverse (pictured).
2010-2017: A Legal Saga
From 2010 to 2017, the Langbord family argued it had ownership of the 10 coins found in its safe deposit box. The Treasury Department argued that the 10 coins were stolen from the U.S. Mint before the nation went off the gold standard, and that Joan Langbord and her sons had no lawful right to own the coins.
In 2011, a jury agreed with the government. In 2012, a district court judge affirmed the decision, but in April of 2015, a Philadelphia federal appeals court overturned the jury verdict. Then, during summer 2016, the appeals court determined the coins had been the property of the U.S. government all along.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, putting an end to the debate.
May 10, 2018: Their Old Kentucky Home
Yet another example of the coin appeared. This one was surrendered to the Treasury by an anonymous collector. It now resides at the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox (pictured), along with the other ten specimens found by the Langbord family.