In July 2002, Sotheby’s auctioned a gold coin
with a face value of $20 for the staggering sum of $7.59 million. At
that time, the 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold coin (known as the “Double
Eagle”) became the world’s most
Though it no longer holds this distinction — a 1794
silver dollar sold for more than $10 million — the 1933 Double Eagle
remains one of the world’s most desired and controversial gold coins.
The auctioned 1933 Double Eagle is one of the
few “survivors” of a
massive shift in government monetary policy that occurred during the
Great Depression. On April 5, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued
Executive Order 6102 making it illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold bullion
(with limited exceptions including jewelry and “gold coins having a
recognized special value to collectors of rare and unusual coins”).
Although this Executive Order and subsequent Gold Reserve Act of 1934
banned private ownership of gold bullion, approximately 445,000 1933
Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles were struck prior to the effective date of
the government’s ban. These coins were never released for circulation
and the government subsequently melted the coins.
Some of the coins, however, escaped destruction. Two were presented to
the National Numismatic Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. At
least 20 were illegally smuggled out of the U.S. Mint. One of the
stolen coins was sold to Egypt’s King Farouk. The U.S. Treasury,
unaware of the theft, mistakenly granted an export license for the coin
to the king, an avid coin collector.
Over the years, the Secret Service managed to recover what it believed
were all of the stolen coins—except for King Farouk’s “Egyptian Double
Eagle”. In 1952, King Farouk was exiled in a coup d’état. His
possessions were seized by the new Egyptian government which planned to
auction the coin. The U.S. government protested the auction and
demanded return of the coin. The coin was never auctioned and
mysteriously disappeared. It wasn’t seen again for more than 40 years
when British coin dealer Stephen Fenton was arrested by the Secret
Service while attempting to sell the coin.
Charges against Fenton were eventually dropped and he sued the U.S.
government claiming rightful ownership of the coin. The case was
finally resolved in 2001 when the government reached a settlement
with Fenton. The
government agreed to monetize the coin (making it legal tender), place
it for auction, and split the proceeds with Fenton. In July, 2002, the
coin was auctioned to an anonymous bidder for the record sum of
Since then, ten more 1933 Double Eagles have surfaced. In 2005, Joan
Langbord, daughter of a Philadelphia jeweler suspected of being behind
the original theft of the coins, claimed she found the Double Eagles in
a family safety deposit box. Unsure of the coins’ authenticity, she
presented them to the U.S. government for authentication. The
government authenticated the coins but then seized them as stolen
government property. A legal battle ensued over the coins, culminating
in July 2011 when a jury ruled in favor of the government. The battle
may not be over, however, as Langbord and her brothers are expected to
appeal the ruling.
Regardless of how the legal battle ends, the intrigue of the 1933
Double Eagles lives on as numismatists ponder: Are there more 1933
Double Eagles yet to be discovered?
A guest post from Goldline International, an