On The Trail of the Elusive 1933 Double Eagle

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 expensive coin.

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 $7,590,000.

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 advertising sponsor.

1933 Double Eagle
1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle
Coin Photos courtesy of United States Mint

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