Everyone's favorite classic American coin, the illegal-to-own 1933 $20 Gold Double Eagle, is back in the spotlight. A decade-long saga between the U.S. government and one family that believes it rightfully owns 10 of the '33 Double Eagles continues to unfold in federal court after several twists and turns.
The Langbord family, who in 2004 discovered the 10 Double Eagles in a safe deposit box belonging to late family patriarch Israel Switt, is returning to court to once again argue that the ultra-rare coins belong to their estate. This follows a decision in April reached by a panel of 3 judges awarding the coins to the Langbords. (This was already the second time a previous judgment in the case had been overturned by an appellate court.)
Why the 1933 Double Eagle is Illegal to Own
It's a bit of an odd concept for there even to exist an "illegal" coin. How could a form of money, albeit obsolete money, be illicit to possess?
Well, it's not a case of money that's tainted by how it was obtained or laundered. Rather, it has to do with its gold content. In 1933, shortly after gold coins of various denominations were minted with the 1933 year-date, an executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt essentially demonetized gold coins, ordering them all subject to government confiscation for the purposes of melting them.
After a window of time where people could return their gold coins to the government for face value, gold itself became illegal to own for Americans until the early 1970s. The catch, however, was that a small handful of 1933-date gold coins were held by collectors and escaped the melting pot. These were gold double eagles, $20 pieces that bore the famous Saint-Gaudens design.
The King Farouk 1933 Double Eagle
In the many decades between the oft-misnamed "Gold Confiscation Act" (in actuality, Executive Order 6102) and today, the 1933 Gold Double Eagle has been largely a myth. The numismatic community would murmur about the possibility of about two dozen of the coins that were spared a fiery destruction, but it was not until the infamous King Farouk example of the coin surfaced that the legend became reality.
Farouk, the young and ineffective King of Egypt during the 1940s and 1950s, amassed perhaps the most impressive coin collection ever known—including a '33 double eagle. Unfortunately, he did so using state funds, and his incredible collection was auctioned off after Farouk was deposed as monarch.
Because of the coin's one-of-a-kind pedigree, authorities in the U.S. made a one-time exception for the Farouk Double Eagle, monetizing this single coin so it could be sold or traded like any other collectible. The coin realized a record sale price of almost $7.6 million in 2001, half of which went to the Treasury Department.
The Langbord 1933 Double Eagle Case
The only other widely-publicized instance of a 1933 Double Eagle surfacing is the current case being fought in the courts. Strangely, both have sides have been deemed the winners of the case at different times, as one judge after another has reversed the decision of the previous magistrate upon appeal. Both the government and the Langbord family have compelling cases for the coins: it's true that the coins were originally stolen from the mint many years ago by Israel Switt, but it's also true that the government missed the 90-day window to claim the seized property after the Langbords happened upon the 10 coins.
There is currently no timetable for the case to be settled. CoinWeek will have continuing coverage of the case as it unfolds.