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  1. #1
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    Default The mystery of the Double Eagle gold coins

    The mystery of the Double Eagle gold coins

    By Susan Berfield
    updated 8/29/2011 7:15:12 AM ET


    The most valuable coin in the world sits in the lobby of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in lower Manhattan. It’s Exhibit 18E, secured in a bulletproof glass case with an alarm system and an armed guard nearby. The 1933 Double Eagle, considered one of the rarest and most beautiful coins in America, has a face value of $20 — and a market value of $7.6 million. It was among the last batch of gold coins ever minted by the U.S. government. The coins were never issued; most of the nearly 500,000 cast were melted down to bullion in 1937.

    Most, but not all. Some of the coins slipped out of the Philadelphia Mint before then. No one knows for sure exactly how they got out or even how many got out. The U.S. Secret Service, responsible for protecting the nation’s currency, has been pursuing them for nearly 70 years, through 13 Administrations and 12 different directors. The investigation has spanned three continents and involved some of the most famous coin collectors in the world, a confidential informant, a playboy king, and a sting operation at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. It has inspired two novels, two nonfiction books, and a television documentary. And much of it has centered around a coin dealer, dead since 1990, whose shop is still open in South Philadelphia, run by his 82-year-old daughter.

    “The 1933 Double Eagle is one of the most intriguing coins of all time,” says Jay Brahin, an investment adviser who has been collecting coins since he was a kid in Philadelphia. “It’s a freak. The coins shouldn’t have been minted, but they were. They weren’t meant to circulate, but some did. And why has the government pursued them so arduously? That’s one of the mysteries.”

    The story begins just after the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt on Mar. 4, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. Thousands of banks had already gone under as people panicked and withdrew their gold and other deposits. As the gold supply — much of it kept at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — dwindled, the country faced possible insolvency. On Apr. 5, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, which prohibited the hoarding of gold and required citizens to exchange their gold coins for paper currency.

    It was Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Theodore, who had commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a high-relief $20 gold coin in the early 1900s. Teddy Roosevelt wanted an American coin that matched the beauty of the ancient Greek ones, and Saint-Gaudens completed the work just before his death from cancer in 1907. On one side is an image of Liberty, a figure reminiscent of a Greek goddess, hair flowing, olive branch in her left hand, torch in her right. On the other is an eagle in midflight, the sun rising behind it.

    The Mint had produced the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles almost every year since 1907, and 1933 was no different. By May, as the gold recall was under way, the Mint finished pressing 445,500 of the coins. None were issued. Instead the coins, weighing nearly 15 tons, were put into 1,780 canvas bags and sealed behind three steel doors in Philadelphia Mint Vault F-Cage 1. Only two were thought to have been saved, and they were sent to the Smithsonian.

    In January 1934, Congress passed the Gold Reserve Act, which allowed the President to nationalize, in effect, the gold held by the Federal Reserve and increase the price of an ounce. This in turn devalued the dollar, which was supposed to stimulate the troubled economy. The director of the Mint then ordered all the nation’s gold coins to be melted into bars. The bars would be kept in the newly constructed Fort Knox. The task was enormous: It wasn’t until early 1937 that the Philadelphia Mint sent its $50 million worth of coins, including the 1933 Double Eagles, to the furnace.
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    Around this time, a 41-year-old Philadelphia jeweler named Israel Switt offered several 1933 Double Eagles to some of the most prominent coin dealers and collectors of the day, according to Secret Service documents since made public. Switt sold one, now Exhibit 18E, to a Texas dealer who then sold it to King Farouk of Egypt for $1,575. A royal representative in the U.S. requested an export license for the coin and, unbeknownst to the Secret Service, the Secretary of the Treasury issued one on Feb. 29, 1944.

    That same month, Stack’s, the rare coin dealer in New York, announced an auction for another Double Eagle. It wasn’t until early March, though, that the Secret Service heard about the sale and realized that some of the coins had been taken out of the Mint. King Farouk’s Double Eagle had already been delivered to him in Cairo by diplomatic pouch. Agents confiscated the second coin before Stack’s could sell it and launched the investigation that continues today. “The government has been fanatical about seizing and destroying these coins,” says Robert W. Hoge, curator of North American coins and currency at the American Numismatic Society. “They’re famous because the government has been seizing them since the 1940s.”

    The first phase of the Secret Service investigation would trace 10 1933 Double Eagles to Switt, a reclusive jeweler and coin dealer who, like so many in this story, believed the coins possessed talismanic powers. His only child, Joan Langbord, who worked with him until his death in 1990 at age 95, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that her father “could be obnoxious or irascible. If he didn’t like you, he’d throw you out.” His business philosophy, she said, was that “the customer was never right; he was always right.”

    “You must understand the Philadelphia thing,” says Brahin. “I’m from there, so I can say this: The dealers were crafty, they would do anything to get an edge. If you don’t know that, you don’t have the right amount of cynicism to analyze the story.”

    In Switt’s statement to the agents, his only official pronouncement about the coins, he said that he didn’t have any records of where, when, or how he had obtained the Double Eagles. But he claimed that he did not buy them from any employees of the Mint.

    Nonetheless, after a 10-month investigation, the Secret Service concluded that it was more likely than not that Switt was the fence for a corrupt Mint cashier. In 1945, the Justice Dept. wanted to press charges, but by then the statute of limitations had run out.

    Seven years later, in 1952, King Farouk was deposed and sent into exile in Monaco. The generals leading the new Republic of Egypt decided to auction off his belongings, including his renowned gold coin collection. It contained 8,500 pieces; one was the 1933 Double Eagle. Sotheby’s won the right to hold the auction in Cairo in February 1954. As soon as U.S. Treasury officials saw the catalog for the Palace Collection of Egypt, as it was called, they asked the Egyptians to pull the coin from the auction and return it to Washington. At the last minute, the Double Eagle in Lot 185 was withdrawn. Then it disappeared.

    Four decades later, Stephen Fenton, the chairman of the British Numismatic Trade Assn. and a coin dealer himself, says he got hold of the 1933 Double Eagle by way of an Egyptian jeweler whose client had ties to the military. “I was buying quite a few coins out of the Farouk collection,” Fenton says by phone from his London auction house, St. James. “This came along, and it was quite nice. It did have an aura.”

    Fenton bought the Double Eagle for $210,000 and arranged to sell it to an American dealer named Jasper Parrino for $850,000. On Feb. 7, 1996, Fenton flew from London to New York on the Concorde and checked into the Hilton. The next morning, he recalls, he tucked the coin into a plastic envelope, put it in his shirt pocket, pulled on a new black cashmere sweater, and hopped into a taxi to the Waldorf Astoria. “It was a routine deal,” he says.

    He went up to a corner suite on the 22nd floor and presented the coin to Parrino, who had already arranged to sell it to Jack Moore, a dealer from Texas, for $1.65 million. Moore had brought along a coin expert of his own. As this expert examined the coin, Fenton began to suspect trouble. “His hands were shaking quite a lot,” says Fenton. “I thought he might try to steal it. I was afraid someone was going to come bursting into the room with guns. Well, they did.”

    Moore had contacted the Secret Service and helped them set up an undercover operation. Fenton and Parrino were thrown to the floor by gun-wielding agents who had been waiting in the room next door. “I had an out-of-body experience,” says Fenton. “I felt like I was on top of the wardrobe watching. It was like a movie. Then the coin just vanished.”

    Fenton faced criminal charges of “conspiring to convert to his own use and attempt to sell property of the United States.” He hired a trial lawyer, Barry H. Berke of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, who was able to get those charges dropped fairly quickly. “Then it was a straight fight for the coin,” says Fenton. “I thought: The government has two of them [in the Smithsonian]. Why do they want mine? The only people who think the pursuit of these coins is worthwhile is the government. Everyone else thinks the government should have better things to do with its time and money.”

    After five years of legal wrangling and just four days before the case was scheduled to go to trial in the U.S. District Court in Manhattan, Fenton and the Justice Dept. came to an unusual agreement: The coin would be auctioned off and the proceeds split between them. That was in late January 2001. The coin was taken from the Treasury vault at 7 World Trade Center and put in Fort Knox. Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11. “If the coin had been left where it was, it would have been destroyed,” says Fenton.

    In February 2002, the Mint announced the auction of the “fabled and elusive 1933 Double Eagle twenty dollar coin” at (BID)Sotheby’s on July 30. “The storied coin has been the center of international numismatic intrigue for more than 70 years,” said Mint Director Henrietta Holsman Fore in the press release. Afterward the coin would become the only 1933 Double Eagle “now or ever authorized for private ownership.”

    Then the publicity campaign began. Matt Lauer wore white cotton gloves to hold the coin on the Today show. The New York Times ran a large photo of it. Sotheby’s, working with Stack’s, produced a 56-page catalog titled The Golden Disk of 1933: Only One.

    The Only One was displayed at the Long Beach Coin, Stamp & Collectibles Expo, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Sotheby’s. “The Mint police and New York City police escorted it back and forth every day to a depository at West Point in an armored car,” says David N. Redden, the auctioneer for Sotheby’s. “It was fantastic. That made it look wildly important. The government treated it as a national treasure, which it is, in a way. It wasn’t going to disappear on their watch. It had already disappeared once.”

    The auction took place at 6 p.m. in front of a standing-room-only crowd. The coin was in a bulletproof glass case to the right of the auctioneer. The Mint director was there. So were Fenton, Berke, and the assistant U.S. attorney. Redden opened the bidding at $2.5 million. Six minutes later his hammer went down: An anonymous buyer had purchased the 1933 Double Eagle for $6.6 million (a 15 percent buyer’s premium brought the price to $7.59 million). It was nearly twice as much as anyone had ever paid for a coin.

    Immediately afterward, Mint Director Fore held a ceremony on the auction floor to make the Double Eagle legal tender. “In order to monetize it, somebody had to pay $20,” says Redden. “So I stepped down from the podium and gave her $20. The Mint makes a big distinction between coins that are monetized and those that are not. Two Double Eagles are in the Smithsonian, but they’re not monetized. To the government, they’re curiosities, not currency.”

    The buyer, who according to Redden is an American interested in no other coins but this one, never brought the Double Eagle home. He lent it to the American Numismatic Society, which has displayed the coin at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York ever since.

    “I wanted to end with everybody happy, and everybody was. One of these coins is in the marketplace, and that’s very important,” says Fenton. “I was absolutely thrilled — and exhausted. It felt strange that it was all over.”

    Except it wasn’t.

    Two years after the auction, Joan Langbord and her son, Roy, an entertainment executive in Manhattan, called Berke, who had represented Fenton and the Farouk coin, with startling news: They said they had found 10 1933 Double Eagles. The coins had been wrapped in tissue and plastic, put in a gray paper bag from the department store John Wanamaker — which closed in 1995 — and placed at the bottom of safe deposit box No. 442 at a Wachovia Bank in Philadelphia. Langbord had inherited the safe deposit box from her mother and said she had thought it contained only jewelry. No one in the family, she later testified, knew how the coins had gotten there. The Langbords, through Berke, declined to comment for this story, citing ongoing litigation.

    According to legal documents, the Langbords, hoping they could make a deal similar to Fenton’s, asked Berke to contact the Mint. On Sept. 15, 2004, Berke met with Mint attorneys at the Secret Service offices in Brooklyn to discuss the situation. A week later, Roy Langbord, accompanied by Berke, opened the safe deposit box and handed over the Double Eagles to the government for authentication. The coins did not come back.

    In June 2005, Berke was summoned to meet the Mint’s attorneys in Washington. There they informed him that the 1933 Double Eagles were indeed authentic. But this time the Mint refused to offer any monetary settlement. Instead, the lawyers said the government was keeping the coins, and that they were already in Fort Knox. Berke protested, unsuccessfully. In August 2005 the Mint issued a press release announcing it had “recovered” 10 more 1933 Double Eagles.

    More at
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44288821...1#.TlvzgEPleSo
    "There's one way to find out if a man is honest-ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he is a crook." Groucho Marx

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2008
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    Default

    ouch!

    so what's the moral of the story

    always keep 10% secret as insurance?

    just 1 coin

    1 coin to rule them all

    people keep trying to rewrite the world as themselves

    like that'll work...

  3. #3

    Default

    Lol, Great article. Thanks

  4. #4
    Join Date
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by eri View Post
    so what's the moral of the story?
    Never expect the government to give you anything back.

    Fascinating story!

  5. #5
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    Default

    Before reading this article i don't know the story of double eagle gold coin. Well this is interesting article. i am glad to read it, as it increased my knowledge.

  6. #6
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    Default

    I am so pleased.
    "There's one way to find out if a man is honest-ask him. If he says 'yes,' you know he is a crook." Groucho Marx


 

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