In the world of numismatics, there’s an unparalleled treasure that has captivated the attention and earned the admiration of collectors and historians for nearly a century. The 1933 Double Eagle stands as an iconic symbol of numismatic history, enthralling coin enthusiasts with its enigmatic allure and fascinating narrative.
Initially, the United States Mint produced nearly half a million of these coins before President Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented a prohibition on the use of gold currency as legal tender. The intention was for all Double Eagle coins to be melted. However, fate had other plans, and a handful of these extraordinary coins managed to elude the melting pot, embarking on a journey that would involve intrigue, dramatic legal battles, investigations, and staggering auction prices.
Prepare to delve into the captivating tale of the 1933 Double Eagle, a story that continues to enthrall numismatic enthusiasts around the world.
Table of Contents
- 1 Historical Background of 1933 Double Eagle
- 2 1933 Double Eagle Appearance
- 3 The 1933 Double Eagle’s Rarity
- 4 The Famous King Farouk Specimen
- 5 The “Eagle-On-a-Cliff” Auction
- 6 The Langbord Family Legal Battle
- 7 The Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection
- 8 Notable Sales And Auctions
- 9 1933 Double Eagle FAQs
- 10 Conclusion
Historical Background of 1933 Double Eagle
The Origin and Design of Double Eagle Coin Series
In 1850, the inaugural Double Eagle $20 coin was introduced, featuring James Longacre’s design. This design remained on the gold currency for over a decade.
However, in 1904, President Roosevelt expressed dissatisfaction, deeming the existing design artistically unappealing and proclaimed, “the state of our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” Seeking a more aesthetically pleasing and representative coin, Roosevelt approached Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a renowned sculptor of Irish descent.
Interestingly, this was not Saint-Gaudens’ first involvement with the Mint. Just twelve years earlier, he had vowed never to collaborate with anyone associated with it again, a promise he had steadfastly kept. His discontent stemmed from a feud with Charles E. Barber, the Mint Engraver. Both Saint-Gaudens and Barber held a mutual disdain for each other’s work, fueling their animosity.
Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle New Design
However, when presented with the opportunity to design a new $20 Double Eagle, Saint-Gaudens accepted, embarking on the task with confidence. He remarked, “Whatever I produce cannot be worse than the inanities now displayed on our coins.”
By 1906, Saint-Gaudens completed the design, which Roosevelt found “simply splendid.” The president further declared it to be the finest coin struck in two thousand years, asserting that it would serve as a model for future coin makers. Sadly, Saint-Gaudens passed away in the same year, never witnessing his design enter circulation. The coin bearing his design was first minted for public use in 1907.
Historical Events Leading to the Discontinuation of the Series
The Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle enjoyed a lifespan of nearly three decades. However, its fate took a dramatic turn in April of 1933 when President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, which banned the hoarding of gold coins, bullion, and medals. This decree forced individuals to surrender their gold holdings in exchange for paper currency.
Interestingly, the 1933 Double Eagles had already been struck in March, a month prior to the executive order, and production continued for two more months. While the majority of these coins were melted in 1934, a small number evaded destruction and embarked on a remarkable journey, passing through the hands of influential figures and sparking major legal controversies. Today, they command the highest premiums ever witnessed in the realm of numismatics.
1933 Double Eagle Appearance
The Double Eagle design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is truly a masterpiece. Many would agree with Roosevelt that it is one of the most beautiful coins ever minted in the world.
The Obverse of the 1933 Double Eagle
The obverse side of the coin showcases the elegant figure of Lady Liberty. In a forward stride, she gracefully holds an olive branch in her left hand, symbolizing peace, while her right hand carries a torch, representing enlightenment.
Surrounding her are 46 stars, each representing a state of the United States. Two stars were added in 1912 to signify the inclusion of Arizona and New Mexico. The word “LIBERTY” graces the top, above her flowing hair, and to her right side rests the year “1933.” Standing adjacent to the U.S. Capitol, Lady Liberty is set against a backdrop of radiant sunrays.
The Reverse of the 1933 Double Eagle
The reverse side of the coin features a meticulously crafted eagle in flight, soaring above a majestic rising sun. Engraved at the top are the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” along with the coin’s denomination. The upper portion of the coin displays the chiseled US motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” While not part of the original design, this motto was added in response to public sentiment and a desire to address concerns about the lack of a motto on the coin.
It’s interesting to notice that Augustus got the design inspiration for Lady Liberty from the Winged Victory of Samothrace, a sculpture from the Hellenistic era.
The 1933 Double Eagle’s Rarity
The Gold Reserve Act of 1933
The 1933 Double Eagle is one of the rarest and most sought-after coins in the world’s numismatic history. While the Mint produced almost half a million of the $20 coins, all but two of them should have been melted due to the Gold Reserve Act of 1933. The two specimens were kept for the National Coin Collection.
Factors Contributing to the Scarcity of the Coin
It is unknown how many 1933 Double Eagles survived the Gold Reserve Act, but the US Mint has recovered and destroyed a number of them during the 20th century. It is speculated that there are around twenty specimens nowadays, but the possibility is there are many more.
The preserved gold coins were likely passed to the heirs of their initial owners. Since it is illegal to possess them and the US Mint would cease them as soon as it found out about their existence, the owners are keeping quiet for the time being. Several notable examples are one of the most famous pieces of numismatics in the world. Let’s talk in detail about those.
The Famous King Farouk Specimen
King Farouk of Egypt and His Passion for Coin Collecting
King Farouk of Egypt was a prominent coin enthusiast. His collection numbered thousands of notable pieces, including a 1913 Liberty Head nickel and the most interesting specimen of a 1933 Double Eagle.
The Mysterious Journey of the King Farouk Specimen
After the Gold Reserve Act, anyone intending to leave the country with any gold coin was mandated to have an export license. King Farouk asked the Treasury Department for the necessary certificate and it was granted to him.
This oversight occurred because the Department of Treasury didn’t yet understand the importance of the coin. When they realized the mistake, it was too late. The officials concluded that asking for the Double Eagle back would negatively affect the diplomatic relations between the two countries, so there was nothing they could do anymore.
The king reigned until the revolution in 1952 when he was ousted by the new government. His property was seized and auctioned off two years later. Although many of his coins were included, the Double Eagle was withdrawn from the auction at the request of the Treasury Department.
The location of the Farouk specimen was unknown for almost five decades. There were rumors in the numismatic community that the famous Double Eagle was sighted in Europe, but there was no tangible evidence to support the claims.
The Subsequent Legal Battles and Ownership Controversies
The coin finally resurfaced in 1995. Stephen Fenton, a British collector, bought it from an Egypt jeweler for $220 000. He was aware of the rarity of the coin so he started to look for potential buyers. In 1996, he eventually found one that turned out to be working with an FBI agent. Fenton was arrested in Waldorf Astoria in NY and the government took back what they deemed theirs.
Although the prosecutors dropped the charges just several months after this incident, Fenton still wanted his coin back. His argument in court was that the coin was obtained legally as the Department of Treasury issued the export license several decades earlier. He eventually won the case and it was decided that the coin would be auctioned off and the money would be split between Fenton and the government.
The “Eagle-On-a-Cliff” Auction
The King Farouk specimen of the 1933 Double Eagle triggered one of the most iconic auctions in numismatic history, which took place in 2002. The intense bidding lasted for less than ten minutes and culminated in a record-breaking sale price of $7.5 million, marking the highest sum ever offered for a single coin. To legalize possession of this particular 1933 Double Eagle, the Department of Treasury issued a Certificate of Transfer.
Adding a touch of intrigue, the buyer was required to pay the face value of $20 to the government, effectively “monetizing” the coin. While the buyer’s identity remained undisclosed at the time, it has since been revealed that Stuart A. Weitzman, the renowned shoe designer and owner of the Stuart Weitzman company, was the purchaser. This momentous event finally put an end to the enigmatic 70-year journey surrounding Farouk’s specimen of the 1933 Double Eagle.
The Langbord Family Legal Battle
The Discovery of “Landborg Hoard”
In 1933, during the order to melt all gold coins, it is believed that an individual working at the Mint, possibly a cashier, managed to smuggle out around twenty specimens of the 1933 Double Eagle. One of the individuals who acquired these coins under questionable circumstances was Israel Switt, a coin dealer based in Philadelphia. Despite government suspicions surrounding Switt’s association with these coveted coins, they lacked sufficient grounds to charge him with a crime due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.
In 2003, Joan Langbord, Switt’s daughter, made a surprising revelation. She discovered that ten of these highly sought-after specimens had been kept in a family safe deposit box.
The Legal Battle Between the Langbord Family and the U.S. Government
Langbord hired Barry Berke, a lawyer who represented Fenton in the aforementioned case and submitted the coins to the Mint for authentication. Langbord and Berke made it clear that they were not surrendering the coins, just sending them to confirm their validity. However, the government never returned them and thus began the 13-year-long legal battle.
The Court’s Decision and the Outcome for the Langbord Family
Following the initial court ruling that favored the Langbord family, citing a previous case involving Double Eagle coins, the US government sought a review of the decision. Eventually, permission was granted to the government to retain possession of the coins.
The Langbord family attempted to escalate the case to the Supreme Court, but their appeal was ultimately denied, effectively concluding the ongoing saga surrounding these valuable coins, at least for the time being. Presently, the coins are securely safeguarded within the fortified walls of Fort Knox.
The Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection
The Preservation of the 1933 Double Eagle by the Smithsonian
During the issuance of the Gold Reserve Act, the government deliberately set aside two 1933 Double Eagles for preservation. These two coins were intended to be the sole surviving specimens, and they now hold a place of prominence within the National Museum of American History as part of the esteemed National Numismatic Collection.
Location of the Smithsonian’s 1933 Double Eagle
For numismatics enthusiasts seeking an opportunity to marvel at these incredibly rare and valuable coins, a visit to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is highly recommended. Admission to the museum is free, providing an excellent opportunity to not only view the 1933 Double Eagles but also explore other captivating coins such as the 1913 Liberty Head nickel, 1804 dollars, and 1877 half unions.
Notable Sales And Auctions
The captivating story of the Farouk specimen continued beyond 2002, reaching another significant auction in March 2021. The previously anonymous buyer made the decision to sell his remarkable collection of prized possessions.
Among Stuart Weitzman’s collection were the coveted 1933 Double Eagle, the iconic Inverted Jenny postage stamp, and the world’s rarest stamp, the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta. The three items fetched a staggering total of over $30 million at auction.
Undoubtedly stealing the spotlight was the majestic 1933 $20 coin, the Double Eagle. Commanding a staggering price of $18.9 million, it shattered the record as the most expensive coin ever sold, earning Weitzman over $11 million in the process.
1933 Double Eagle FAQs
What makes the 1933 Double Eagle so valuable?
The 1933 Double Eagle possesses immense value due to its rarity and the captivating stories that have enveloped this fascinating coin for nearly a century. From its extraordinary design by Saint-Gaudens, the illegal smuggling, and gripping legal battles to the renowned individuals who possessed these specimens and the astronomical prices they fetched at auctions, the 1933 Double Eagle stands as the most coveted coin in the history of numismatics.
How many 1933 Double Eagles are known to exist today?
Thirteen known specimens of the 1933 Double Eagle exist. Ten are safeguarded within Fort Knox, two are proudly displayed as part of the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, and only one remains in private possession, the owner of which chooses to remain anonymous.
How much is a 1933 Double Eagle worth?
The last auction of a 1933 Double Eagle achieved a staggering price of $18.9 million. As the sole legal specimen that can be owned by an individual, if the undisclosed owner were to decide to sell, it is anticipated that the price would surpass the 2021 record, potentially exceeding $20 million.
Can I legally own a 1933 Double Eagle?
Legally, an individual can own only one 1933 Double Eagle, as the remaining twelve specimens are property of the government. It is important to note that acquiring this extraordinary coin would require setting aside a substantial sum, likely surpassing twenty million dollars.
Why is the Smithsonian’s Double Eagle not considered stolen property?
The 1933 Double Eagle displayed at the Smithsonian Institution is not deemed stolen property because it rightfully belongs to the U.S. government. The two specimens showcased at the National Museum of American History have been legal since their minting in 1933, as the U.S. Mint refrained from melting them, choosing instead to retain them for the national collection of coins.
The tale of the 1933 Double Eagle possesses an allure that captivates even those with no prior interest in numismatics. It is a story woven with fortuitous twists, unfortunate turns, crimes, legal dramas, enigmatic mysteries, and encounters with prominent figures.
The Saint-Gaudens gold $20 coins, illicitly smuggled out of the Mint, remain the most valuable coins in the world. Further heightening the intrigue are rumors suggesting the existence of more than the known thirteen examples. We can only hope that we will unveil further details about these coins during our lifetimes. In the meantime, we can delight in the splendor of the two magnificent specimens displayed at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.