She Found Rare Coins Worth $40 Million—Then the Government Took Them
A woman discovered rare 1933 coins in her family’s safe-deposit box. Can the government confiscate them?
Noma Bar for Reader's DigestWhen Joan Langbord found ten gold coins in a family safe-deposit box in 2003, she knew she’d unburied a treasure. Langbord, then 75, had worked in her late father’s Philadelphia jewelry store her entire life, and she was fairly sure that the coins were 1933 double eagles. Designed by American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens with Lady Liberty on one side and a bald eagle on the other, the 1933 double eagle is one of America’s rarest and most beautiful coins.
Although 445,500 double eagles were minted in 1933, each one valued at $20, they were never issued (unlike these rare dimes worth nearly $2 million). Instead, 500 coins were held by the U.S. Mint’s cashier, and the rest were sealed away in the agency’s basement vault. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had pulled all gold coins from circulation because people were hoarding gold during the Depression, depleting the Federal Reserve’s stash. The Mint ultimately sent two of the 1933 double eagles to the Smithsonian; the rest were melted into bars and stored in the just-built Fort Knox in Kentucky.
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Or so the Mint thought. In the 1940s, reports of private collectors trading 1933 double eagles shocked Mint officials and sparked a Secret Service investigation. The agents discovered that a cashier had smuggled an unknown number of the coins out of the Mint. The Feds traced ten of them to Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt—Joan Langbord’s father. Switt had sold those coins to private collectors, later testifying that he had no records of how he’d obtained them or from whom he’d bought them. He was never prosecuted for any crime.
The trail went cold until almost 60 years later, when an English coin dealer tried to sell a 1933 double eagle to a New York collector. The U.S. government immediately seized it. It turned out to be a stolen coin Switt had sold to a Philadelphia collector; it had later been sold by a Texas collector to Egypt’s King Farouk, in 1944. Unaware then that the Secret Service was investigating the stolen coins, the Department of the Treasury mistakenly had allowed King Farouk to export the coin. Because of its own error, in 2002 the government agreed to sell that 1933 double eagle at auction and split the proceeds between the English coin dealer and the Mint. It sold for $7.6 million. (If any of these 15 valuable coins are in your wallet, you could get a nice chunk of change too.)
It was two years later that Langbord took her 1933 double eagles to the Mint for authentication. Assuming that her father had owned the coins legally, she hoped to make a similar arrangement, which would have netted about $40 million, according to Langbord’s original claim. The Mint refused—and confiscated the coins, claiming that the double eagles “already are, and always have been, property belonging to the United States.”
In 2006, Langbord sued the Mint, the Treasury, and various federal officials. She claimed there was a period in 1933, after the coins were minted but before Roosevelt pulled gold from the market, when her father could have legally purchased them. The government maintained that the coins were stolen.
Should the government return the coins to Joan Langbord? You be the judge.
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No, but it took the courts nearly a decade to make that call. The case came down to one question: Were the coins stolen, or was it possible that they were accidentally but legally issued and then sold to Switt? The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in August 2016 that the coins were the Mint’s property, citing testimony showing that Mint records “track the movement of each 1933 double eagle. These records were remarkably detailed.” In other words, says Mint attorney Greg Weinman, “these coins didn’t go out through the front door—they went out the back door.” Langbord appealed to the Supreme Court, but in April 2017, it declined to hear the case.