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Unearthed Gold Coins Belong to Uncle Sam

(CN) - A federal judge awarded the U.S. government ownership of 10 rare gold coins valued at roughly $80 million that have been missing for decades.

The 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle, named after its designer Augustus St. Gaudens, is "one of the most sought-after rarities in history," according to the U.S. Mint.

Though the double eagle was originally valued at $20, one such coin that belonged to King Farouk of Egypt sold for more than $7.5 million at a Sotheby's auction in the summer of 2002, making it the most valuable coins ever auctioned at the time.

The Philadelphia Mint struck 445,500 double eagles at the height of the Great Depression, but it pulled them back weeks later as President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered U.S. banks to abandon the gold standard.

With most 1933 double eagles having been melted into gold bars, the Smithsonian was thought to have the only two coins left in existence.

It was eventually discovered, however, that Philadelphia Mint cashier George McCann spirited some away to local coin dealer Israel Switt.

In 2003, Switt's daughter and two grandsons - Joan, Roy and David Langbord - drilled open a safety deposit box. Inside that box, nestled among Switt's belongings, sat a gray paper Wanamaker's department store bag.

That bag contained 10 of the 1933 double eagles, wrapped in tissue paper.

After the Langbords handed over the coins to the Mint for authentication, the government seized the coins and stashed them in a vault at Fort Knox without compensating the family.

In July 2011, the Langbords tried to convince a federal jury that the coins could have escaped the Mint legitimately through a "window of opportunity" between March 15 and April 5, 1933.

The government's star expert, David Tripp, acknowledged gold coins could have left the Mint during that window, but he added that there were no records that 1933 Double Eagles did.

Jurors found that the coins were forfeited to the government, and U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis Jr. refused to disturb the verdict Wednesday.

"In the end, Tripp admitted on cross examination that there was a small 'window of opportunity' during which gold coin was authorized to be released from the Philadelphia Mint," Davis wrote. "And many gold coins did, in fact, leave the Mint during this period of time. ... But as Tripp correctly noted, the Mint records reflect that no 1933 Double Eagles were part of those transactions."

Nobody witnessed the disappearance of the 10 coins, but the jury "could - and did - properly infer criminal intent," he added.

"Not surprisingly, the jury in this case heard no testimony from anyone who was actually present at the Mint when the '33 Double Eagles first disappeared so many years ago - all the primary actors who might have told that tale have passed away," the 54-page order states. "But that certainly does not doom the Government's case because 'explicit evidence is not required to support a finding of specific intent.'"

Absent records surrounding the '33 Double Eagles speak to criminal intent.

"The Mint meticulously tracked the '33 Double Eagles, and the records show that no such transaction occurred," Davis wrote. "What's more, this absence of a paper trail speaks to criminal intent. If whoever took or exchanged the coins thought he was doing no wrong, we would expect to see some sort of documentation reflecting the transaction, especially considering how carefully and methodically the Mint accounted for the '33 Double Eagles. The jury saw no record of a legitimate '33 Double Eagle release, and from this lack of documentation one may reasonably infer that the responsible party appropriated the coins in secret, knowing full well the wrongfulness and illegality of his actions.

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