In June 2021 a gold coin with a face value of $20 became the most expensive coin ever sold at auction when it sold for a record $18.9 million in New York. The 1933 gold double eagle is arguably the most notorious coin in the world because, with just this one exception, it is actually illegal to own one. It is therefore, quite literally, a coin that money can’t buy.
Added to its appeal is the fact that the design is a beautiful work of art. It was the brainchild of President Theodore Roosevelt, who was determined to put an end to coinage that was, in his words, “artistically of atrocious hideousness”. In January 1905 he invited the acclaimed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to a private dinner at the White House where the two men spoke enthusiastically about their love of the high-relief coins of ancient Greece.
The President asked the artist to design the gold double eagle, and Saint-Gaudens depicted a standing Liberty with a torch representing enlightenment in one hand and an olive branch symbolising peace in the other. Behind her is the Capitol building and rays of sunlight symbolising a new dawn. The name ‘LIBERTY’ appears above her head and the year of issue at her side. The reverse shows a side view of a majestic eagle in flight with the rays of the rising sun behind it. Above the eagle is the inscription ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TWENTY DOLLARS’ and below it the motto ‘IN GOD WE TRUST’ which the public demanded to be added after Saint-Gaudens left it off his original high-relief version in 1907. A low-relief version was issued into circulation from 1907 to 1932.
It is ironic that the first President Roosevelt helped to create the beautiful double eagle, while the second President Roosevelt made it illegal to own one. In April 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt took radical action to stabilize the economy following the Great Depression by taking America off the gold standard. Gold was withdrawn from circulation and people were ordered to hand in any gold coins and bullion that they owned. The Mint had already struck 445,000 double eagles dated 1933. None went into circulation. Two were sent to the Smithsonian Museum and the rest were believed to have been melted down in 1937.
However, it soon transpired that a small number of 1933 dated double eagle coins had been illegally removed from the Mint. In early 1944 a Philadelphia coin dealer named Israel Switt sold ten to individual collectors. Treasury officials were alerted and tracked down the new owners to reclaim their stolen property. They retrieved nine, which were destroyed and no compensation was offered to Switt’s unlucky customers. However, they were too late to stop one from leaving the country bound for King Farouk of Egypt because it had been granted an export licence in error.
Unwilling to cause a diplomatic incident by demanding the return of a coin that had been granted an official export licence, the U.S. Government waited until the Egyptian king was overthrown in 1952 before they attempted to retrieve it. However, by then it had gone missing, and it did not resurface until 1995 when a London coin dealer Stephen Fenton brought it to New York to sell to a private collector. The prospective purchaser turned out to be a government agent, and the coin was seized. A long legal battle followed. In court, Fenton argued that the Government had provided written permission for the coin to be sold when they granted the export licence in 1944.
In 2001 the courts ruled that the coin should be sold at auction with the profits split between Fenton and the Government. This particular specimen was declared legal tender, and the winning bidder had to pay a fee of $20 for its face value along with their winning bid of $6.6 million. Together with the auctioneer’s fee, this added up to a total sale price $7.6 million.
Twenty years later, the coin was sold for $18.9 million by Sotheby’s in New York, making it the most expensive coin ever sold at auction. As a result of the official export licence granted in error, it remains the only 1933 double eagle that can be legally owned by a private individual.
There is a further twist to the tale. In 2003, Israel Switt’s grandson Roy Langbord found a safe deposit box that had belonged to his grandfather, which hadn’t been opened for fifty years. Inside he found a large number of gold coins, including another ten 1933 double eagles. When Langbord asked the Mint to authenticate them, they were promptly confiscated, and so he sued the government demanding their return.
Following a lengthy legal battle and appeals process, the court ruled that the coins were the property of the U.S. Government. The Langbord family appealed to the Supreme Court but in April 2017 they declined to reopen the case. Today, the ten double eagles reside in a secure government facility, most likely Fort Knox, while their ultimate fate is determined.