The most expensive coin ever sold at auction

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.

The 1933 gold double eagle (Picture courtesy of Sotheby’s)

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.

President Theodore Roosevelt

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.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

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 Gold was withdrawn from circulation and people were ordered to hand in any gold coins and bullion that they owned.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.

King Farouk of Egypt

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.

The world’s most expensive coin

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.

The ten 1933 Double Eagles are now the property of the US Government

The 1792 Birch Cent

On the evening of 9th July 1792, two of America’s founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson arrived at the home of a man called John Harper on Sixth and Cherry Street in Philadelphia. With them was David Rittenhouse, appointed by President Washington just nine days earlier as the first Director of the United States Mint. Land for the new mint had already been identified on Seventh Street, and Rittenhouse would lay the cornerstone for the new building later that month. However, the coin presses that had been ordered from England wouldn’t arrive until September, and so the first coins wouldn’t be struck at the new premises until December. No one wanted to wait that long to see what the first official coins produced at the US Mint would look like.

David Rittenhouse

John Harper, a saw maker from New Jersey, kept a screw press in his cellar designed by Mint employee Adam Eckfeldt, who would go on to build other machinery for the Mint and help to oversee the production of the early coins.  Harper agreed to allow his cellar to become the temporary home of the US Mint so that the first official coins could be struck there in a range of metals, sizes and designs to test what worked and what didn’t. Earlier that day the President had sent Rittenhouse an instruction authorising him to strike dimes (originally spelt ‘dismes’), half dimes and cents. Now, the men eagerly crowded into the cellar to watch as history was made.

Adam Eckfeldt

The U.S. Congress had passed its first Coinage Act three months earlier on 2nd April 1792, authorising the creation of the official Mint in Philadelphia to strike the coins of the United States. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton defined the United States dollar as a unit of pure of silver weighing precisely the same as the Spanish dollar, which was already in common use.  The new Act made the silver dollar the legal tender of the country and created a decimal system for US currency. 

Alexander Hamilton

The first draft of the Act stipulated that all coins would depict a portrait of the president on the obverse. However, by the final version, the requirement had changed to a depiction of liberty, as well as the word ‘LIBERTY’.   Engravers were contracted to begin designing and preparing dies for the new coins, even before there was a mint to strike them. Some of these tools may have been produced in England, and sadly little is known about the artists who designed the early test pieces.

We know that the portrait of Liberty that appeared on the copper cent was engraved by an artist called Birch because he helpfully put his name on her shoulder above the date 1792. Surviving mint records list his name as “Bob Birch”, and it appears that he was privately commissioned in 1792 because his name doesn’t appear in the official list of mint employees. It has long been believed that he was from England, but the absence of any tangible information about a Bob (or Robert) Birch allows for the speculation that the artist may have been William Birch (1755-1834), a noted British engraver and painter of miniature enamels. Born in Warwick, Birch exhibited his tiny portraits at the Royal Academy and emigrated to Philadelphia in 1794 after attracting wealthy patrons on both sides of the Atlantic, including President Washington himself. In Britain, a ‘bob’ was a popular slang expression for a shilling, so the name listed in the mint records may have been the artist’s nickname.  

An engraving of Philadelphia in 1800 by William Birch

The design of the first official cent produced in the United States depicts a flowing haired Liberty with the inscription ‘LIBERTY PARENT OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY’ and the year of issue, ‘1792’. On the reverse, there is a decorated laurel wreath around the denomination ‘ONE CENT’ with the words’ UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’. There is also the fraction ‘1/100’ which shows the origin of the word ‘cent’ as the coin is literally one per cent of a dollar. An earlier version of the design bore the inscription ‘G.W.PT’ (George Washington, President) instead of the fraction but this was probably changed because Washington objected to having his image or a reference to him on a coin. 

Washington, Jefferson, Rittenhouse and Eckfeldt inspect the first US coins struck

It would appear that only a small handful of cents bearing the Birch design were minted in John Harper’s cellar that day, which accounts for their extreme rarity. The fact that they may have been struck in the presence of Washington and Jefferson makes them even more valuable and among the most popular of all the prototype (or pattern) coins ever produced by the US Mint.

Of the ten specimens that are thought to exist, one sold at auction in 2015 for nearly $2.6 million.  When asked why he had paid so much for a cent, the delighted new owner explained that “the history is important. This is our earliest depiction of what we thought of ourselves as a nation.”

The 1792 Birch Cent

The Brasher Doubloon

New York was the capital of the United States from 1785 until 1790. During the late eighteenth century, one of the most fashionable locations in the city was Cherry Hill, which lies just north of the Brooklyn Bridge today. Cherry Street was the home of Ephraim Brasher (1744-1828), a distinguished goldsmith and silversmith. Brasher regulated precious metal coins for the bank, carefully checking their fineness and weight, and stamping them with his oval-shaped hallmark containing his initials’ EB’ if they met the correct standards. His hallmark became a guarantee of quality, enabling bank clerks to accept coins without checking their weight. Several examples of foreign gold have been discovered counter stamped with his quality mark.

George Washington enters New York City in 1783

On 12th February 1787, Brasher and a silversmith and sword maker called John Bailey requested franchises to produce copper coins for the state of New York. We don’t know whether this was a joint application, or if both men just happened to submit the requests on the same day. But their applications were denied because New York decided not to mint copper coins. Shortly afterwards, Basher designed and struck some sample coins to demonstrate his ability. A few were struck as gold doubloons using a letter punch that Bailey had used to strike copper coins in New Jersey. It would be the first gold coin made for the United States of America.

A silver coffeepot produced by Brasher
Brasher’s hallmark on the bottom of the coffeepot

The doubloon (Spanish for double) was the name given to the Two Escudo gold coin that was minted throughout the Americas as well as in Spain with the gold they received from the New World. The Spanish galleons transporting gold through the Caribbean and across the ocean were always vulnerable to attack from pirates seeking to relieve them of their precious cargo. As a result, no other coin in the world evokes more potent images of pirate ships and treasure maps than the doubloon.

Brasher’s doubloon depicted the Great Seal of the United States, an eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows. He also added an unusually worded version of the national motto ‘UNUM E PLURIBUS’ (One from many) together with the date 1787. After the coin was struck, Brasher counter stamped his EB hallmark onto the reverse as his personal guarantee of quality. To date, six surviving examples of the coin have been found with the stamp on the eagle’s wing and one with the stamp on the shield.

On the reverse, he depicted the coat of arms of New York, an image of the sun casting rays of light over a mountain range with the sea in the foreground. Surrounding the image is the inscription, ‘NOVA EBORACA COLUMBIA EXCELSIOR’ (New York, America, Ever Higher). Excelsior remains the state motto to this day. Brasher also added his surname underneath the image.

The Brasher Doubloon

Brasher’s neighbour in Cherry Street was none other than George Washington, who would become the first president of the United States two years later in 1789. We know that America’s founding father approved of Brasher’s talents as a gold and silversmith, because he bought several items from him, including a set of four silver skewers in April 1790. Perhaps this explains why Brasher produced his doubloon. He was asked to do so by his neighbour. In November 1792, Brasher assayed several types of gold coins for the new federal government, and after that continued to assay gold for the US Mint.

George Washington’s mansion on Cherry Street.

The value of a doubloon would fluctuate depending on the value of the gold. When Brasher struck his unique version of the coin, New York had officially established the standard that a gold doubloon was worth $15. Today, of course, it is worth considerably more. In 2011, one of Brasher’s doubloons was sold for nearly $7.4 million, which was the most money ever paid for a coin at the time.

Author Raymond Chandler immortalised the coin in popular culture when he had his fictional private-eye Philip Marlowe investigate the theft of one in his novel The High Window. In 1947 the book was adapted into a movie by 20th Century Fox called appropriately The Brasher Doubloon.

Movie poster for ‘The Brasher Doubloon’

The 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar

The Flowing Hair silver dollar was the very first dollar issued by the United States. The Coinage Act of 2nd April, 1792, created the United States Mint and a bimetallic coinage system based on the silver dollar and the gold eagle. But there would be a delay of two years before the first dollar was struck.

The delay was caused by two reasons. The Government required a $10,000 bond from Chief Coiner Henry Voigt and Assayer Albion Cox before they could be permitted to handle precious metals. Mint Director David Rittenhouse was eventually able to persuade Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and President George Washington to reduce the bond substantially to enable both men to pay it. There was also a national shortage of silver which meant that the Mint had to wait for private citizens or banks to supply them with raw silver or silver foreign coins so that they could strike them into silver dollars. The silver suppliers would then receive the value of the silver back in a parcel of dollars.

Silver was received from The Bank of Maryland and the Bank of North of America, and it is reported that President Washington contributed some of his silver to coin. Rittenhouse also made a sizeable deposit, and the first US dollars were struck from his silver.

The design of the first official US dollar was entrusted to the Mint’s first official Chief Engraver, Robert Scot (1745-1823). Inspired by a right-facing portrait of Liberty created by Joseph Wright for the 1793 cent, Scot depicted her with her hair flowing behind her surrounded by fifteen stars, representing the number of states in the Union at that time. Her name, ‘LIBERTY’ appears above her head and the year of issue ‘1794’ beneath. For the reverse, Scot created an eagle motif with its wings extended surrounded by a laurel wreath with the inscription ‘UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’.

The 1794 Flowing Hair Dollar (image courtesy of the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History)

Born (appropriately enough) in Scotland, Scot learned his craft in Edinburgh before emigrating to Virginia in 1775 where he quickly acquired a formidable reputation as a coin and medal designer. A move to Philadelphia soon followed, where it is believed that he engraved the dies for the Great Seal of the USA in 1782. In 1793 he became the first salaried Chief Engraver of the United States Mint and designed the Liberty Cap half-cent and the Flowing Hair silver dollars. In 1796 he modified the Great Seal to create the enduringly popular heraldic eagle design, a powerful symbol of the USA which has appeared on the nation’s coinage ever since.

The Great Seal of the United States produced in 1782

The Mint held a special ceremony in Philadelphia on 15th October 1794 to celebrate the striking of the first silver dollar. They quickly realised that their largest coin press was not powerful enough to strike the coins evenly, which made some parts of the design appear weaker than others. Of the 2,000 coins struck, 242 were immediately rejected because the strike quality was particularly poor, either lacking the desired definition or being off centre. These coins were held back by the mint so that they could be recoined the following year.

At the end of the day, Director Rittenhouse was presented with 1,758 silver dollars to circulate as he saw fit. He sent samples to friends and acquaintances all over the country to demonstrate the capabilities of the mint. One landed on the desk of President Washington, forwarded by Secretary of State Edmund Randolph with a note that read;

“The silver coin of the U.S. bears upon its face so much neatness and simplicity, that I cannot restrain myself from transmitting a dollar for your inspection.”

Mint Director Rittenhouse

Rittenhouse arranged for a local Philadelphia firm to construct a special press capable of delivering enough force to strike the large silver dollars. It was ready to begin work in April 1795 when production of the first silver dollar design resumed.

The first United States Mint in Philadephia

It has been estimated that about 125 of the 1794 dated silver dollars are known to exist today. One of the finest specimens, believed to be the coin that Director Rittenhouse kept for himself, and the first silver dollar ever struck at the US Mint was sold at auction for over $10 million in 2013. It became the most expensive coin in the world until another US coin, the 1933 Double Eagle sold at auction for $18.9 million in June 2021.

The Seven LUCKIEST Coins in the World

Do coins have the power to bring GOOD LUCK? For centuries, many have believed this to be true. There are countless stories of how coins have ensured fortune and luck (and in some cases, the loss of a coin has led to failure and even disaster!) While your choice of a personal good luck charm remains completely up to you, let’s examine SEVEN of the most popular lucky coins around the world. 

1. The Silver Sixpence (Great Britain)

In Great Britain, the Lucky Sixpence appears in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence as well as the tradition of hiding a Sixpence inside each British child’s Christmas Pudding to bring good luck for the new year. 

Even better known is the mention of this coin in the famous wedding rhyme: “Something borrowed, something Blue, and a Sixpence for her shoe.” For centuries, brides have been wearing a sixpence coin in their shoes in the hope that their marriage be filled with prosperity and good luck. For that reason, British sixpence coins are among the most popular wedding gifts for brides.

2. The Lucky Irish Penny (Ireland)

The Lucky Irish Penny was minted in Ireland from 1928-1968. In 1926, as designs were being considered for this new coin, Irish poet William Butler Yeats was named the design committee’s chairman. Ultimately, the committee selected a design of the Irish harp, which traced its origins to a coin first issued by Henry VIII in 1534.  The coin’s reverse side, it was decided, would feature a hen and chicks design as a tribute to Ireland’s tradition of agriculture.

These coins were first minted in 1928 and continued to be issued virtually unchanged until 1968. Struck in copper, each coin weighs approximately an ounce. The coin’s inscription is in Gaelic, the native language of Ireland. 

Large and relatively inexpensive, the Lucky Irish Penny is a popular good luck piece carried in pockets throughout the world.

3. Leap Year Mercury Dimes (United States)

Many gamblers across the U.S. swear by the luck of the leap year Mercury Silver Dime. This widespread superstition likely stems from an overall belief in the power of silver coins coupled with Mercury being the god of “the crossroads” or fate, as well as chance. The leap year dates that occurred during the run of the Mercury Dime series are 1916, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1940, 1944.

The belief in the Leap Year Mercury Dime is particularly ironic, however, since this silver dime has long been misidentified as depicting the Roman god Mercury, when it actually features Lady Liberty wearing a winged cap – symbolizing freedom of thought.

4. The Five-Yen Coin (Japan)

Many Japanese people believe in destiny. The term “go-en” (ご縁) refers to those seemingly serendipitous encounters that result in long and meaningful relationships. The Japanese 5-yen coin is also called “go-en” 五円.  Because it sounds the same as the “go-en” of destiny, many Japanese people believe that holding a 5-yen coin will help them discover what the Universe has in store for them. This could involve finding soulmate spouse, a perfect job, a dream home, or many other facets of life. 

Similarly, 5-yen coins are commonly placed into offering boxes at shrines while one utters a prayer of thanks, followed by a wish for something in the future (always in that order). Because this belief all ties back to destiny, a 5-yen coin is seen as simply helping along the good luck and the serendipity that is actually always meant to be!

5. Vault Protector/Cash Coins (China)

In China, “cash coins” featuring a square hole in the middle hold a special meaning. The square in the centre represents the four corners of the Earth while the outer circle shape symbolizes the heavens around it. In ancient China, money was often frequently carried on strings rather than in purses. These coins are also often worn around the neck with a red ribbon as amulets to fight off negativity and illness.

Certain large and heavy cash coins are known as “Vault Protector” coins. Created only for special occasions, Chinese mints would sometimes cast large, thick, and heavy coins with a square hole in the centre. These coins were not for circulation – but instead occupied a special place at the treasury. The treasury had a spirit hall, where offerings could be made to gods such as the God of Wealth. These special coins would often be hung with red silk through their square hole, suspended above the incense table. They were called Vault Protector coins because they were believed to have charm-like powers to protect against evil and disaster, thus ensuring good fortune, prosperity, and wealth.

Giving a gift of Chinese cash coins ensures that the receiver is granted your wishes of wealth, prosperity and happiness.

6. Touch Pieces – Healing Coins (England & France)

Touch Pieces are coins that have been touched by rulers, monarchs or other powerful beings who are believed to hold their authority directly from God. Touch Piece coins were extremely auspicious and are said to have demonstrated healing powers.

Actually, this practice dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Vespasian (69-79AD) is reported to have initiated ceremonies during which he would hand out coins to the sick. This ceremony became known as “The Touching”.

Centuries later, the Kings and Queens of England and France embraced this practice – holding regular touching ceremonies up through 1714. The fact that an angel appeared on some British coins from the time of Henry VIII onward further cemented the tradition of the healing coin from the hand of your monarch. The British tradition of Maundy Money may have derived from this overall custom, as it features the monarch gifting specific subjects with token gifts of silver coins. 

Of course, it wasn’t just about royalty. Clergymen were also known to hand out or even sell healing coins during ceremonies which were said to bring healing powers to the believer. There are many contemporary accounts of people being cured by this method. In a convenient bit of rationale, those who remained ill were accused of not having enough faith.

7. The Gold Angel (France)

As we have just seen, coins with angels on them have been treasured as tokens of good luck, health, and fortune. If a King or Queen handed an angel coin to a subject, it would often become a family heirloom – being handed down through the generations. 

The legend of the Lucky French Gold Angel, however, has an even more dramatic start. During the French Revolution, Augustine Dupré, was standing on the platform waiting in line to lose his head to the guillotine. In his pocket, Dupré carried a gold coin that he himself had engraved, a French Gold Angel. He believed that carrying the coin with him would protect him from evil and danger. Sure enough, faced with the dire prospect of the guillotine, the Angel delivered him! 

Legend holds that moments before his execution, a huge thunder roared and lightning struck, scaring the executioner and delaying the planned execution. Before it could be rescheduled, Dupré was granted a pardon – and thus the Gold Angel saved his life. 

Inspired by this tale, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte also carried a Lucky Gold Angel—but legend reports that he lost his coin just the day before the Battle of Waterloo. We all know the outcome of that battle!  

Dupré’s angel design was revived from 1871 to 1898 on 20 Franc and 50 France gold coins. The coin’s legend continued into the 20th century, with sea captains and fighter pilots in both World Wars believing the coin brought them luck and protection.

SPECIAL BONUS: Personal Lucky Charm Coins

The above list details some of the most popular and longstanding lucky coins from around the globe. But you may, in fact, find your own lucky coin(s) quite a bit closer to home. 

Commonly, coins dated from your birth year or other significant milestone in your life are believed to be lucky. Also, if you are from an immigrant background, treasuring a coin from the country your parents or grandparents came from is often considered a way to ensure good luck, prosperity and fortune. 

No matter what the source, look around you today and see if you can’t pocket a special coin to bring you luck, prosperity, and happiness!

Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them. 

One Million Silver Dollars

The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair offered its ten million visitors many exciting sights.  Astronaut John Glenn brought his Friendship 7 space capsule, Elvis Presley even filmed a movie there, and Seattle’s famous Space Needle was built as the fair’s futuristic symbol.  However, if you had purchased your ticket and walked on the fairgrounds in the spring of 1962, you would have been treated to a spectacular display which has never been re-created:  a wire corn crib holding 1 MILLION gleaming US Silver Dollars!

This incredible display was the result of an unlikely partnership between the Philadelphia Mint and three Washington numismatists.  The three convinced a Columbus, Nebraska manufacturing company to build a steel building on the fair site, while two large semi trucks each carried 500,000 silver dollars in mint-sealed bags from Philadelphia all the way across country to Seattle.  (Of course, the trucks also carried armed Pinkerton guards, while state troopers and local police provided additional escort.)

To construct the Million Silver Dollars exhibit, 800,000 Morgan silver dollars in mint bags dated 1910-1915 were carefully stacked in the center of the aforementioned corn crib.  Then, once the mountain of bags was completed, the final 200,000 Peace dollars were poured in to completely cover the bags.  Fair visitors were allowed to pass within just a few feet of this amazing display from the Fair’s opening day, April 21, 1962, until it closed in October.   Anywhere from 25,000 – 40,000 visitors passed through the steel building every day to gaze upon this once-in-a-lifetime sight.  While most visitors considered themselves lucky to even be close to this treasure, one unsuspecting lady was the luckiest of them all!  In June, as the one millionth fair visitor passed through the gates, she was presented with 100 of the silver dollars from the exhibit.

In the fall of 1962, just after the World’s Fair has closed, an ad appeared in a national coin magazine offering actual dollars from this exhibit, in commemorative holders, for $1.95 each.  Or, you could purchase up to 5 bags per person for $1500 per bag of 1000.  

Oh for a time machine to travel back 59 years, eh?!!

Steve Wolff is an American numismatist, writer, and video producer who has spent over 20 years sharing the fascinating stories behind coins and the historical events and personalities that inspired and shaped them.