The 1933 Double Eagle
During the depths of the Great Depression, the newly-ascendant administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard. This was accomplished with Executive Order 6102 in April 1933, which criminalized the possession of gold by US citizens. The Gold Reserve Act passed the following year, and ratified the provisions of the Executive Order and also devalued the dollar. US gold coinage was to be melted into bars and stored at the new Fort Knox in Kentucky. The intent of the Executive Order and the subsequent legislation was to remove constraints on the Federal Reserve in its efforts to resolve the ongoing banking crisis.
The US Mint nonetheless minted gold $20 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles in 1933, as they had since 1907. 445,500 Double Eagles were produced bearing 1933 dates, but none were released. Nearly all the coins were melted and turned into bars by 1937; the Treasury intentionally saved two coins, which were given to the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian Institution. Somehow, twenty additional 1933 Double Eagles also escaped the furnace. Though it will likely never be known for sure, the most likely explanation is that a Mint employee swapped the 1933 coins with earlier dates. The 1933 coins made their way into the hands of various dealers across the country.
The Secret Service began an investigation in 1944 when a 1933 Double Eagle appeared in a New York auction. Just days earlier, however, King Farouk of Egypt had purchased a different 1933 Double Eagle from a Texas coin dealer. The Secret Service was unsuccessful in persuading King Farouk to return it. Over the next few years, the government recovered and destroyed nine other 1933 Double Eagles. In 1945, a Philadelphia coin dealer named Israel Switt admitted to having sold many of the coins, but did not confess to being involved in the theft. By this time the statute of limitations had expired and he was not prosecuted.
When Farouk was deposed in 1952, his 1933 Double Eagle was slated to be auctioned off along with his vast collection of coins, stamps, Fabergé eggs, and other curiosities. But shortly after the US government again requested its return, the coin disappeared. It resurfaced in 1996 when a British coin dealer named Stephen Fenton attempted to sell it in New York. The coin was seized by the Secret Service and held in a vault under the World Trade Center. After a long legal dispute, Fenton and the Treasury finally came to a settlement in 2001, and the coin was moved out of the World Trade Center just weeks before the September 11th attacks. King Farouk’s Double Eagle was sold at auction in 2002 for $7.59 million, with an additional $20 – the coin’s face value – paid to the Treasury to officially make it legal tender. Fenton and the Treasury split the proceeds.
At the time of the 2002 auction, King Farouk’s coin was believed to be the only one remaining. But in 2004, Israel Switt’s daughter discovered ten more 1933 Double Eagles in a Philadelphia safe deposit box. Switt’s daughter hoped to reach an agreement with the Treasury similar to the one they struck with Fenton, but when she turned over the coins for authentication, the Treasury claimed them as recovered stolen property. The legal dispute between Switt’s family and the US government is ongoing, and the ultimate fate of these ten 1933 Double Eagles is still uncertain.