It’s known as the most valuable coin in the world, but that title doesn’t really do it justice. The coin could also be the most interesting, fascinating, historical, and mythical coin of all-time.
Most likely, you’ve heard about the 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle. However, the story behind the coin has filled entire books, and it’s doubtful most collectors know the complete history.
Some of the best numismatists have dedicated decades to tracking the entire history of the 1933 ‘Saints.’ So, what makes this coin the greatest in history?
Recalling the Gold
It’s well-known how the Saint-Gaudens double eagles became so rare. Most were melted down during the Great Depression. Originally struck as President Theodore Roosevelt’s “pet baby,” and designed by famous artist and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, they revived U.S. coinage.
Double eagles enjoyed a 27-year run as the kings of U.S. currency from 1907 to 1933. Then it all came to an abrupt end.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Emergency Banking Act of 1933 attempting to save the financial system, and in the process recalled all gold coins and bullion. Going so far as to charge anyone hoarding gold with a $10,000 fine and ten years in prison.
While the President didn’t clarify what “hoarding gold” actually meant, the vague strict laws terrified citizens into turning in everything they had. Better safe than sorry. More than 600 million dollars worth of gold was returned the U.S. Government within the first month of the order.
Even with $600 million in gold collected from the people of the United States, over $400 million in gold still remained at large. The President finally defined that over $100 of gold was considered hoarding. But one exemption was added for coin collectors. There was no need to return “gold coins having a recognized special value to collectors of rare and unusual coins.”
Gold coins were out. No longer part of the U.S. monetary system. The Gold Reserve Act of 1934 was signed and a 139-year run for gold was over.
As FDR scrambled to save the banking system in 1933, he ordered the U.S. Mint to halt all gold payouts. But nobody told the Mint to stop striking new $20 double eagles. So as hundreds of millions of dollars in gold coins would be returned to the government for melting just months later, new 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles poured off the mint presses.
445,500 to be exact. March of 1933 produced 100,000, April coined 200,000, and May rolled 245,500 off the presses. That’s the number of 1933 double eagles recorded in Mint records. Every one of them stored in the Cashier vault.
The Gold Melt Down
Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross ordered all gold coins held at U.S. Mints to be melted down on August 4, 1934. The coins would become gold bars and stored in the newly constructed Fort Knox in Kentucky.
Before every gold coin was melted down, Nellie Ross requested sample coins be sent to the national coin collection at the Smithsonian. So in October of 1934, newly hired cashier, George A. McCann, withdrew two 1933 double eagle coins from the Cashier’s Vault and sent them along to the Smithsonian in Washington.
What remained in the Cashier’s Vault were 469 double eagles from 1933. The other 445,000 double eagles from the same year remained locked in Vault F.
It would take several years to melt every coin in the vaults. By June of 1937, the great gold coin melt-down was complete, and gold bars filled Fort Knox.
The 445,000 1933 double eagles from Vault F – melted. The 469 coins from the Cashier’s Vault – melted. 29 other coins from the Assays inspection process several years before – melted. 2 coins were sent to the Smithsonian.
That was it. The accounting ledgers were perfectly equal. 445,500 coins produced, and 445,500 coins accounted for. Done deal.
But we all know that’s not what actually happened.
Fugitive Gold Coins
The discovery of the first fugitive double eagle from 1933 came in February 1937. Israel Switt, a jeweler from Philadelphia, was the first documented holder of a coin thought to be non-existent. So if there was one 1933 double eagle on the loose, how many others might be out in the wild? That question would take detectives around the world for the next sixty years.
In February 1944, King Farouk I of Egypt purchased a 1933 double eagle from one of the greatest coin dealers of all-time, B. Max Mehl. Just days later, the coin was erroneously approved by the Bureau of the Mint for export to Egypt. The coin would rest in Farouk’s collection for the next ten years.
But it wasn’t an application to the Bureau of the Mint that started the hunt for 1933 double eagles. The King Farouk coin request didn’t cause anyone at the Mint to bat an eyelash. It wasn’t until the following month when Ernest Kehr noticed a Stack’s auction advertisement that things really started to get interesting.
The Stack’s ad read, “The excessively rare 1933 double eagle. 1933 brilliant uncirculated. Perfect gem with full mint bloom, the last year of issue.”
The upcoming Stack’s auction featured a 1933 double eagle. Not only that, but it was advertised as acquired for $2,200. A huge amount for a coin only nine years old. So Ernest Kehr decided to inquire the U.S. Bureau of the Mint about the quantity of such a coin.
The now-famous Kehr inquiry to the Mint set off a landslide of events, beginning with the U.S. Secret Service. Frank Wilson personally accepted the case, and over the next several months his team would uncover several trails of 1933 double eagle gold coins in the hands of collectors and dealers across the country.
How Many Fugitive Coins?
Secret Service decided to pay a visit to Israel Switt in March 1944. During the meeting, Switt admitted he sold nine 1933 double eagles. When asked his source for the coins, Switt couldn’t remember.
So where did Israel Switt get the double eagle coins? Even though he couldn’t remember, the Secret Service agents would not drop it. They kept going. Who did Switt know at the Mint?
The amazing book, ‘Illegal Tender,’ by David Tripp documents the months of intense search for the 1933 double eagles. In 1944, the United States Secret Service engaged in possibly the biggest coin hunt in history. Chapter after chapter, the book walks through the entire search. Week by week, step by step. Dozens of actors, dozens of Secret Service agents across the country. And a never-ending trail of interviews with suspects and coin collectors. The detail in Tripp’s book is incredible. As I read through each page, I couldn’t help but wonder how he collected this insane amount of information on the hunt for the ‘Saints.’
By May of 1944, Secret Service agents identified nine double eagles from 1933 that were in circulation illegally. Three of those were recovered and in possession of the Secret Service. Five coins remained with collectors, but these owners were instructed not to sell them. And of course, one coin rested in Egypt as part of King Farouk’s collection.
By the end of 1944, the Secret Service concluded their investigation. They assessed the fugitive coins were sprung free from the mint by the Cashier, George A. McCann. Israel Switt acquired them from McCann, sold them to Abe Kosoff, James Macallister, and Ira Reed. From there, the coins were sold and dispersed to dealers and collectors across the country.
The case was closed, for now. But no charges were filed. The last task of the agents was to somehow find the legal justification to collect the known 1933 double eagle fugitive coins from their owners and, in the end, they easily made their case. All nine coins were recovered.
Then, in August 1952, possibly the most famous coin collector in the country, Louis E. Eliasberg surprisingly turned his 1933 double eagle in to authorities. It was the tenth fugitive coin.
The Farouk Double Eagle
The Secret Service investigation targeted fugitive 1933 double eagles inside the United States, but U.S. authorities always had considered King Farouk’s illegal coin to, “not present a problem which this Department should consider at this time.” They assumed recovering the King’s coin was much too difficult task.
But after King Farouk was ousted from power in 1952, opportunity struck. London auction house Sotheby’s was granted permission to sell off the vast empire of collectibles and belongings in Farouk’s palace. Before the auction, Russell Daniel of the U.S. Secret Service proposed an official notice to the Egyptian Government that the coin was stolen, and property of the United States.
Although the coin was withdrawn from the Farouk auction, the Egyptian government decided it would hold onto the coin a bit longer. Months and years passed by after the Farouk auction, and the coin was mostly forgotten. Close, but yet so far, for the return of the Farouk coin. It remained elusive.
The Coin Resurfaces in London
Over 40 years later, guess what would reappear. The Farouk coin. The illegal, elusive, and “one-of-one” 1933 double eagle. The *only one in the world remaining. Or, that’s what most thought at the time. The coin emerged in 1995 through a London coin dealer, Andre de Clermont, who had connections with the former Farouk collection.
De Clermont quickly offered the coin to fellow London coin dealer Stephen Fenton for $210,000. After pontificating, strategizing, and mostly gazing at his newly purchased coin, Fenton decided to sell the coin. He contacted an old friend, and Heritage Auctions European representative, Marc Emory.
What followed was several cascading events between Marc Emory and a handful of potential buyers. One of those being American coin dealer Jay Parrino, who quickly informed fellow dealer Jack Moore of the coin.
Moore said flat out, he wasn’t interested, “it was illegal to own,” he quickly responded. Not only did Jack Moore turn down the offer of the hallowed 1933 double eagle from Parrino, but he also notified a long-time friend, retired FBI agent, Ron Jannings. Dave Freriks of the Secret Service was notified by Jannings, and the double eagle case that gathered dust for over 40 years was cracked wide open yet again.
After Jack Moore consulted with the Secret Service, the sting to recover the coin was organized. The coin deal must go down in the United States. So after some negotiation, Moore agreed to a sale price of $1.5 million. The coin was scheduled to trade hands at a hotel room inside the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Fenton, Parrino, Moore, and the coin, with tape recorders rolling and the Secret Service in the next room.
Inside the hotel room, there was brief small talk, then examination of the coin. Fenton past the coin to Parrino for inspection, then to Moore for a close up view. The coin was incredible. Next, Jack Moore brought in his “buyer” of the coin, who was actually an undercover agent. In the next few minutes, the deal was done. But it was just the beginning of the excitement.
Secret Service agents burst into the hotel room, holding guns and ordering everyone to show their hands. Jack Moore, the informant, was whisked out of the room, but Parrino and Fenton were cuffed. Arrested for the sale of stolen United States government property.
Lawyers and Judges
What followed the great double eagle sting at the Waldorf Astoria was months, and then years of lawyers fighting for the rights of their clients. Fenton, at first, would do anything just to get back to London unscathed. But then realized it was possible he still legally owned the coin that was taken from him.
Parrino pleaded he was unaware of the coin’s illegal status. And Jack Moore was fighting for his $150,000 “commission” he received from Parrino. A brazen payday he arranged right under the nose of Secret Service. Moore felt he should get a piece of the pie in bringing in the most wanted coin in U.S. history.
There was also the actual coin to rule over. Who owned it now? If the government owned it, where would they keep it? And would they ever sell it?
The lawyers of Parrino and Fenton eventually had criminal charges dismissed. But it was only the first step for Fenton. He was still without his 1933 double eagle coin he paid $210,000 for.
Fenton Vs. the U.S. Government
It turns out Stephen Fenton chose a terrific lawyer to represent his case. For the next several years, attorney Barry Berke persisted that his client, Stephen Fenton should be able to keep the coin. Or at least collect the proceeds from it’s auction.
The U.S. government refused, at first. Then attempted a settlement. But Berke stood strong, knowing he had a big audience. The entire coin collecting market was watching the proceedings. The coin industry certainly didn’t appreciate the thought of the government raiding their collections and confiscating coins. Who knows what currency the Feds might deem illegal next? Berke had the crowd on his side.
Through diligent research, and constant negotiating with Jane Levine, the U.S. Defense Attorney, Berke engineered a settlement. The coin would be auctioned, and the proceeds would be split. Fenton would get half, and the U.S. government would get half. Fenton must have been pleased with his lawyer. The most famous coin in U.S. history was headed to auction.
The Stack’s – Sotheby’s Sale
For what must have been one of the most remarkable coin auctions of all-time, in June of 2002, the 1933 double eagle, the only one to be legally owned, was auctioned by Stack’s and Sotheby’s in New York City.
David Redden led the auction to only a handful of pre-approved bidders. Some in person, and a few others over phones. But the auction drew a crowd. Nearly eight hundred onlookers watched in excitement, the opening bid started at $2.5 million.
With Stephen Fenton and his attorney Barry Berke watching from a private balcony, the bidding grew quickly to five million. Just minutes later, Sotheby’s David Redden slammed the hammer down at a final selling price of $6.6 million. Including the buyers premium of 15%, the final record-setting auction for highest price ever paid for a coin rang in at $7,590,020.
The Stack’s – Sotheby’s double eagle winning bidder remained anonyms, and would somehow find a way to stay in the shadows for another nineteen years, completely unknown. The buyer was then finally identified as famous shoe designer Stuart Weitzman. He then sold the coin in 2021 for another record-setting price of $18,872,250. The buyer? Again, completely anonymous.
The Switt Family Stache
One giant question we already tackled earlier was, just exactly how many 1933 double eagle coins were out there? Like the Secret Service did back in 1944, we tallied them up to a total of nine fugitive coins. Then, the upstanding famous coin collector Louis E. Eliasberg wisely turned in his coin in 1952 – out of nowhere. So that makes ten.
But rumors always swirled about 1933 double eagle sightings. After watching the ferocity of the 1944 nationwide hunt for the coins by the government, I’m sure coin collectors were careful who they discussed their 1933 Saint sightings with.
But just like the Secret Service agents learned back in 1944, all roads lead back to Israel Switt, the coin dealer who acquired the stolen Saints directly from Mint employee George McCann.
In 2005, Joan S. Langbord, daughter of Israel Switt, turned in ten 1933 double eagles to the government. The coins were authenticated by Mint authorities, and then confiscated. The government insists the coins were stolen from the Mint, and are subject to forfeiture.
The Langbord’s disagree, and found a very qualified attorney to help them recover their ten 1933 double eagle coins from the government, nonother than Barry H. Berke.
Resting in Fort Knox
As of now, the ten fugitive 1933 Saints remain in Fort Knox, with no plans for an auction, and no plans to return to Isreal Switt’s daughter, Joan Langbord.
After more than a decade of lawsuits, appeals, and dismissals, Barry Berke and the Langbord family have come up empty handed. The ten coins remain at Fort Knox, sealed in a vault. (hopefully)
How many more 1933 Saints are out there? If there were ten that made it undetected until 2005, who knows, there could be dozens more – safe and in hiding somewhere.
My best guess as to what happens next? I have no idea, but someone better be checking the pockets of the Fort Knox guard working near the ten ‘Saints’ before he or she goes home for the night.
The ten ‘Saints’ from 1933 resting at Fort Knox might be too irresistible for even the utmost law-abiding night guardsman.
Illegal Tender – David Tripp
Double Eagle – Alison Frankel
A Guide Book of Double Eagle Coins – Q. David Bowers
Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle Gold Coin – The Complete History, Attic Capital