The Case Of The Missing 'Double Eagle' Coins
NEAL CONAN, host:
Only one of the famous double eagle gold coins was ever released by the United States Mint. The rest were supposed to have been melted down during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration. The one that went public sold for more than $7 million. So, you can imagine the surprise when, in 2003, the family of a former Mint worker found a stash of the gold $20 coins. When the Roy Langbord -when Roy Langbord approached the Mint to authenticate them, the Mint said, yes, they are real and they're stolen. The government seized the coins, claiming they were taken by Mr. Langbord's father. The Langbords took the U.S. Treasury to court, and the New York Times reported this morning that it now looks as if the family may get the coins back.
Joining us now from her office in New York is Alison Frankel, author of "Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World's Most Valuable Coin."
Thanks very much for being with us today.
Ms. ALISON FRANKEL (Author, "Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World's Most Valuable Coin"): Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And fill us in, if you would. Tell us how the Langbord family found out they had a stash of these coins. There was supposed to be only one. They found nine more.
Ms. FRANKEL: And they actually found 10. Well, the father and grandfather of the Langbords was a fellow named Israel Switt, who was a jeweler in Philadelphia.
And back in the 1940s, Israel Switt was the fellow who circulated a bunch of these 1933 double eagle coins. The government got wind of the coins being out there in the coin collecting community and launched a truly - excuse me - a truly astonishing Secret Service investigation to track down these $20 coins. They found all but one, at least all but one, that's was known, which had been exported to Egypt and…
CONAN: To King Farouk.
Ms. FRANKEL: In the hands of King Farouk, absolutely. And believe it or not, there were State Department memos on the advisability of trying to get this coin back from King Farouk. The government, ultimately decided that if given that it was World War II and Egypt was an ally that it was inadvisable to attempt to force King Farouk to give back his coin.
Ultimately, the coin returned to the United States, was seized by the Secret service in a sting operation at the Waldorf-Astoria, and was the subject of quite intense litigation that ended with a settlement between the government and the British coin dealer who brought the coin to the U.S.
CONAN: And the settlement, as I understand it and as you describe in the book, was that it would be available to be auctioned, and the coin dealer and the U.S. government would split the profit.
Ms. FRANKEL: Yes. And when the Langbord family read of the auction, Roy Langbord, who was the Philadelphia jeweler's grandson, called his mother who was then running the store that her father had established and said, mom, do you know if grandpa had any other coins?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FRANKEL: And they checked all of his safe deposit boxes, and lo and behold another 10 coins, another 10 1933 double eagles were discovered in one of his safe deposit boxes.
CONAN: We're talking with Alison Frankel, the author of "Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World's Most Valuable Coin." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
So then the family takes them to the Mint, says, jeez, are these authentic? And they say, yes, they are. And they're ours. They were stolen.
Ms. FRANKEL: Absolutely. And it was really quite a devious maneuver by the Langbords' lawyer who, not incidentally, was the lawyer for the British coin dealer who split the proceeds…
Ms. FRANKEL: …of the auction.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FRANKEL: Because he calculated that the Mint there was no way that the Mint was going to return these 10 coins to the Langbord family, after all, in the view of the United States government, Israel Switt, the Langbords' father and grandfather, had stolen these coins. And the government had contended through 70 years that there were no legal 1933 double eagles.
So, by giving the coins to the government to authenticate, the Langbords lawyer was basically betting that the government would not return the coins to the family.
CONAN: And they fell into the trap.
Ms. FRANKEL: They fell right into his trap. And then he argued that the coins had been illegally seized. And luckily for the Langbord family, a Philadelphia federal judge agreed with that interpretation and said that the Langbords' constitutional rights had been violated when the government refused to return the coins.
CONAN: And now, the burden of proof will fall on the government to show definitively and without any possibility of anything else, that these coins had to have been stolen, that's the only way that the family could have gotten them.
Ms. FRANKEL: Exactly. Which, given the circumstances, is pretty difficult. I mean, we're talking about events that took place more than 70 years ago. No one who was working at the Mint in 1933 is around to describe what could have happened. The people who investigated the case in the 1940s are long dead. The principal actors are long dead. So, it's essentially leaving the government in a very difficult position of proving a negative.
CONAN: And so, it looks like court cases have a way of spinning out for quite some time, given appeals and what not, but it looks at this juncture as if the family may get these coins back, 10 of them, and again, that one that was auctioned not so long ago, more than $7 million.
Ms. FRANKEL: Absolutely. The most unfortunate person in this story is probably the anonymous buyer of the $7.59 million coin who at the time believed that he or she was purchasing the only coin that it was legal to own. And now, assuming that the Langbords continue to prevail in the litigation, now there are simply going to be a lot more on the market.
CONAN: Well, not a lot more, 10 brothers. But nevertheless, yes, it's certainly no longer unique.
Ms. FRANKEL: There's a big difference between one and 10 in numismatic circles.
CONAN: And in numismatic circles, how much - clearly, these aren't going to be worth $7.2 million each.
Ms. FRANKEL: Right. Well, the other difference between the $7.5 million coin and these is that that coin had a very exotic history, what with having been in King Farouk's collection and having been the subject of this Secret Service thing. And these coins, obviously, have had a less exotic run through the last 70 years.
CONAN: So, how much - speculating - how much might they be worth?
Ms. FRANKEL: Well, I've seen reports that they could be worth, you know, two to $4 million. I think that's optimistic. But I'm not a coin dealer.
CONAN: And if you had the money, would you bid on one of these?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. FRANKEL: I wish I had the money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Only if you had the money then you might think about it.
Ms. FRANKEL: I might think about it, yeah.
CONAN: And are you a coin collector yourself?
Ms. FRANKEL: I'm not. I'm not. I just was fascinated by the story. I write about lawyers. And when I read about the litigation involving the original coin, I just thought it was such a yarn that I wanted to write about it.
CONAN: And indeed, the lawyer who played such a big part in your original book played a big part in this one, too.
Ms. FRANKEL: Absolutely. He's - he doesn't necessarily like to be known as America's greatest coin lawyer, but he's certainly turning out to be in a small circle.
CONAN: Are you thinking about another book or maybe an extra edition?
Ms. FRANKEL: Well, if Norton wants to put out another edition, I'd love to write about this amazing addendum to the original story.
CONAN: Alison Frankel, thanks very much for your time.
Ms. FRANKEL: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Alison Frankel is senior writer with American Lawyer magazine, author of "Double Eagle: The Epic Story of the World's Most Valuable Coin."
Tomorrow, how Twitter and social media are shaking things up in the courtroom. Plus, going green and dividing your family.
I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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