Background and History
Enigmatic, famous, and extremely rare, the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is an issue well-known to collectors and non-collectors alike. From the large original mintage of 445,000, nearly all pieces were melted following an executive order issued to recall federal gold. The handful of examples that managed to escape into private hands have been subject to government seizure and court battles. As it now stands, there is only one example of the coin that is legal for private ownership, making this one of the greatest rarities of all United States coinage and one of the most famous coins in the world.
The series traces its origins back to the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to existing United States coinage as “atrocious hideousness.” Enlisting the help of famed sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, he sought to return coinage to objects of artistic beauty. Saint-Gaudens was to create new designs for each of the gold denominations, however he only created the designs for the Eagle and Double Eagle before passing away due to stomach cancer. The process would continue after Saint-Gaudens death, with other renowned sculptors and artists contributing to the redesign of all remaining denominations over the course of about a decade. The efforts and persistence of President Theodore Roosevelt led to this wholesale design transformation and ushered in the so-called Renaissance era of United States coinage.
The enduring design of the Saint-Gardens Double Eagle stands at the forefront of this era. The obverse features a stunning full-figure depiction of Liberty in flowing robes, holding an olive branch and torch. She steps confidently forward, with the rays of the sun and the United States Capitol dome in the background. The reverse of the coin features the splendor of an eagle in flight against the rays of the sun. The design was struck as a pattern in Ultra High Relief, in limited numbers for circulation in High Relief, and finally in mass quantities in regular relief. From the initial release of the coins in 1907, the series design has long been considered one of the most beautiful within American numismatics. The series would come to a tumultuous end during the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a distant cousin Theodore Roosevelt.
Key Date Coin Mintage
On March 9, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, prohibiting gold ownership with very few exceptions. The public who owned gold could turn it in for a fixed price of $20.67 per troy ounce. Most of the gold that was turned in was melted down by the United States government and later stored as gold bars in places such as Fort Knox.
Despite the executive order, the production of the 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles at the Philadelphia Mint commenced on March 15, 1933 and continued until May 19, 1933. During this time, a total of 445,000 coins were struck and delivered with instructions not to be paid out. A small number of coins were sent to the Assay Commission where they were destroyed during the testing process. Two coins were sent to the Smithsonian Institution for inclusion within the National Numismatic Collection. The remainder were held as uncurrent coin until they were eventually ordered to be melted, which would have left only the two museum pieces and no examples available to collectors.
Nonetheless, at least 20 additional pieces managed to escape the melting pot and would surface in the coming years. Various explanations have been offered as to how the coins escaped, but the mystery has never been conclusively solved. Perhaps some of the coins sent to the assay commission were traded for more common-date Double Eagles. Perhaps while the coins were held in storage someone was able to make a similar trade. The coins may have been stolen prior to the time when they were supposed to be melted. Or perhaps it was something else entirely.
Reports of 1933 Double Eagles circulating among collectors surfaced as early as 1937, when one piece was supposedly sold privately for $500. In 1944, an example of the coin was sold by a dealer to a foreign buyer and the coin left the United States. In the same year, another example was due to be offered at auction. The auction house contacted the Mint as part of research, leading to the launch of an investigation by the Secret Service. Between the years of 1944 and 1952, a total of nine examples of the coin were either seized or voluntarily surrendered and destroyed. One collector attempted to fight the confiscation in court and lost, providing legal precedent that private ownership of the 1933 Double Eagle is illegal.
Known Survivors and Recent History
Besides the two pieces held at the Smithsonian and the nine pieces recovered and destroyed by the Secret Service, there was also the matter of the piece which was sold and exported in early 1944. This coin had been sold by coin dealer B. Max Mehl to King Farouk of Egypt. As part of the sale, the Royal Legation of Egypt requested an export license for the coin, which was required under the restrictions enacted for gold coins. The Treasury Department apparently did not realize the significance of the 1933 Double Eagle and granted the license, allowing it to be exported to Egypt. The coin remained in King Farouk’s collection until he was deposed in 1952. His vast collection would be auctioned on behalf of the new Republic of Egypt in 1954. When the United States Treasury Department learned that the auction included the 1933 Double Eagle, they requested that the coin be withdrawn from the sale and returned. Although the coin was withdrawn, it was never returned.
The coin finally resurfaced in 1996 when London coin dealer Stephen Fenton attempted to bring a 1933 Double Eagle into the United States for private sale. The coin was purported to be the Farouk specimen, which had been acquired from a jewelry dealer in Cairo. The buyers of the coin turned out to be U.S. government agents, who confiscated the coin and arrested the seller. A five-year legal battle for ownership of the coin ensued. Primarily on the basis of the export license that had been inadvertently granted decades ago, a settlement was reached just before the jury trial. Under the settlement, the coin would be sold at auction with half of the proceeds going to the United States government, and the other half going to Fenton. The coin sold for $7,590,020 at public auction held in 2001, with the odd twenty dollars paid by the anonymous buyer to officially issue the coin.
Three years after the auction of the Fenton coin, the numismatic world was stunned when another ten 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagles surfaced. The pieces were originally obtained by Israel Switt, a Philadelphia jeweler who had influential contacts within the United States Mint. The current owner Joan S. Langbord discovered the coins in a safety deposit box in 2003. When she sent the coins to the Mint for authentication, the coins were seized. Following a protracted legal battle including a jury trial and appeals process, the U.S. government prevailed. The ten coins are currently held by the government at Fort Knox, once again leaving just one known example in private ownership.