Few coin stories are as well publicized as that of the 1933 Saint Gaudens Double Eagle. In fact, it is one of the few coins, if not the only one, with a book written about it which was not meant to be exclusively for coin collectors. The story of the coin is particularly intriguing given the fact that it was not officially released until almost 70 years after its mintage through a very unique set of circumstances. Only one example of the coin exists which 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.
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 in places such as Fort Knox.
Despite the executive order, the production of the 1933 double eagles commenced on March 15, 1933 and continued until May 19, 1933. During this short period of time, a total of 445,000 coins were reported to have been struck. These coins would be surrounded by mystery, reputed thefts, and investigations from then on. Key players would involve a king, major collectors and coin dealers, the secret service, and FBI investigators. The coins were considered to be extremely important and not without reason. Sales of freshly minted double eagles were ceased immediately after the executive order of March 9. In addition to impacting the distribution of the 1933-dated double eagles, other recent issues had only been sporadically released, virtually only to collectors who specifically requested them, resulting in very limited distribution. Thus, the 1933 issue was not the only rarity of the of the final years of the Saint Gaudens Double Eagles series, although other dates do not have such exciting stories to tell.
Virtually the entire mintage of 1933 double eagles would survive until 1937, when the government melted the majority of gold coins held in storage. With the exception of two examples of the 1933 double eagle sent to the Smithsonian in 1934, it was believed that all known examples of the coin were melted. Reports that some pieces escaped the melting pot surfaced as early as 1937, when one piece was supposedly sold privately for $500. A few years later in 1944, another example was sold to King Farouk of Egypt, while another example intended to be offered at public auction was confiscated by Treasury agents.
Shortly after, the FBI became involved, questioning the Mint on how it would have been possible for some of the coins to escape melting. Various explanations were offered. Perhaps some of the coins sent to the assay commission were traded for other double eagles of various dates. Perhaps they were stolen prior to the time when the were supposed to be melted. Perhaps while the coins were held in storage someone was able to exchange more common date double eagles for the 1933-dated pieces. Or perhaps it was something completely different. It was and is a mystery which continues up to this day.
Whatever the explanation, at least two dozen examples of the 1933 double eagle managed to escape. Two pieces are in the Smithsonian institution, where they were placed in late 1934, as part of the National Numismatic Collection. Nine pieces turned up in the 1940’s and were seized by the government and later melted. In early 1944, coin dealer B Max Mehl sold an example to King Farouk of Egypt. The Royal Legation of Egypt requested an export license for the coin, which was inadvertently issued by the Treasury Department since they did not realize the significance of the coin. In 1954, the Farouk collection was sold, with the 1933 double eagle listed in the catalog, but later removed from the auction.
In 1996, 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 from Cairo. The buyers of the coin turned out to be U.S. government agents, who confiscated the coin and arrested the sellers. The charges were dropped by a 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. 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 by another ten 1933 double eagles that suddenly surfaced. The pieces were originally obtained by Israel Switt, a Philadelphia Jeweler who had influential contacts within the United States Mint. The 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 and jury trial, the U.S. government prevailed, keeping the coins out of private ownership. As it stands, only a single example of the 1933 double eagle is legal for private ownership.