The war between the Langbord family, heirs to noted Philadelphia coin dealer Israel Switt, and the United States Government has finally come to an end. Last week, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the Langbords’ appeal of a 2016 lower court ruling that stripped them of ownership of ten 1933 double eagle gold coins.
The coins, found in a safe deposit box once belonging to Switt, were never supposed to see the light of day. On April 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 6102, compelling the public to surrender all circulating gold coins, to be melted down by the US Mint and added to the nation’s gold reserves. This had the practical effect of demonetizing all US gold coins.
In the 1940s, the Secret Service began tracking down and confiscating any 1933 double eagle that appeared. Eventually, every one of them was tracked back to Israel Switt, who had a close relationship to the cashier at the Philadelphia Mint. Since the statute of limitations had passed by the time the government implicated Switt, there was nothing to be done. Even so, the Secret Service and Justice Department continued to prosecute every new instance of a 1933 double eagle in private hands as a recovery of stolen government property.
The Farouk 1933 Double Eagle
The only 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle legally in public hands is the famous Farouk 1933 Double Eagle. This coin was purchased on the open market by avid rare coin collector King Farouk of Egypt in 1944. The State Department saw nothing amiss when Egyptian diplomats applied for an export license so the coin could accompany the king back to Cairo. Mere days later, the government finally found out that there were 1933 double eagles “in the wild.” All efforts to get Farouk to give up the coin failed. He was deposed in 1952, and the coin (among many others) disappeared.
The coin resurfaced in 1996, when British coin dealer Stephan Fenton was arrested in a Secret Service sting operation in New York City. After years of court battles where Fenton maintained that the coin was the Farouk double eagle, and therefore legal to own (due to the government issuing an export license for it in 1944) and the US government saying it was stolen from the Philadelphia Mint, the two sides came to an agreement in 2001.
An order by the Treasury Department made this particular 1933 double eagle legal tender. It was then put up for auction, where the proceeds were split between Fenton and the US government.
The Langbords Are Inspired
The auction of the Farouk Double Eagle of course made headlines around the world. Israel Switt had died in 1990, and left his business to his daughter, Joan Switt Langbord. According to the Langbords, in 2003, a bank where Switt had a safe deposit box experienced flooding, warping some of the boxes. Owners of each box had to retrieve their contents so the boxes could be replaced. Inside Switt’s box, the Langbords found ten 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagles, individually wrapped.
Thinking that the government had set a precedent with the Farouk-Fenton coin, the Langbords sent their coins to the Philadelphia Mint for authentication. Their intention was to offered them up for sale, splitting the proceeds 50/50 with the government. Since these coins, unlike the Farouk coin, had never been monetized, the US government instead claimed them as stolen property.
The Langbords contend that Switt could have legally obtained the 1933 double eagles at the Philadelphia Mint cashier’s window. It was common practice for collectors and dealers to ask if there were a certain date available when trading in coins at the Mint. A dealer like Switt would naturally have wanted the new 1933 double eagles for year-date sets, trading in previous date double eagles in exchange. It was theoretically legal to have obtained 1933 double eagles from the date production began (March 15) to the day circulating US gold coinage was abolished with Executive order 6102 (April 5).
The next 13 years saw the Langbords arguing that because the government could not prove the coins were stolen, the ten 1933 double eagles rightfully belonged to them. Secondly, they asserted that the government had lost all claim to the coins by not initiating civil forfeiture proceedings within the time allotted.
Unfortunately, the courts ended up siding with the government, after Justice Department lawyers successfully appealed a lower court’s ruling in favor of the Langbords. Petitioning the US Supreme Court to hear their case was the last possible gambit for the family to retain ownership of the coins. When the Court did not put their case on this session’s docket for review, the fight was finally over. The government had won.
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