Most Valuable Coin in the World: The 1933 Double Eagle
It was stolen from the U.S. government, collected by an
eccentric king, seized by the Secret Service and practically
worshiped by numismatists. Though it is not much more than an
inch in diameter and weights just a bit more than an ounce,
the 1933 Double Eagle is the world's most valuable coin.
The story of the United States 1933 Double Eagle starts with
the election of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. Roosevelt
felt that a great nation's place in the world should be reflected
in its coinage and that the United States' money didn't measure
up to the country's important status. "I think our coinage is
artistically of atrocious hideousness," he told Secretary of
the Treasury Leslie Shaw in 1904. Roosevelt wanted the coins
to be redesigned by a real artist, so in 1905 he approached
Augustus Saint-Gaudens about the project.
Saint-Gaudens, born in 1848 in Ireland, immigrated to the United
States as a small child and was raised in New York City. In
1876 he quickly established an artistic reputation with a statue
of Civil War Admiral David Farragut in New York's Madison Square.
Other assignments followed and by the beginning of the 20th
century he was recognized as one of America's premier sculptors.
Saint-Gaudens was honored by Roosevelt's new request; however
it brought the artist into direct conflict with the obnoxious
personality of Charles Barber.
Saint-Gaudens in 1905 when he started the coin redesign
Charles Barber was the chief engraver at the United States
Mint in Philadelphia. The drafting of new coins and metals had
always been the province of the chief engraver, but Barber's
lack of talent had produced a series of uninspired designs.
Extremely territorial, Barber had clashed with Saint-Gaudens
already over the plans for several silver coins and the official
medal of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 held in Chicago. In
the case of the silver coins Barber had won by default, and
with the Columbian metal Barber had managed to supplant one
side of Saint-Gaudens' design with his own. The new coins, however,
would afford Saint-Gaudens a chance to put Barber in his place
and give the United States, as Roosevelt had put it "a coinage
that would have some beauty."
Two of the gold coins Saint-Gaudens would redesign were the
eagle (the name of the United States $10 coin) and the double
eagle (a $20 coin). For the double eagle Saint-Gaudens envisioned
(as he wrote to Roosevelt) the "figure of Liberty striding forward
as if on a mountain top, holding aloft on one arm a shield bearing
the stars and stripes with the word Liberty marked across the
field; in the other hand, perhaps a flaming torch, the drapery
would be flowing in the breeze." On the reverse side would be
a flying eagle.
The coinage project would turn out to be one of Saint-Gaudens'
last. Several years before he'd been diagnosed with cancer and
in 1906 it worsened. In too poor health to translate his ideas
into clay, Saint-Gaudens chose his assistant Henry Herring to
do the actual work. Herring found himself blocked by Barber
who continually rejected Saint-Gaudens' designs because the
high relief made pressing the coin difficult.
When Saint-Gaudens finally died in July of 1907 and his coin
design was not in production, President Roosevelt was furious.
He called on the new Secretary of the Treasury, Frank Leach,
to solve the problem. Leach overruled Barber, authorized extra
workmen to run the presses day and night, and produced 12,000
coins based on a high relief design. In the end another lower
relief, more practical version was created for coins from 1908
onward. While these were not as spectacular as the limited 1907
run, the Saint-Gaudens series of double eagle coins were hailed
as some of the most beautiful currency the United States ever
Gold Made Illegal
Franklin D. Roosevelt forbid U.S. Citizens to own gold.
Saint-Gaudens' gold coins were produced every year until 1933.
A few years earlier, in 1928, the United States stock market
had suffered a collapse, bringing on a period that would be
known as "The Great Depression." Business slowed down,
thousands of jobs were lost and many families found themselves
living on the street. By 1933 people were beginning to lose
faith in the banking system. Fearing the banks would fail and
they would lose all their money, people ran to the bank in panic
to pull their money out, usually in the form of gold coins.
As banks usually did not keep all their assets in the form of
gold, such a "run" on the bank could cause the bank to fail.
Since all the banks were connected together with the Federal
Reserve Banks and U.S. gold stores, this banking crisis could
lead to further collapse of the economy. To avoid this, the
incoming president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed legislation
that would take the country off the gold standard and make it
illegal for U.S. citizens to own gold. Banks could still pay
out money to customers, but only paper money.
This saved the U.S. economy, but was the end of millions of
gold coins. Not only would the Mint not manufacture any more
gold coins, successive legislation required citizens to turn
in any gold that they had. This included "all gold coin, gold
bullion, and gold certificates now owned by or coming into their
ownership on or before April 28, 1933." The only exception to
this was "gold coins having a recognized special value to collectors
of rare and unusual coins." The administration declared it a
citizen's patriotic duty to turn in gold for paper money and
the public complied.
While it had been determined that the U.S. government would
not be issuing any more gold coins, someone forgot to officially
notify the Mint in Philadelphia. For several months early in
1933 they labored on, pressing 445,500 new Double Eagles before
the order to stop was received. These were never officially
issued to the public and with the exception of two copies sent
to the Smithsonian Institution, all the 1933 Double Eagles were
melted down and returned to federal gold storage. Or at least
that was the official story.
The Switt Coins
Despite never officially being issued, somehow a handful of
1933 Double Eagles came into the possession of Israel Switt,
a Philadelphia jeweler and dealer in scrap gold. Switt often
dealt with the Mint exchanging coins at the official window
and he also was friends with George McCann, an official at the
Mint. In the years between 1937 and 1941, Switt sold ten 1933
Double Eagles to coin collectors.
Egypt's last monach and the owner of a 1933 Double Eagle.
In 1944 one of these coins was purchased by King Farouk of
Egypt. King Farouk at that time was one of the world's most
notorious playboys and a collector of almost everything. His
four palaces were stuffed with his various acquisitions piled
up in an almost haphazard fashion. Coins especially interested
Farouk. As a collector he was aware that any gold coin taken
out of the United States would need an export license. In February
of 1944 after the king purchased the Double Eagle he had it
sent to the Mint so the export license could be issued. Mint
officials, who were probably not even aware that the 1933 Double
Eagles had never been officially issued, granted the license
and the coin was sent to Egypt on March 11th, 1944.
Though the 1933 Double Eagles were recognized as rare and valuable
coins during this period, they were bought and sold among the
coin dealing world without much fuss until March of 1944. It
was at that point one of them came up for sale at a public auction.
The sellers, the Stack brothers, generated a lot of publicity
about it, which triggered the interest of Ernest Kehr, a journalist
for The New York Herald Tribune. Kehr started wondering
just how rare the 1933 Double Eagle was and called the Mint
to find out how many had been issued to the public.
When somebody at the Mint actually checked the records, they
realized that no 1933 Double Eagles had ever been issued. From
this it was reasoned that any of the coins held by the public
must have been stolen from the Mint. After reaching this conclusion,
associate Mint director LeLand Howard decided he needed to contact
the United States Secret Service.
The 1944 Seizures
While people usually associate the Secret Service with protecting
the President, the organization's original charter was to prevent
counterfeiting and ensure the integrity of U.S. currency. Secret
Service agent Harry Strang was assigned to the case and tracked
down each of the owners of a known 1933 Double Eagle, making
them turn the coin over to him voluntarily, or seizing it from
them by legal means.
Coin collectors and dealers were shocked. There had been a
long history of coins that had left the Mint under questionable
circumstances and the owners of these had never been punished
by seizure before. This change in policy was most likely the
result of the appointment of Frank Wilson to the head of the
Secret Service in 1936. Wilson had worked as a detective for
years and was responsible for resolving a number of high-level
cases including the Lindbergh kidnapping, the arrest and conviction
of corrupt politician Huey Long and the capture of gangster
Al Capone. Under him the Secret Service zealously went after
cases they might have never tackled in the past. This included
cases which in retrospect seem trivial.
The Strang investigation centered on George McCann, a Mint
official, Israel Switt, the jeweler and Edward Silver, Switt's
business partner and brother-in-law. Though Strang suspected
the three had colluded to steal the coins from the Mint, they
were never charged because the statute of limitations had run
United States Mint in Philadelphia never issued the 1933
Double Eagles, but somehow a few found their way into
After 1944 the only known 1933 Double Eagle that had not been
seized by the government and melted down (with the exception
of the two at the Smithsonian) was the one owned by King Farouk.
Several letters requesting that the coin be returned were drafted
over the years, but the State Department overruled the Treasury
on this matter and they were never sent. The State Department
did not wish to upset relations with an important foreign head
of state over the matter of a small gold coin.
By 1952 the King had lost the support of most of his people
and was deposed in a coup and exiled to live the rest of his
life in Italy and Monaco. His collections, including the 1933
Double Eagle, were left in Egypt and were seized by the new
government. The British auction house Sotheby was contracted
to dispose of most of these treasures. In 1954, the Double Eagle
was listed to be sold along with other coins in the King's collection,
but was withdrawn after a protest from the American government.
The Egyptians decided not to sell it, but neither did they return
it to the Americans. Instead, it disappeared from sight for
over forty years.
Farouk Eagle Found
It wasn't until 1995 that the coin, which by then
had almost become a legend, resurfaced. British coin dealers Stephen
Fenton and Andre de Clermont had been working with an Egyptian
jeweler to liquidate the extensive coin collection of an Egyptian
military officer. The officer had been quite an avid collector,
but after he had died his children decided to sell his collection.
De Clermont had noticed that many of the coins coming from the
collection had once belonged to Farouk. This prompted him to ask
about the 1933 Double Eagle. The jeweler was at first reluctant
to talk about the coin, but then appeared with it in his possession.
Fenton, working through de Clermont, bought the 1933 Double Eagle
plus a few other gold coins from the Egyptian for $220,000.
Fenton was aware that if he took the Double Eagle
to the United States it might be subject to seizure, so he wanted
to find a buyer outside America and sell it quietly, rather than
at public auction. To do this he worked with a Kansas City coin
dealer named Jay Parrino. Parrino did find a customer that was
willing to pay $1,650,000 for the rare coin, but Fenton would
have to be willing to bring the coin to New York. Fenton relented
and arranged a meeting to do the exchange at the Waldorf-Astoria
Hotel on February 8th, 1996. The deal went off as promised, but
then both Fenton and Parrino were arrested. The buyer, a man from
Amarillo, Texas, named Jack Moore, had been an informant for the
United States Secret Service.
reverse side of the 1933 Double Eagle
The U.S. government had its coin back, but would
they keep it? The charges against Parrino and Fenton were dropped
because prosecutors realized it was too difficult to prove that
they had known the coin was stolen government property. With his
client's freedom assured, Fenton's lawyer, Barry Berke, concentrated
on getting the coin back. The government's main problem with establishing
ownership of the Double Eagle had to do with the amount of time
that had passed since it had disappeared from the Mint. Records
existed that seemed to show that none of the coins could have
possibly left the Mint by legitimate means, but most of the witnesses
involved had died. Faced with the possibility of losing the case,
the Treasury Department decided to cut a deal with Fenton: They
would settle the case by officially issuing the coin, selling
it and splitting the profits with him. Fenton accepted this arrangement
and the auction houses of Sotheby and Stacks, who had lost their
opportunity to sell Double Eagles in 1944 and 1954, were chosen
to auction it off.
The excitement surrounding the auction in the coin
world was tremendous. The Farouk 1933 Double Eagle would now be
the only one in the world that could legally be owned by a private
person. The date for the sale was set for July 30th, 2002, just
one day before the annual meeting of the American Numismatic Association.
This ensured that all the important coin dealers would be in New
York City to witness the historic event. The most that had ever
been paid for a coin before this was $4.1 million for a United
States 1804 silver dollar. Observers expected that this Double
Eagle, with its odd history, would go for much more. The bidding
for the 1933 Double Eagle started at $2.5 million and ended at
$7,590,000, making it the most valuable coin in the world. The
coin ended up in the hands of an anonymous bidder, who loaned
it to the American Numismatic Society to be displayed at the New
York Federal Reserve Bank where it can still be seen today.
1933 Double Eagles
Was the Farouk coin the last of the Double Eagles?
As it turns out, no. The excitement created by the sale of the
Farouk coin caused the decedents of Israel Switt to search his
Philadelphia shop carefully. They found ten more 1933 Double Eagles
which they were forced to turn over to the government. Switt's
decedents hired Barry Berke, Fenton's lawyer, to see if they could
make these newly-found coins legal too, but so far the Treasury
Department seems to have no intention of making a deal. Without
the Farouk export license, the case for Switt's decedents may
be weaker than the case Fenton had.
There is also rumored to be at least one 1933 Double
Eagle being held illegally in a private collection. This is a
one-of-a-kind treasure for the person who owns it, but he can
never publically acknowledge its existence as that would soon
bring the United States Secret Service to his door.
So it appears the only legal 1933 Double Eagle
is the Farouk coin. In the end, it is just a tiny piece of stamped
metal. Was it really worth all the fuss? What really makes the
coin valuable isn't just the ounce of gold in it, but the strange
history behind it.
A Partial Bibliography
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933
Double Eagle, by David Tripp, Free Press, 2004.
United States Mint Recovers 10 Famed Double Eagles, United
States Mint Website, June 2008, http://www.usMint.gov/pressroom/index.cfm?flash=yes&action=press_release&ID=607
Double Eagle: Epic Story of the World's Most Valuable Coin,
by Alison Frankel, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006