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The Government Just Won a Long Legal Battle Over Rare Coins

The enigmatic Double Eagles are anything but trinkets

Ooh, shiny. (US Mint (coin), National Numismatic Collection (photograph by Jaclyn Nash) - National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History)
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Rare coins might seem to be the province of nerdy collectors or stressed-out investors. But someone else is big in the numismatics field—and they’re willing to fight to stay in the game. As Jonathan Stempel reports for Reuters, the United States government just won a years-long legal battle for the right to take back 10 rare 1933 gold coins.

It’s a case that sounds more like the plot of a thriller than a tussle over a handful of currency.  The coins in question, Double Eagles, were minted in 1933 and never officially released. At the time, they were worth $20, but over the years they became one of the world’s rarest and most valuable coins.

That’s because in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered their return as an emergency measure intended to save the United States’ banks. His Executive Order 6102 was quickly followed by a 1934 law that bought back all gold currency and melted it down in an attempt to bolster the Federal Reserve. (Two were held in reserve for the Smithsonian Institution and are currently in the National Museum of American History.) Roosevelt’s actions helped save the United States economy, but not everyone obeyed the law. At some point, someone made off with a number of the coins from the U.S. Mint. 

The Langbord family, who are at the center of the 12-year-long lawsuit, are heirs to a fortune left behind by Israel Switt, a Philadelphia jeweler. There was just one problem—Switt is thought to have been linked to the heist that removed several Double Eagles from the Mint in the 1930s.

When a Double Eagle sold to King Farouk of Egypt for $1,575 in 1944, the coin's changing of hands alerted the Secret Service—which is tasked with safeguarding the United States’ financial systems—that a few of the coins had been stolen, Susan Berfield reports for Bloomberg BusinessweekThough several of the coins were then traced to Switt, as Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Post, it would be decades before the Double Eagles resurfaced again in a sale.

Then in 2002, King Faurok's coin sold at auction for more than $7 million, as The Washington Post reported at the time. The next year, Switt's daughter, Joan Langbord, claimed to have discovered the 10 coins in her family's safe-deposit box. 

That prompted an epic gamble, as Alison Frankel writes for Reuters. Rather than face possible seizure by the federal government, the Langbords asked the U.S. Mint to authenticate the coins in 2004. But the Mint, upon receiving the coins, seized them, prompting years of legal battles. 

Now, that battle seems to have finally come to an end. Stempel reports that the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has at last reversed the family’s formal claim to the coins. The opinion characterizes the lawsuit as “a high-stakes dispute over ten pieces of gold”, but to coin collectors and history buffs alike, the enigmatic Double Eagles are anything but trinkets. 

Still, the story might not be over. As Stempel reports, the Langbord family is now looking to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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