The World’s Most Valuable Coin Sells at Auction for $18.9 Million

Three collectibles, including a 1993 gold “Double Eagle” and the world’s rarest stamp, fetched more than $30 million at Sotheby’s

1933 Double Eagle gold coin
The newly auctioned gold coin is the only 1933 "Double Eagle" legally held in private hands. SquareMoose / Sotheby's

Three small collector’s items, each small enough to hold in the palm of one’s hand, broke records on Tuesday when they sold for more than $30 million in New York City.

Luxury shoe designer Stuart Weitzman auctioned off the rare objects, dubbed the “Three Treasures,” at Sotheby’s, reports James Barron for the New York Times. The trio included a shiny gold coin, a set of famously misprinted stamps and a small scrap of magenta paper popularly called “the world’s rarest stamp.”

Of the three, the 1933 “Double Eagle” stole the show, becoming the world’s most valuable coin by selling for a whopping $18.9 million. (The buyer did not want to be identified.) Per a statement, Weitzman purchased the gold $20 coin for $7.59 million in 2002; this time around, it was estimated to fetch between $10 and $15 million.

The Double Eagle coin was the last gold currency struck in the United States, reports Reuters. The newly sold specimen’s value stems from its status as the only legally privately owned 1933 Double Eagle known to survive today.

In 1934, the U.S. Mint ordered the melting of all surviving 1933 Double Eagles—but this specimen, along with a few now owned by the government, escaped destruction. Courtesy of Sotheby's
Sotheby's "Three Treasures" sold at auction on June 8, 2021. Courtesy of Sotheby's

President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the coin in the early 1900s from the country’s then-preeminent sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Battling terminal cancer at the time, the artist took up the assignment cautiously.

“I have long wished to do what little I could to improve the shameful condition of our money, but now that I have the opportunity I approach it with fear and trembling,” wrote Saint-Gaudens to a scholar and collector in 1905, according to the Sotheby’s listing.

The Double Eagle’s final design is widely lauded as one of the most beautiful of all time. First minted in 1907, the coin features an image of Lady Liberty striding forward on its obverse and an eagle in flight on its reverse. As Owen Edwards reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2008, the sculptor based the figure of Liberty on Harriette Eugenia Anderson, a well-known model of African American descent from South Carolina.

In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt moved the country off the gold standard in hopes of bolstering an economy ravaged by the Great Depression. The following year, the U.S. Mint’s director ordered the melting of all 1933 Double Eagles, which had been struck but never issued. Two specimens were given to the Smithsonian Institution, which now houses the coins in the National Museum of American History’s collections.

Despite the Mint’s best efforts, a handful of the rare coins escaped destruction and ended up in private hands. A tangled web of lawsuits and criminal investigations ensued, but the government eventually recovered the stolen coins—aside from this one. Due to a legal battle between the U.S. Treasury and the coin’s previous owner, the record-breaking Double Eagle is the only of its kind that a private person can lawfully own, notes Oscar Holland for CNN.

Outside of the Double Eagle, the Sotheby’s sale also sought to make stamp collecting history. But as Neda Ulaby reports for NPR, the auction’s two stamp lots failed to break previous records.

Carrying an estimate of $10 to $15 million, the 1856 British Guiana One-Cent Magenta sold for the still-hefty figure of $8.3 million. (Weitzman purchased the stamp in 2014 for $9.48 million.) According to Alex Palmer of Smithsonian, the unassuming pink paper is the only known specimen of its kind and has long represented a kind of Holy Grail for stamp collecting enthusiasts.

Shaped like octagons, these small stamps were issued by a local newspaper in the South American colony of British Guiana (now Guyana) during a stamp shortage. Most collectors assumed that the one-off stamps were lost to time, but in 1873, Vernon Vaughan, a 12-year-old Scottish boy and budding stamp enthusiast, discovered a specimen among his uncle’s papers. He sold it for six shillings—the equivalent of about $11 today.

The One-Cent Magenta’s notoriety grew when it came into the possession of famed stamp collector Count Philippe la Renotière von Ferrary in 1878. The stamp’s list of wealthy, well-known owners has only lengthened over the decades.

A 1918 24-Cent "Inverted Jenny" Plate Block, one of the most famous items in U.S. stamp collecting Courtesy of Sotheby's
Carrying on the tradition begun by previous owners, Stuart Weitzman added his signature to the back of the stamp this past October. The luxury shoe designer wrote his initials, "SW," next to a small line drawing of a stiletto shoe. Courtesy of Sotheby's

Also on Tuesday, American billionaire and philanthropist David Rubenstein made the winning bid for a 1918 24-cent “Inverted Jenny” plate block, a quartet of misprinted U.S. Postal Service stamps that number among the most famous in the nation’s history. The design features a blue Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane, which was mistakenly printed upside down, as Edwards Park reported for Smithsonian in 1996.

Rubenstein purchased the “Jennies” for $4.86 million—just under its estimate of $5 to $7 million. Despite fetching less than anticipated, the block remains the second-most valuable philatelic (stamp-related) object ever sold, after the One-Cent Magenta, according to Sotheby’s.

In a post-sale statement, Weitzman says that uniting these three rare items in one collection was a “childhood dream.” All proceeds will go to his family foundation and other charitable causes.

“I started coin collecting to pass the time in a full leg cast at the age of 12, and later became interested in stamps when my older brother left behind the stamp book he’d started when he went to college,” the designer adds. “Today truly marked the culmination of a life’s work.”

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