Solid gold with a $20 denomination stamped on it, stolen from the US mint, hidden for decades, sold to a King, captured by the Secret Service in a sting operation and nearly destroyed by terrorists. Valued at $7,500,000, this is the story of the 1933 St. Gaudens Double Eagle, the world’s most valuable coin.
In 1933, the United States had been producing gold coins for decades. But the nation was undergoing the Great Depression, and President Franklin Roosevelt was afraid of citizens hoarding gold currency. To counteract this, he ordered the US Mint to stop circulating gold coins and made it illegal for citizens to own any non-collectable gold coins. Over at the US Mint, however, production of the 1933 $20 gold coin, called the St. Gaudens Double Eagle, had already begun. The Mint started melting these coins right away, but a cashier at the Mint named George McCann switched out about 20 of these coins for older dates. These became the only surviving 1933 $20 gold coins outside of the Smithsonian (which was only given two of the coins).
Much of the coins’ story in the following decades is obscure, but this is what the US Government has managed to piece together: Nineteen of the coins came in to the possession of a jeweler named Israel Switt, who sold at least nine of them at auction to collectors. These collectors included King Farouk of Egypt. The Secret Service, discovering that the coins at auction existed, immediately tried to confiscate them all (since they were stolen property of the US Mint). They were successful, except for the coin owned by King Farouk. He had legally exported the coin to his own country, and the US was unable to recover it through diplomatic means.
In 1952, King Farouk was deposed and all of his vast possessions were auctioned. This included the 1933 St. Gaudens, but when it became clear that the Secret Service was intent on recovering the coin, it disappeared again. It would remain hidden for 40 years.
In 1996, British coin dealer Stephen Fenton was in secret talks to sell the coin to a private buyer. Little did he know that the “private buyer” was actually an undercover agent for the Secret Service. He was arrested during a sting operation at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. After first claiming that he had bought the coin over the counter in his coin shop, he later changed his story and under sworn testimony he admitted that the coin came from the collection of King Farouk. During the subsequent court battle, the coin was kept in the vaults of the World Trade Center. In July of 2001, only two months before terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center towers, the case was settled and the coin was moved to Fort Knox for safe keeping. It was decided that the coin would be auctioned, and half of the money would go to the Mint, with the other half going to Stephen Fenton. The final auction price of the coin? More than $7.5 million. This was twice as much as any other coin had ever sold for.
Looking back on the story, you might notice that the jeweler Israel Switt only sold nine of his nineteen coins at auction. What happened to the other ten? This was a mystery for six decades. Then, in September of 2004, Joan Langbord (a descendant of Israel Switt), was going through Switt’s safety deposit box at the bank and discovered ten more of the 1933 St. Gaudens. Having not known about the illegal status of these coins (or perhaps being too trusting of the government), she sent them to the Mint to be authenticated. They were immediately confiscated, and after a long court battle, a jury ruled unanimously that the coins were property of the US government.
NOTE: With the exception of the coin that formerly belonged to King Farouk, it is illegal for any member of the public to own the 1933 St. Gaudens. However, on January 1st, 1975, it became legal for US citizens to own other gold coins and bullion once again. Do you want to know what your coins might be worth? Call us at 793-GOLD!