Of all the coins ever made by the U.S. Mint and its various branches between 1792 and today, there is only one coin that is illegal to own: the 1933 $20 gold piece.
In 1933, the United States Mint manufactured the last gold coins ever made for circulation at face value. These were the ten-dollar gold piece, known as the Eagle; and the twenty-dollar gold piece, known as the Double Eagle. The Double Eagle contained nearly an ounce of gold, while the Eagles contained nearly a half-ounce.
The year 1933 was the fourth and generally the worst year of the Great Depression. One of the factors that made the Depression so severe was that thousands of banks failed, i.e., went bankrupt, and wiped out the savings of their depositors. There was no insurance back then for bank deposits. If your bank went broke, all your money was gone.
On 05 April 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102, sometimes called the “Gold Surrender Order.” This Order required “all persons” to turn in their gold coins, gold bullion and gold certificates (paper money redeemable in gold) to the Federal Reserve or a member bank. The Order made exceptions for gold coins with special collector value and for gold used in art or business. In January 1934, Congress de-monetized gold coins. The gold that was turned in was exchanged for other forms of currency, usually “silver certificates.”
The Philadelphia Mint struck 312,000 ten-dollar Eagles in early 1933, prior to the Gold Surrender Order. Some were officially issued and made it into private hands, but most remained at the Mint or were returned later, and today, there are fewer than forty survivors, worth at least $250,000 each.
The Mint also struck 445,000 $20 double eagles in April 1933, but because they were struck after the surrender order, they were never issued to the public and they were officially no longer legal tender. The Mint delivered two examples to the National Numismatic Collection for public display; officially, these should have been the only two pieces in existence. The rest were melted down into gold bullion by the Mint in 1934.
Unknown to the Mint, a Philadelphia jeweler, Israel Switt, with friends at the Mint, obtained 20 examples of the 1933 double eagle through the Mint’s cashier (trading them for older, legal $20 gold pieces), and these found their way into the hands of collectors. The U.S. government regards all the other examples as having been “stolen” from the Mint, and has devoted a lot of time and energy tracking down anyone holding one of the coins.
The Secret Service was unaware of these 20 “escapees” until 1944, when one of the coins was featured for sale in a coin dealer’s auction catalog. A subsequent investigation tracked down nine of the coins and traced them to Switt. The government tried to prosecute him but the statute of limitations had passed. The nine recovered coins were returned to the Treasury and destroyed.
One of the specimens had been sold to a foreign buyer before the Secret Service caught up to it. That specimen went to King Farouk of Egypt, who was a collector of coins and other things. The King was deposed in a coup in 1952 and his collections were auctioned, but the 1933 Double Eagle was missing. Forty four years later, in 1996, the coin turned up in the hands of British coin dealer Stephen Fenton, who was arrested in a sting operation at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City.
Fenton defended his ownership of the coin in court. The case was settled in 2001 when it was agreed that ownership of the double eagle would revert to the United States government, and the coin could then legally be sold at auction. The United States Treasury issued a document to “issue and monetize” the coin, thereby making it a legal-tender gold coin of the United States. When the coin was seized, it was transferred to a holding place believed to be safe: the treasury vaults of the World Trade Center. When the court settlement was reached in July 2001, only two months before the Trade Center was destroyed, the coin was transferred to Fort Knox for safekeeping. On July 30, 2002, the 1933 double eagle was sold to an anonymous bidder at a Sotheby’s auction held in New York for $6.6 million.
The other 10 specimens of the 1933 double eagle were discovered by the Treasury in 2005 in the hands of a Switt family member. That family member turned the coins over to the Treasury and litigated their rights to the coins in court. After a trial and appeals that went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, the government established that the coins were illegally obtained from the Mint by Israel Switt. Ownership and possession were reverted to the U.S. Government.
The Treasury Department continues to take the position that, except for the one specimen that came from the King Farouk collection and was auctioned in 2002, the 1933 $20 gold piece is illegal to own — the only coin ever made by the U.S. Mint with that status.
“Lawrence N. Rogak, attorney, philosopher, climate infidel.”