Family fights government over rare ‘Double Eagle’ gold coins

Zachary Roth

A jeweler's heirs are fighting the United States government for the right to keep a batch of rare and valuable "Double Eagle" $20 coins that date back to the Franklin Roosevelt administration. It's just the latest coin controversy to make headlines.

Philadelphian Joan Langbord and her sons say they found the 10 coins in 2003 in a bank deposit box kept by Langbord's father, Israel Switt, a jeweler who died in 1990. But when they tried to have the haul authenticated by the U.S. Treasury, the feds, um, flipped.

They said the coins were stolen from the U.S. Mint back in 1933, and are the government's property. The Treasury Department seized the coins, and locked them away at Fort Knox. The court battle is set to kick off this week.

The rare coins (pictured), first struck in 1850, show a flying eagle on one side and a figure representing liberty on the other. One such coin recently sold at auction for $7.6 million, meaning the Langbords' trove could be worth as much as $80 million.

The coins are part of a batch that were struck but then melted down after President Roosevelt took the country off the gold standard in 1933, during the Great Depression. Two were given to the Smithsonian Institution*, but a few more mysteriously escaped.

The government has long believed that Switt schemed with a corrupt cashier at the Mint to swipe the coins. They note that the deposit box in which the coins were found was rented six years after Switt's death, and that the family never paid inheritance tax on the coins.

A lawyer for the Langbords counters that the coins could have left the Mint legally since it was permissible to swap gold coins for gold bullion.

Authorities in the Roosevelt era twice looked into Switt's coin dealings, including his possession of Double Eagle coins. In 1944, Switt's license to deal scrap gold was revoked.

The battle over the Double Eagles is hardly the only recent coin contretemps. Two British metal-detecting enthusiasts are said to be locked in a bitter dispute over how to divide the profits from a horde of Iron Age gold coins that they unearthed together in eastern England in 2008.

And an 80-year-old California man was jailed in 2009 after allegedly hitting another man in the head with a metal pipe and firing a gun at a third man during a dispute over missing gold coins.

Some coin disputes involve more than wrangling over valuable collectors' items. In 2007, Secret Service and FBI agents raided an Indiana company called Liberty Dollar, in a bid to stamp out illegal currency. The firm was making "Ron Paul Silver Dollars," in honor of Rep. Ron Paul, whose presidential campaign advocates bringing back the gold standard.

And since we're talking about coins, here's a list of the ten most valuable coins you might find in your pocket change.

* This sentence previously referred incorrectly to the "Smithsonian Institute."

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