Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, 1933. Gold. Property of a Private Collector, on loan to the New-York Historical Society. (all images courtesy New York-Historical Society)

There are few coins as fabled at the infamous 1933 Double Eagle. The United States struck almost a half million twenty-dollar gold coins, aka Double Eagles, in the middle of the Great Depression. At the same time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 6102, which criminalized the possession of monetary gold by any individual, partnership, association or corporation — it was part of his mission to wean the country off the gold standard. The 1933 Double Eagles, although legally made, became illegal to own and they never circulated.

A view of the Double Eagle at the New-York Historical Society.

A view of the Double Eagle at the New-York Historical Society.

The following year, two of the coins were deposited at the Smithsonian, and in February 1937 the rest were melted into gold bars. But, like all good stories, there’s a twist.

In 1944, a Double Eagle appeared  at auction, and the US Secret Service launched an investigation.

The rest is too juicy not to quote verbatim:

In 1944, a 1933 Double Eagle appeared in a New York auction, and the United States Secret Service launched an investigation. It determined that a US Mint employee had stolen a number of the coins in 1937 and identified ten 1933 Double Eagles that had escaped destruction, of which nine were surrendered or seized. One was beyond reach, as it had been purchased by King Farouk of Egypt, and after 1954 it disappeared. In 1996, as part of a Secret Service sting at the Waldorf Astoria, a British coin dealer was arrested while trying to sell a 1933 Double Eagle, which he swore had formerly belonged to King Farouk.

In 2002, at the conclusion of lengthy legal proceedings, the coin was sold at auction for $7,590,020, nearly doubling the previous world record. That very coin — the only 1933 Double Eagle which may be legally owned by an individual — will be on display at New-York Historical, on temporary loan from an anonymous private collection.

So, here’s your chance to see the coin IRL in New York.

For art nerds, it’s worth mentioning that the coin was designed by Irish-American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who is best remembered as a teacher at the Art Students League of New York and for his memorable monuments commemorating heroes of the American Civil War, like the William Tecumseh Sherman monument at the southeast corner for Manhattan’s Central Park, and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston and DC.

Is this the last we will hear about missing stashes of Double Eagles? Probably not. In 2004 the US Mint recovered 10 other Double Eagles from a Philadelphia coin dealer’s home and they are currently sitting in the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Moral of the story: US government, you so crazy.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.