This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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Resolution of the legal positions of the U.S. Mint and the descendants of Israel Switt over the fate of 10 genuine 1933 double eagle coins moved one step closer to trial on Oct. 28 with release of a 20-page decision by U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis Jr., from the federal court on the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
A trial would occur in late 2011 or in 2012.
Both sides have been battling since September 2004 when Switt’s daughter, Joan Langbord, and her two adult sons, contacted the Mint’s counsel, Daniel Shaver, to ask if the Mint would authenticate 10 coins thought to be genuine 1933 double eagles. The coins were sent to Washington for review.
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The family acted through New York lawyer Barry Berke, who had previously negotiated with the Mint to legalize the King Farouk-Jay Parrino-Stephen Fenton specimen that sold for $7.59 million in 2002.
Israel Switt, a Philadelphia jeweler and pawn merchant, has been identified in recent years as included in the pedigree of every known specimen of the 1933 double eagle or $20 gold piece that ever surfaced. This includes a number of pieces in the 1940s and 1950s in a series of seizures or prosecutions, usually by the United States attorney in the district where the coin was seized.
The Mint declined to return the 10 gold coins, saying in essence, “sue us,” and Berke rose to the challenge, demand the coins return in court.
Berke’s pleadings laid out the case as to why Langbord and her family believed that they had the right to retain the coins and that the Mint had to seek their forfeiture, not simply retain them like a neighborhood bully. The Mint had an entirely different perspective and attempted to retain the coins as the fruit of a crime, much as a bank robber is denied the loot.
The plaintiffs basically claim the government has my coins, it took them, and we want them back.
Significantly, the government now bears the burden of proof that it is the rightful owner. The problem: all through the years, the government found that when the other side had the burden, it could not be met. The shoe is on the other foot.
Judge Davis wrote, “Two months after the Court’s summary judgment ruling,” in 2009, “the United States sought leave to file a multi-count complaint ... [which] includes the court-ordered forfeiture count against the 10 1933 double eagles (Count I) and three additional claims: replevin and declaratory judgment claims against the Langbords (Counts II and III, respectively), and a declaratory judgment claim against three John Doe third-party defendants who allegedly possess other 1933 double eagles stolen from the Mint (Count IV).”
This part is new. The Mint wants to use this case as the last litigation of this issue. It might well be, but not as they intended.
Judge Davis wrote that “Plaintiffs protest that the addition of the proposed claims because they will allow the Government to prevail on a lesser showing – requiring only proof of proper title, rather than that the coins are the proceeds of a crime.” And so he denied that request.
In the realm of “you won’t believe this, but try it on for size”, Judge Davis characterized another proposed claim of the Mint this way: “Adding a twist, the United States also filed a claim of interest, alleging rightful ownership as the victim of the coins’ theft ...”
Judge Davis then characterized the Langbord family’s response: “Plaintiffs move to dismiss Government’s claim of interest for lack of jurisdiction, arguing that neither the forfeiture statute nor the Constitution’s case-and-controversy requirement permit the United States to file a claim against itself.”
In the end, the Judge gave both sides a little – and Langbord’s a solid procedural victory. “The Court appreciates the uniqueness of this case. But the unfamiliar landscape does not persuade it to abandon well-established legal principles, as the parties’ briefs often suggest it should.”
Based on other cases and past practices called precedent, “the Court 1) denies the Government’s motion for leave to file Counts II and IV of its proposed complaint; 2) grants the Government’s motion for leave to file Count III of its proposed complaint; and 3) grants Plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss the Government’s claim of interest in the forfeiture proceeding.”