The question of who is the real owner of 10 1933 $20 gold pieces found by the daughter of Philadelphia jeweler Israel Switt will be decided in a two-week trial that began in U.S. District Court July 7.
Whether the decision goes for the government, which claims they are illegal, or the family of Switt’s daughter, Joan Langbord, the verdict is likely to be appealed.
A 10-person jury was chosen (six will ultimately deliberate), consisting of eight women and two men.
Mint officials say the coins were purloined by former (deceased) Mint employees and thus could not lawfully leave the Mint or enter circulation. The Langbord view is expressed by family members who claim that they found the rarities in a safe deposit box some 70 years after Switt put them there. He died in 1990.
Government officials wanted to place heavy emphasis on the seizure cases from roughly 1946 to 1955. During that time, L.G. Barnard, James Aloysius Stack and others litigated with the government over coins that they had bought as collectors. Every one of them traced back to Switt. They all lost.
Another 1933 double eagle, which also might have come from Switt, once belonged to King Farouk of Egypt. In 1996 it was sold by British dealer Stephen Fenton in an FBI sting operation in New York City. He was arrested. The Langbords’ attorney Barry Berke was in that case, too, representing the later coins (not yet found). Then the government settled by agreeing to sell the coin at auction in 2002 and split the price realized with Fenton, which was over $7.59 million.
“You will hear evidence that in 1934, in a civil proceeding, the government confiscated coins seized from Israel Switt under The Gold Reserve Act of 1934,” Berke told the court in a suggested jury instruction.
He succeeded in having the court tell the jury it is for a limited purpose not to prove a bad act by Switt, but instead to show that he was aware that the government viewed the coins as illegal.
“The majority of events giving rise to the United States’s forfeiture claim occurred between 1933 and 1947,” Judge Legrome Davis’ opinion says. He acknowledges that this leaves gaps where government records are lacking.
Mrs. Langbord claims to have found the stash in a family safe deposit box – but neglected to include them in her father’s estate. Judge Davis will allow the jury to be told that in a limited way.
Both sides have been battling since September 2004 when Langbord contacted the Mint’s counsel, Daniel Shaver, to ask if the Mint would authenticate the 10 coins. They were sent to Washington. The Mint authenticated them and then kept them.
The judge wrote the “government’s possession became a seizure once it refused to comply with plaintiffs’ request to return the coins,” adding that a “person’s ‘right against unreasonable seizures is not vitiated’ merely because the government believes that it is the rightful owner of the property in question.”
However the judge makes clear now that just because the seizure issue is decided for Langbord doesn’t mean that the coins were not purloined and might have to be returned to the government.