Rare coin rolls into Baltimore

Find: The 1866 `No Motto' dollar emerges four decades after it was stolen from the home of a du Pont heir.

March 11, 2004|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

What is considered the most famous stolen coin in America, one of only two of its kind, came to Baltimore this week in an armored truck.

But how the coin, the 1866 "No Motto" dollar, got here from the armed robbery of a du Pont heir's home in Florida in 1967 to a down-on-his luck collector in California to a librarian in Maine to a rare-coin expert in New Hampshire is a whole other story.

The dollar is one of four coins (two dollars, a half dollar and a quarter) struck by the U.S. Mint without the words "In God We Trust."

"Most people believe they were created as what we call `fantasy coins,'" said Chris Cipoletti, executive director of the nonprofit American Numismatic Association. "The Mint didn't have the security it has today, so people could create coins not intended for circulation and could walk out of the Mint with them. They were more collector pieces than anything."

If you go to the Coin and Currency Show at the Baltimore Convention Center tomorrow through Sunday, you might hear people talking not about how the coin was minted but about how it was stolen from Willis Harrington du Pont, scion of one of America's wealthiest families, at gunpoint and how it appears to have surfaced 37 years later.

The coin, estimated to be worth more than $1 million, will be turned over to du Pont's lawyer, Harold Gray of Palm Beach, Fla., at a news conference tomorrow morning. It will not be on display at the show, which is the first major public gathering of numismatists since the coin turned up two weeks ago in New Hampshire.

Gray, who has traveled the world tracking down du Pont's stolen coins over the past three decades, said he is reserving judgment until a company that specializes in authenticating rare coins, the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. of Sarasota, Fla., examines the dollar in Baltimore.

"I don't think there's any question, but we want to make sure," Gray said. "Mr. du Pont is very careful."

If the silver dollar is the one American Numismatic Rarities, LLC, an auction house in New Hampshire, says it is, the du Ponts will lend it to the American Numismatic Association's Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., where it will be displayed with the 1866 half dollar and quarter.

"It's an incredible event in the coin world," Cipoletti said. "There's a significant amount of intrigue revolving around the theft of the du Pont collection, and because the coins continue to surface, the theft continues to have, in some ways, a life of its own."

The story of how the 1866 dollar surfaced is so fantastic that when the first call came to the auction house last autumn, John Kraljevich, director of the firm's field research and the person who would later catalog the coin, was skeptical. Kraljevich lives in Annapolis but telecommutes to the firm's office in Wolfeboro, N.H.

The caller, a man who asked to be identified only by his profession - librarian - had seen the sister 1866 "No Motto" dollar (not owned by du Pont) at a Beverly Hills, Calif., auction in September that was sponsored by American Numismatic Rarities.

The other coin became the stuff of legend Oct. 5, 1967, when five hooded gunmen broke into the du Ponts' 33-room mansion in Coconut Grove, Fla., after midnight. The intruders used neckties and venetian blind cords to bind du Pont, then 31, his wife, Miren, 29, their 4-year-old son, Victor, and their butler and maid, then stole more than 7,000 rare coins, including a 1787 Brasher doubloon, two 1804 dollars and thousands of Russian coins bound for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The bandits spent more than two hours ransacking the du Pont safes, taking coins, watches, jewelry and $4,000 in cash before fleeing in Miren du Pont's Cadillac convertible.

At one point in the robbery, Willis du Pont complained that a spot on his leg itched and one of the men scratched it, according to news reports at the time. The thieves also raided the refrigerator and had a snack of roast pork and soft drinks while they chided du Pont for not having a normal job "like everybody else."

No one was ever charged in the robbery.

In the years since, some of the coins have been located. The first 16 were recovered in Philadelphia five months after the robbery when three men traded them for a $50,000 ransom offered by a private detective hired by du Pont. The doubloon was recovered in a Miami hotel soon afterward. The 1804 dollars turned up over the years, the last in 1994. The 1866 half dollar and quarter surfaced in 1999, at a coin shop in Los Angeles.

Gray has traveled to Switzerland, Germany, Italy, England and Israel following leads and retrieving coins. He has dipped into a world inhabited by couriers and informants and FBI agents, a world where words such as "ransom" and "sting" and "grab" are used without exaggeration.

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