Mystery of the fugitive 'double eagles'

September 05, 2004|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,Sun Staff

Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, by David Tripp. Free Press. 384 pages. $26.

On March 6, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the United States off the gold standard, banned new gold coins and condemned to the melting pot nearly a half-million $20 gold pieces struck with a 1933 date but not issued.

A few escaped. David Tripp tracks the fugitives across six decades and several continents, through a king's palace and a Secret Service sting operation and into bright day at a Sotheby's auction two years ago.

It is an evocative trip. Per-haps no other metallurgical product emits the symbolic and informational wattage of coins. The little hunks cater to greed, aestheticism, patriotism and probably a few other vices. What we know about Hellenic South Asia and some other ancient cultures is based almost solely on numismatic evidence.

Coins betray 20th-century American secrets, as well. No one could imagine the events of 1933 happening today.

To combat a worsening Depression and plunging prices, Roosevelt and Congress not only stopped minting gold but called on the country to surrender privately held gold in exchange for government paper. The idea was to stabilize the money supply by reversing overseas gold flight.

In a way that will horrify the libertarian and thrill the communitarian, Americans obeyed, trading tons of lustrous yellow metal for Roosevelt's IOUs, for the good of the nation. Eventually it became illegal for people to own almost any kind of gold.

Thus Tripp's escapee $20 "double eagles" are either freedom fighters or desperados, depending on your preference. In either case, they are rare and valuable and, fortunately for Tripp's yarn, have a habit of delivering bad luck to dubious people.

The breakout came from the Philadelphia Mint. Although it was increasingly clear after Roosevelt's election that gold issues would cease, the mint worked on bureaucratic auto-pilot, stamping gold discs with "1933" as soon as the calendar so ordered.

There had been unauthorized links before between mint employees and the numismatic netherworld, and this was the apparent getaway gate. More than a dozen 1933 double eagles reached dealers and collectors before the rest of the hoard was rendered into bricks in 1937 and shipped to Fort Knox.

Exactly how many is uncertain. Tripp's tale focuses on one coin that surfaced in 1996 and was later sold by Sotheby's for $6.6 million after federal authorities tried but failed to confiscate it. One of story's intriguing aspects is Tripp's establishment that there is almost certainly at least one other 1933 double eagle on the lam, and possibly more.

Almost all has been untold until now. A first-time author and consultant for Sotheby's during the 2002 auction, Tripp buried himself in primary research and came up with fascinating material from government archives and interviews with numismatic old-timers.

Documents from the 1940s, for example, show Secret Service gumshoes trailing the double eagles from Philadel-phia's jewelers' row to the doors of tycoon-collectors such as oilman James W. Flanagan, a retired colonel living in Toronto, New York City and Palm Beach. Tripp fingers the original thief, a mint supervisor with a habit of fondling the coins.

The writing can be clunky. Tripp's foreshadowing is heavier than a vault of bullion, and he is addicted to baroque metaphors. The character list is sometimes longer than it needs to be.

But he paces the narrative well, and the underlying story of the most expensive coin ever sold is good enough for the pages to fly past anyway.

Jay Hancock is a business columnist for The Sun.

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