Saturday, July 16, 2011

Family Battles U.S. Over 10 Coins Worth Millions

Is it the family of a local gold dealer who died 21 years ago? Or is it the United States government, which produced a half million of the coins before melting all of them — well, almost all of them — down?
Family members, who say they found the coins in a safe deposit box in 2003, argue they are the rightful owners of the exquisite “double eagle” $20 coins, each now worth millions of dollars. The government argues that the coins, never officially released, belong to the United States, and not the heirs of Israel Switt, the gold dealer.
And so to court.
In a case that began on Thursday, jurors are getting an unusual lesson in Depression-era history, and will ultimately decide whether Mr. Switt was merely “colorful,” as a lawyer for the family described him, or a thief.
Each side explained in opening arguments that, for all of the history and complexities of 1930s Mint procedures and records to come, the case is quite simple. They disagreed, however, about what the simple point of the case was.
Assistant United States Attorney Jacqueline Romero, presenting the government’s case, told jurors, “You are going to hear a remarkable and intriguing story about gold coins that were stolen from the U.S. Mint.”
“Israel Switt was somehow involved” in the theft, she said, probably with the help of a corrupt cashier at the Philadelphia Mint. The government had linked Mr. Switt to every double eagle that had emerged over the decades, she said, including 10 tracked down in the 1940s and one sold with the agreement of the government by a dealer, Stephen Fenton, in 2002 for $7.6 million. That sale was based on a government mistake, she said; these coins would not get the same dispensation.
The government will prove, she pledged, that the heirs knew that the goods were not legitimately theirs, and so the jury should return the coins “to their rightful owner, the people of the United States of America.”
Barry Berke, a lawyer arguing on behalf of Mr. Switt’s heirs, the Langbord family, told the jury that the case was, simply, about power and government overreach. Washington should not be able to seize property from citizens “unless it can prove it is entitled to — and not just powerful enough to take it,” he said.
He called the government’s case an attempt to “rewrite history,” and promised to present alternate explanations for treasured coins coming legitimately into the Langbords’ hands: the mint commonly exchanged coins for gold, he said, and the cashier of the mint kept an “open bag” of 1933 double eagles near his desk.
How did the coins get out? Gloriously designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the 1933 double eagles were never officially distributed. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, trying to stop a bank panic and to stem hoarding, issued an executive order that made owning large amounts of gold bullion and coins illegal. So while nearly a half million were made, all but two, sent to the Smithsonian, were supposed to have been reduced to bullion.
But in 2004, Joan Langbord, Mr. Switt’s daughter, and her sons contacted the United States Mint to say they had discovered the 10 coins tucked away in a safe deposit box, within a folded Wanamaker’s department store bag, and asked for help in authenticating them. Instead, the government seized the double eagles — an eagle was a $10 piece, a half eagle a $5 — saying that since they had never been circulated, they must have been stolen. The Langbords sued to get them back.
In 2009, Judge Legrome D. Davis of Federal District Court, said that the government could not simply assume the coins were government property, and would have the burden of proving the facts in court. While the government has the burden of proof, this is not a criminal case in which guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. It must convince jurors only that a preponderance of the evidence supports its case.
In a tough pair of detailed orders issued just before trial, Judge Davis stated flatly that some of the evidence could allow jurors to infer that the coins were stolen and that the family knew it and concealed them. He noted somewhat acerbically in a footnote that the safe deposit box in which Ms. Langbord “claims to have discovered” the coins had been opened by her in 2002, “the day before the Fenton coin was sold at auction.”
Even if the jury decides in favor of the Langbords, Judge Davis could still declare the government the rightful owner. That possibility worries coin collectors, said Armen Vartian, a lawyer who filed briefs in the case on behalf of the Professional Numismatics Guild. “The government cannot just go around saying, ‘You have this. We think it’s ours. Give it back,’ ” he said. Having looked at the evidence against the Langbords, he said, “At best, it’s inconclusive,” and added, “You would think that the government has better things to do.”


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