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Jury says U.S. rightfully seized 1933 coins

PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. government rightfully seized a set of never-circulated 1933 gold coins from a Philadelphia woman who said she found the rare beauties in her late father’s bank deposit box, a jury found Wednesday.

The verdict capped an unusual civil case that combined history, coin collecting and whether the $20 “double eagles” ever legally left the U.S. Mint. A single one sold for a record $7.59 million in 2002.

Prosecutors argued that the cherished coins never circulated when the country went off the gold standard — and were therefore stolen, with help from the woman’s father, jeweler Israel Switt.

“This is government property that was stolen … 70 years ago,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacqueline Romero said after the verdict. “It doesn’t belong to someone that has a hand in stealing it.”

The coins, designed by famed sculptor August Saint-Gaudens, are among the rarest in the world, and the most sought after by collectors. The government made nearly a half million of them in 1933, but melted all but a few when it abolished the gold standard.

Two were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, and 20 more are known to have gotten out. All 20 can be traced back to Switt, prosecutors said.

Lawyers for his daughter, Joan Langbord, argued that he could have acquired the coins legally. Switt was also a scrap gold dealer who regularly did business with the Mint.

He was twice investigated for illegally possessing gold coins in the 1930s and 1940s. He surrendered many of them, but was never prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired, Romero said during the five-day trial.

Langbord, 81, spent most of her life working in her father’s downtown jewelry store. She said she found the coins in 2003, a year after the auction. She and her sons are expected to appeal pretrial rulings that allowed the jury to hear about those Secret Service investigations, along with other evidence.

Sons Roy Langbord, of New York, an entertainment lawyer, and David Langbord, of Virginia Beach, Va., declined comment after the verdict, as did family lawyer Barry Berke.

The trial judge will next rule on “ownership” of the coins later this year. That fight would appear to be an uphill battle for the Langbords, based on the jury verdict.

Romero said the coins belong to the American people. Authorities hope they’ll someday go on display, perhaps at the Mint in Philadelphia where they were made.

Langbord disclosed the existence of the coins to the Treasury Department in 2004 to have them authenticated. The government, noting the box was not rented until years after Switt’s 1990 death, instead seized them.

“We didn’t think it was a credible story,” Romero said Wednesday.

Nonetheless, U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis ordered authorities to defend the forfeiture to a jury. The coins have been kept at Fort Knox, but jurors got a glimpse of them when they were secretly brought to court one day last week.

The 1933 double eagle sold at auction had once been owned by King Farouk of Egypt, after the U.S. government agreed in 1944 to ship it oversees. A London coin dealer and the U.S. government split the proceeds in a deal negotiated by Berke.

The Langbords had opened their deposit box the day before the London dealer’s Farouk coin was seized in 1996, Romero said. The family later offered a similar 50-50 split with the U.S. to settle the case, but the government rejected it.

The Secret Service believes Switt worked with a shady cashier at the Mint to acquire the coins.

“They have a theory as to how the coins may have left,” Berke told jurors in opening statements last week. “A theory is not good enough to take a citizen’s property.”

Armen R. Vartien, general counsel of the Professional Numismatists Guild, wonders about the impact of the case, given persistent rumors that other 1933 double eagles have survived.

“I’m not surprised at the verdict, because I thought it would be a difficult case for Izzie Switt’s own family,” he said. “But if there’s someone else who has one, they might take a chance, if they can show they got it some other way.”

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