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Wednesday, March 22, 1944.
1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.
Dr. F. Leland Howard had been stumped; now he was unhappy.
A narrow-eyed career bureaucrat with a reputation for playing it strictly by the book, Howard was Assistant Director of the United States Bureau of the Mint. The gray early-spring day was warming with the threat of rain as Howard sat in his spartan office on the second floor of the Treasury Building across the street from the White House. He carefully read a long memo from the Philadelphia Mint. In it was the answer to a question he had posed four days earlier, and it was not the answer he wanted.
On that Saturday, Howard had been at work, filling in, according to government protocol, for Nellie Tayloe Ross, the director, who was away. The standard work week was still five and a half or six days. As Acting Director, the most senior Mint employee present, he was checking into a seemingly minor inquiry from a New York journalist, who had asked how many twenty-dollar gold pieces, made in 1933, had been issued. The writer was curious, because an example was appearing at auction in the coming week. The description in the catalogue stated that only eight or ten existed. Could the Mint help verify the accuracy of this claim?
Similar requests for information were received from time to time, and for the most part they were easily answered by consulting the Mint's Annual Report. Checking the 1933 report, Howard learned that almost half a million twenty-dollar gold pieces had been struck. But in 1933, the same year -- and month -- that the coins had first been made, the government had begun the recall of privately owned gold -- primarily coins and gold-backed currency. That historic event muddied the waters seriously.
Unsure of the answer, Howard had dictated a telegram to the superintendent of the United States Mint at Philadelphia: "Does your record show that double eagles minted in 1933 were ever paid out. Your institution only one to manufacture double eagles 1933. Reported sale of same in New York scheduled for next week. Please get information by Tuesday if possible."
The first response had come by telephone directly to Mrs. Ross on Tuesday evening, followed up the next day by the extremely detailed memo Howard was now reading. The answer was unequivocal. According to the Mint's own records, no 1933 twenty-dollar gold pieces -- double eagles -- had ever been released to the public. If there was one in New York offered for sale, it was either a fake or it belonged to the United States Government.
Either way, it was a case for the United States Secret Service.
Thursday, February 8, 1996. Park Avenue, New York City.
A soaring forty-two-story, Art Deco palace on Park Avenue, the Waldorf-Astoria is renowned for having hosted kings, presidents, movie stars, men of wealth, and men of passion. If the Waldorf-Astoria was good enough for heads of state, it was good enough for the United States Secret Service. A suite on the twenty-second floor was wired and ready for a sting, which had been set up by a retired truck driver turned small-time coin dealer -- Confidential Informant 324-15.
The informant had called in the Feds for not entirely altruistic reasons. He was planning to bank some reward money at the very least. CI 324-15 had baited the trap by offering one and a half million dollars to his mark, Jay Parrino, an American coin dealer, for a twenty-dollar gold piece, a 1933 double eagle -- an elusive, mythic treasure that was illegal to own and so coveted all the more. Parrino himself didn't own the coin but was acting as middleman. The owner of the coin was an English coin dealer, Stephen Fenton. Fenton came with the golden object of the sting in his pocket accompanied by his cousin. It was not yet 9 A.M., clear and not too cold for February.
Everyone involved was anxious, some more than others. The suite was wired, and a tape recorder was running in the room next door.
At first just the three coin dealers and an innocent were assembled in the suite: the informant who had set up the sting; his mark, Jay Parrino, who had negotiated the deal; the owner of the coin, Stephen Fenton; and Fenton's bystander cousin. They were joined minutes later by two undercover United States Secret Service agents. One posed as a coin expert, the other as the informant's millionaire client -- the buyer.
The scene was not quite high drama. It was awkward and poorly paced. The informant was verbose, asking leading questions and occasionally answering them himself. Parrino was agreeable, at first offering nothing but succinct replies. Soon, led on, he opened up with nervous bursts of telling information. Fenton exercising English reserve, was polite and said little -- but what he said betrayed him too. The undercover men said next to nothing. Within minutes, the deal was agreed.
The next thing Jay Parrino and Stephen Fenton knew, they had been arrested and were making sworn statements to the authorities. It was barely noon.
Just over an ounce in weight and just under an inch and a half in diameter, this double eagle had been made a lifetime ago, sixty-three years before -- legally. But the United States Government contended that it was stolen property -- stolen from the United States itself -- and it had laid claim. It was not the first 1933 double eagle the government had seized. Nor, if another ever surfaced, would it be the last.
Tuesday, July 30, 2002.
Sotheby's, 1334 York Avenue, New York City.
The art auction season had been over for a month. The two behemoths, Sotheby's and Christie's, were still staggering from accusations of collusion, which had cost them a combined half-billion dollars in legal settlements and the purity of their brand names. 2002 had been a tough year.
The mid-afternoon sun was fierce, the air sultry and close. A few stray green-gray clouds failed to organize themselves into a thunderstorm to relieve the city of a week-long heat wave. Sotheby's headquarters, a ten-story cracker box of steel covered in a planned misalignment of glass panels, stood largely empty except for the lobby and seventh floor, where a cumulus of the curious was assembling for the unprecedented exhibition and auction of a single coin -- the 1933 double eagle, the coin seized from Stephen Fenton by the Secret Service. It had been decreed by the government the only legal one of its kind, an amazing rarity, a relic of the nation's past glories, challenges, and victories. Now the sole legitimate survivor of the near half-million that had been struck, it could at long last be displayed and admired in the light of day, without fear of confiscation by the long arm of the Secret Service. Government agents now acted as guardians, not predators.
The visitors were for the most part new to Sotheby's. They had made the pilgrimage for one reason only -- to see history made. A growing host of reporters armed with stenopads, tape recorders, and video cameras diligently patrolled and interviewed the same few people.
Within the massing crowd was a handful of real bidders. Only twelve had registered and been approved by Sotheby's. Each, for his own reasons, hoped to come away with the glittering prize. Each was alone with his thoughts, calculating his odds. Some would bid from the saleroom floor. Others would relay their bids by telephone, either from a private box at Sotheby's or from the comfort of their home or office. Some had presale jitters, others were cool professionals, others still had never bid at auction before and were about to dive in at the deep end of the pool, willing -- hoping -- to spend millions of dollars.
The object of their desire was neatly settled within a recess made from a series of movable blue walls surmounted by two nineteenthcentury American flags at either end. A single freestanding display case with sliding doors and double locks, flanked by nattily uniformed, wellarmed officers of the United States Mint Police, was drenched in the luminosity of carefully aimed spotlights. Within the vitrine, perched on a carefully styled cascade of black velvet, was an oblong piece of plastic that encased a disk of gold -- shimmering, glowing, waiting.
The 1933 double eagle is the most highly coveted, famous -- or infamous -- coin in the world. Likened to the Mona Lisa and the Holy Grail, beautiful and unattainable, it has been on the United States Secret Service's Most Wanted list for sixty years. Although it was legally made, it shouldn't exist. Its very survival is due to an unlikely convergence of luck, timing, and greed.
In 1933, in the most mournful days of the Depression, twenty dollars could support a married couple living in expensive New York City for a week or employ a farmhand lucky enough to find work for a month. Nearly half a million 1933 double eagles had come ringing off the presses at almost exactly the moment that President Franklin Roosevelt, in an effort to lift a crippled economy back to its feet, banned private ownership of gold. Millions upon millions of gold coins that had been circulating for decades were recalled.
Four years later, according to the records of the United States Government, all the 1933 double eagles were consigned to the fires of the Mint's crucibles and rendered into faceless gold bars destined for storage in the newly sanctified repository of Fort Knox. None was ever released to the public, according to these documents. But, as if by magic, within days of their supposed destruction, a few examples escaped and found their way into the hands of wealthy collectors. But how? From whom? In spite of common talk about the coins' existence in the coin world, the government was none the wiser until fully seven years later.
And so began an odyssey, a crime story, a tale of political will and international intrigue, which weaves through nearly three-quarters of a century of America's history. At times the coins have touched upon great events as well as small.
The auction that was held on that sweltering New York evening before a boisterous crowd of well over five hundred was just one chapter, and the most public, of an extraordinary saga that has been veiled in secrecy, mystery, and misunderstanding. Few who have dallied with this forbidden coin have come away richer for the experience. But rumors persist of other sister coins, cloistered in shadowy collections, and they testify that a mortal once bedazzled by its immutable rays finds it hard to turn away -- whatever the consequences.
For the same enigmatic reasons that men have sought the coin, legally and illegally, for three quarters of a century I was compelled to devote more than two years of my life to investigating, unraveling, and narrating the epic of this golden disk's astonishing and, at times, unlikely tale of survival against the odds. Only one person can legally own the 1933 double eagle, but its story belongs to us all.
Forbidden, it lures, captures with its history, and captivates with its beauty. Its creation was the union of a visionary's dream with a dying artist's last supernova brilliance.
It is in 1904, just after Christmas, that the story begins.
Copyright © 2004 by David Enders Tripp