Review: Illegal Tender: : Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle

David Tripp, Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle. Free Press, New York 2004, ISBN 0-7432-4574-1. $26.

Many numismatists might wonder whether there is anything more to say about the 1933 Double Eagle. Ever since the coin resurfaced in the 1990s, the astounding story surrounding this coin has become well known and is a topic of much debate in certain circles. I was therefore surprised to find much in this book, written by ANS Fellow David Tripp, that I did not know. I have always felt a somewhat personal interest in the 1933 Double Eagle, not least as one of the protagonists in the story is a relative of mine. And since the mysterious owner of the coin has loaned it to the ANS for display in our exhibition at the Federal Reserve Bank, I have told the story of gold and greed to many admiring visitors.

In twenty-one chapters the book gives an account of the Double Eagle series, from its beginnings in 1905 when President Roosevelt asked Saint Gaudens to redesign the American coinage, to 2002 when the sole 1933 example sold at Sotheby’s New York for almost $7.6 million. The story of the 1933 Double Eagle is enthralling: it escaped the melting pot when the US came off the gold standard, and subsequently dodged the Secret Service; it became part of the collections of King Faroukh of Egypt, disappeared after his deposition, and finally emerged in the hands of a London dealer in the mid-1990s when he was arrested at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City. One of the most amusing parts of this book is the account of the legal wrangling between Stephen Fenton, the London dealer, and the US government. Here we are introduced to a part of the story that few people know. Tripp had access to all the relevant documents and presents a fascinating picture of how a young lawyer fought this case on behalf of the English dealer. After the case was settled, the coin was given to Sotheby’s and Stack’s for auction, which is the focus of the final installment of this story. Here many well known coin dealers, collectors, US Mint employees and others appear, described by Tripp in loving, often humorous detail. The author does not even spare himself (Sotheby’s coin department consisted of “a long-tenured and beleaguered consultant who habitually wore red socks”).

This is surely one of the most enjoyable numismatic books that I have read in a long time. More like an Agatha Christie mystery than a history book, much of the action has been fictionalized. Dialogues are common, which makes one wonder whether this all happened in this particular way: “As Fenton stared at the coin in dazzled awe, de Clermont asked, ‘What do you think?’ ‘Wonderful’ It was a breathless, whispered reply.” What is perhaps most appealing is this popular approach of this book. Numismatic books tend to be written for that small group of initiated enthusiasts with jargon used without restraint, which makes them virtually inaccessible to the general public. While this book is popularly accessible, it still is unquestionably a scholarly effort; the book is heavily footnoted (almost 30 pages are appended in the end section), which allows the reader to check much of the sources or theories. In all this is an enthralling, convincing, and, best of all, a page turning account of this most interesting coin.

—Ute Wartenberg Kagan