REVIEW: Illegal Tender

What: An awesome book by author David Tripp
Where: Bookstores everywhere
How Much: $16.38 from Amazon (as little as $2.70 used)

Would you believe me if I told you that one of history’s greatest mysteries was about… a handful of coins? Author David Tripp makes the case with his book Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, a tale of intrigue at the highest levels of government, back-room deals between shady coin dealers, a madness of pursuit worthy of the search for the Holy Grail… and one corpulent and corrupt king.

Here’s the basics of the story in a nutshell:

Theodore Roosevelt had long been critical of the beauty – or lack thereof – of American coinage. In fact, one of the things he was bound and determined to do while in the White House was to remedy this, and to that end he sent a brutally short and to-the-point memo to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortimer Shaw on December 27, 1904: “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” This memo set off a chain of events that eventually resulted in the hiring of famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coins. Although Saint-Gaudens was in ill health – as it turns out, he would barely live long enough to see his designs to completion – he took to the task with gusto, creating new designs for just about every American coin. Sadly though, most of Saint-Gaudens’ designs were simply too complex for the Mint to implement. Striking a coin four times was perfectly acceptable for medallions, but it just wasn’t cost-effective to do the same for pennies. Of all of Saint-Gaudens’ designs, the only one to be implemented without major alterations would be $20 gold piece, which was nicknamed the “double eagle”. The coin would go down in history as perhaps the most beautiful coin the United States ever minted, and it would enjoy robust circulation for around 25 years.

At the time, coins were minted in the following way: towards the end of a calendar year, the Mint would estimate how many coins it would need for the upcoming year. In the first week of that new year, the Mint would begin striking all of the coins it figured it needed for the year, beginning with the highest denomination and working its way down. So, for example, in November they would estimate that they’d need 300,000 double eagles in the coming year. They’d then strike all 300,000 coins in January and let them sit in a huge safe until they were needed. If the Mint made an error in last year’s estimate and made too many coins in the previous year, it wasn’t uncommon for the Mint to let the new coins sit in the safe for half a year (or more) until they were released.

And that was more or less what happened with the 1933 double eagles. The Mint struck their entire run of 1933 coins in early January of that year, but a slight excess of supply led the Mint to leave all of them in the safe… until March, when Theodore’s cousin FDR was inaugurated. Of course, the American economy was in the tank at the time, and one of the first official acts that FDR took as president was to ban the use of gold coinage. All gold coins coming into banks were hauled off to be melted down, and the Mint was emptied of all gold coins including the as-yet-uncirculated 1933 double eagles. According to government records, every single one of the 445,500 1933 double eagles were melted down, save a few that were melted down for testing purposes (and accounted for) and 2 coins that were presented to the U.S. National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian.

That should have been the end of the 1933 double eagle. But rumors occasionally popped up about the 1933 coins in high-end numismatist circles. Like the Loch Ness Monster, tales would be spun about a friend of a friend of a friend having seen or owned one. Yet the coins proved to be as elusive as the Monster herself. At first, the Secret Service didn’t take the tales seriously at all. But then certain patterns started to emerge. Unlike urban legends – which often have details that change with time or location – the rumors started to mention the same cities and people. In 1944, a reporter working on a piece about the rumors contacted the Mint… who freaked out and called the Secret Service… who finally realized that something must be going on. They launched an investigation in 1944 that would seize 7 of the coins in the first year and another still in 1952.

But a single 1933 double eagle had made it out of the country. Ironically, it wasn’t smuggled out in someone’s shoe or hidden in someone’s luggage. The coin was destined for King Farouk of Egypt, and his agent had applied for – and received – all of the necessary paperwork from the Mint and Customs Department. One of the reasons Farouk’s agent was able to do so had to do with the American government’s reluctance to embarrass the king’s agent. The other (more pressing) reason was because few (if any) of the people working for the government in the 1950s knew what had happened to the coins back in 1934. You see, the law that FDR got through Congress allowed people to own coins “of a recognized numismatic value”. And so, the agent of a world-famous coin collector applying for a permit to take a double eagle out of the country wasn’t anything suspicious. But what the people working at the Mint and Customs didn’t know in the 1950s was that none of the 1933 coins should have been in circulation. And since the 1933 coins were never in circulation, they were therefore still the property of the United States government… and thus King Farouk’s coin was essentially stolen property.

What happened to the coin? Where is it today? You’ll just have to read the book to find out!

*    *    *

Tripp’s book is amazing, partly because of the story it tells, and partly for the page-turning way it was written. Reading an entire book based on a coin might seem… tedious, but I assure that that it isn’t. However, the some parts of the book seem to talk in circles (although that’s more a result of how the story played out in real life as opposed to simple bad writing). Also, the book seems to have a cast of thousands, so oftentimes I had to flip back several pages (or chapters, even!) to remember who this Secret Service agent or who that Egyptian official was. Lastly, there’s simply a lot that no one knows about the coin, so the author fills in these parts of the history with speculation and interviews. As one Amazon reviewer said “Face it, this investigation lagged for 60 years. Obviously, evidence discovery was slow.” Like a good movie that would have been great had the director shaved 20 minutes from the film, so too would this book have been great if 20 pages (or more) could be edited out. All in all, it’s a fascinating subject matter though, so I’ll give Tripp a pass.

MY RATING: B-

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