But we have a particular interest in Berke’s sideline in coin litigation. Forgive the shameless self-plugging, but in 2006, we published Double Eagle, a book about the amazing history that culminated in the sale of that 1933 coin. And as we learned in our reporting for that book, Berke is one helluva good coin lawyer.
Further evidence of that talent came July 28, when Philadelphia federal district court judge Legrome Davis ruled that the U.S. government violated the constitutional rights of Berke’s clients, the Langbord family, when it seized ten 1933 double eagles that had allegedly been stolen from the U.S. Mint in a heist orchestrated by the Langbords’ ancestor. Granting Berke’s motion for summary judgment, the judge ordered the goverment to initiate a hearing to prove that the coins had been stolen.
To understand how remarkable a win this is, you have to know something about the contested coins. (We promise a highly abbreviated version!) The 1933 gold $20 coins, produced at the same time that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made private gold ownership illegal, were never supposed to have been released from the mint in Philadelphia. A certain number, however, found their way out. In the 1940s, when the government got wind that coin dealers were selling 1933 double eagles, the Secret Service launched an investigation and seized all the coins it could find. (One that evaded the government was the coin that subsequently sold for $7.59 million, after a sojourn in Egypt, a Secret Service sting operation, and litigation that ultimately declared it the only 1933 double eagle that could be legally owned. Read all about it in Double Eagle!)
The 1940s investigators concluded that all of the double eagles that got out of the mint had passed through the hands of a Philadelphia jeweler named Israel Switt. Though the lead Secret Service investigator pressed for charges to be brought against Switt, the Philadelphia U.S. attorney said the statute of limitations had expired. Switt was never prosecuted for the theft of the coins from the mint.
In 2005–after the auction of the $7.59 million coin–Switt’s daughter and grandson miraculously “found” ten 1933 double eagles in a safe deposit box that had belonged to Switt. Switt’s grandson, a law school graduate named Roy Langbord, hired Berke to figure out how to keep the coins in the family’s possession, even though the government maintained they were contraband that had been stolen.
Berke’s canny strategy was to turn the coins over to the government, but only for purposes of authentication. Then, when the government refused to give the coins back–as Berke surely knew it would–he sued, claiming the coins had been illegally seized from the Langbords. And though assistant U.S. attorneys in Philadelphia argued that the Langbord family had unclean hands, Judge Davis ruled that the Langbords’ constitutional protections had been violated. Now the burden of proof lies on the government, which must establish that the Langbord coins were stolen–even though everyone connected with the coins’ disappearance from the mint and the initial investigation of the alleged theft is long dead.
Did we mention that we wrote a book about this case? Double Eagle makes for great beach reading!