Having some time to myself over the last few days allowed me to finish reading Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle by David Tripp. Tripp is was a director of Sotheby’s in the department responsible for the 2002 sale of the only legal 1933 Saint Gaudens $20 Gold Double Eagle coin. His book is about the history and the over $7.5 million auction sale of this coin.
As with any thriller, the book opens with the background and history of the our protagonist, in this case, the Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle. Tripp repeats the well known history of how President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to extend the gilded age and update the design of US coinage. Roosevelt thought the design of the Mint’s Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber’s were bland and not fitting of a great nation. Tripp reproduces reports of conversations and letters from Roosevelt to Barber and other US Mint officials demanding they follow the instructions of sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, as to how the coin would be minted. If you have not heard the details of this history, the first chapter is a must read.
From the history of the rise of the Saint-Gaudens $20 Double Eagle, Tripp then talks about its demise. With the country in the throes of the Great Depression and the country revolting against President Herbert Hoover at the polls, Tripp discusses the tension between Hoover and the transition team of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the country was experience a near total economic collapse, Tripp writes how FDR did not want to do anything that would give Hoover credit for doing anything before the March, 1933 inauguration.
Hours after FDR’s inauguration, the Senate approved the appointment of William H. Woodin as the Secretary of the Treasury. Woodin worked tirelessly with the Hoover administration to try to stop the damage. Tripp paints a great word picture as to how Woodin and FDR created a policy that helped the country pull out of the depression.
One of the problem was the amount of gold leaving the United States and being used for overseas trade. More gold was leaving the Treasury than they were taking in. At Woodin’s urging, FDR signed an executive order recalling all privately held gold. As this executive order goes through many updates, Tripp brings us inside the Philadelphia Mint facilities as they continue to mint 1933 $20 Double Eagles. Tripp puts us right in the Mint and traces the path of these gold beauties.
With the order to melt these coins in 1934, the mystery begins. Tripp weaves the story in true mystery novel style following the trail of several of these coins as they leave the Mint. This includes the one coin with a legal export receipt that was shipped to King Farouk of Egypt. Tripp’ coverage of the “Palace Collections of Egypt” or King Farouk’s by the Egyptian government (website in English) is a classic twist of capitalism and greed meeting politics.
The book bogs down a bit starting in the late 1950s as the trail for all of the Double Eagles gets cold and the various law suits are settled. The story picks up again with the discovery of the Farouk coin. Tripp follows the trail from its consignment in England through the seizure in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City by the United States Secret Service. From there, the book reads like an episode of Law and Order leading up to the settlement and auction of this one-of-a-kind coin.
The only thing that makes this only a four-star (out of five) book is that Tripp’s prosaic tome makes this composition a somewhat arduous read. One may require a dictionary close at hand to fully understand the lexicon he uses. If nothing else, the book did help improve my vocabulary. Otherwise, Illegal Tender is a wonderful book to read and better than most mystery novels because it is true!
Illegal Tender won the 2005 Book of the Year award from the Numismatic Literary Guild.