The government says that "they were stolen, and Israel Switt was somehow involved," and that it is the legal owner of the 10 coins that in 2004 turned up in a safety-deposit box.
Switt's elderly daughter, Joan Langbord, and two of her sons hope to convince jurors that a Secret Service investigation into Switt seven decades ago never proved him to be a criminal. No one knows how Switt came by the coins, says attorney Barry H. Berke. So the family is the legal owner.
"The government has a theory. They don't have facts," Berke told the U.S. District Court jurors in his opening statement. Next to him sat Switt's daughter, over 80 but still involved in running I. Switt, the secondhand jewelry store her father founded in 1932. It's still on the 100 block of South Eighth Street.
She filed suit with two of her three sons, Roy of New York and David of Virginia, who were with her in the courtroom.
Their father and grandfather was a "colorful, opinionated" character, Berke said.
In his 1990 obituary, Joan Langbord said her father "could be obnoxious or irascible." She told The Inquirer: "If he didn't like you, he'd throw you out."
His business philosophy, she said, was that "the customer was never right; he was always right."
Yet his store prospered, and he received numerous awards and honors for his philanthropic work, including the Philadelphia Geriatric Center's Golden Tribute Honoree Award in 1973 and the Good Samaritan Award from Pennsylvania Hospital in 1987.
The obituary did not mention anything about the Double Eagles.
The history of the 10 gold pieces - whichever version is true - is a convoluted tale dating to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to stabilize the economy in 1933. Gold coins were taken out of circulation, and it became illegal to possess gold currency. The holders were reimbursed in paper money.
At the same time, the Philadelphia mint had just produced 445,500 new $20 gold coins, which went straight to storage. In 1937, they were all supposed to have been melted down into bullion - with the exception of two coins given to the Smithsonian, and a third that ended up in the hands of King Farouk I of Egypt.
But at least 20 other coins survived. When one was advertised for sale by a New York jeweler in 1944, the Secret Service launched an investigation and eventually concluded that Switt had illegally obtained nine Double Eagle coins from an official at the Philadelphia mint.
Switt admitted to agents that he had got the nine coins in the late 1930s and later sold each to a collector. But then his memory failed him. Switt "claimed he could not remember when, where, or from whom" he got the $20 gold pieces, according to Secret Service records. The agents wanted to prosecute him, but the statute of limitations had expired.
The investigative records say Switt "swore" he had no other Double Eagle coins.
And there matters rested, until 1996.
That was when a British coin collector tried to sell the Double Eagle once owned by Farouk. The government said it owned the coin, and after years of litigation, it was sold on July 30, 2002, for $7.59 million, the proceeds split with the U.S. Treasury. It was the highest price ever paid for a coin.
Records show that on July 29, 2002, the day before the sale, Joan Langbord visited the safety deposit box that contained the coins she says were not discovered until 2004.
Langbord told the government her box contained the never-inventoried contents of a safety deposit box she inherited from her mother. Berke said his client missed the coins because they were wrapped in a John Wanamaker bag in the bottom of the large, square steel box.
Two years after the Farouk coin was sold, the Langbords contacted Treasury officials, allowing government experts to examine their 10 coins to determine their authenticity in hope of reaching a similar deal. Instead, the government said the coins were stolen property and refused to return them to the family.
Joan Langbord and two of her sons filed suit to get the coins back. U.S. District Judge Legrome D. Davis, in a toughly worded opinion, said the seizure violated the Langbords' right to due process and told the Bureau of the Mint that if it wanted the coins, it had to bring a civil- forfeiture action.
That trial started Thursday and is expected to last two weeks.
Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or firstname.lastname@example.org.