The front and reverse of the 1933 Saint Gaudens Double Eagle gold coin. (U.S. Mint/AFP)

When the coins were struck in 1933, the United States Mint must have understood the golden pieces were the last of a dying breed.

What the minters could not have foreseen was the saga of thievery and legal limbo that would unfold over the next 90 years, centered on 10 of the gold coins that bore Lady Liberty on the front and a soaring eagle on the reverse.

At the time they were minted, the gold pieces had a face value of $20. Today, the ’33 Double Eagles are estimated to be worth about $10 million a pop. If you can sell them, which, as evidenced by a ruling Monday by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Uncle Sam is loath to let happen.

The last Double Eagle, so named because it was worth twice the $10 coin also inscribed with an eagle, was the result of a meeting between two American icons. At the dawn of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt asked renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to design a new Double Eagle gold coin, inspired by the elaborate currencies from Greek antiquity. It would be one of the final projects for the famous artist. Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, the same year the design headed to the United States Mint.

To Roosevelt, the Saint-Gaudens design was sheer brilliance. In a pose befitting Athena, Lady Liberty strides atop a mountain wielding a torch and tree branch. To the Mint, the intricacies were a numismatic migraine. The coins were incredibly difficult to produce, and did not stack well on their high edges. Roosevelt ordered the presses to move forward anyway.

“Begin the new issue,” he reportedly said, “even if it takes you one day to strike one piece!”

Once in public hands, controversy continued to hound the eagles. Roosevelt and Saint-Gaudens decided to omit the “In God We Trust” motto — Roosevelt because he allegedly believed criminals would want to use the coins, which would tarnish God’s name. Saint-Gaudens cited artistic reasons. The public outcry from the godly omission led Congress to demand the motto on all such coins henceforth.

By 1933, coins made of gold had lost their luster, at least to the newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. “We are now off the gold standard,” he told a group of advisers, as UC Davis historian Eric Rauchway recounted at Bloomberg. The United States Mint was ordered to exterminate the Saint-Gaudens coins.

But Roosevelt could not call the mint off before 445,000 coins had been pressed. As Jay Brahin, a consultant and coin collector told Bloomberg in 2011, the ’33 Double Eagle was something of a “freak.”

“The coins shouldn’t have been minted, but they were. They weren’t meant to circulate, but some did,” he said. “And why has the government pursued them so arduously? That’s one of the mysteries.”

Almost all of the 445,000 coins — 15 tons worth of metal — were stuffed into hundreds of canvas bags and locked behind triple steel doors in a Philadelphia vault, according to Bloomberg. By 1937, they had been melted into gold bars destined for Fort Knox. Two of the eagles found sanctuary at the Smithsonian Institution.

And a handful slipped into the sticky fingers of the American public.

In 1944, the Secret Service caught wind of the purloined coins after one was successfully sold to Egypt’s King Farouk. The agents determined that a Mint cashier by the name of George McCann had stolen several coins in 1934. A few were traced to a merchant in Philadelphia, one Israel Switt. There, the trail went cold. 

Half a century would pass before the Double Eagles surfaced again.

First, King Faurok’s coin was sold at auction for a record price in 2002. U.S. government officials objected, but settled on splitting the $7.59 million it fetched between the seller and the Mint.

And a short time thereafter, Switt’s coins reappeared. Joan S. Langbord, daughter of Switt, said she found 10 Double Eagles in a family safe-deposit box in 2003. Langbord, along with her children Roy and David, notified the Mint of the coins in September 2004. The family gave the coins over to the Secret Service for authentication.

The Mint did not hand them back.

“These Double Eagles were never lawfully issued, but instead, were taken from the United States Mint at Philadelphia in an unlawful manner more than 70 years ago,” said David Lebryk, acting director of the Mint, in a 2005 news release. As Reuters noted, Switt’s descendants were “the family of a thief” in the eyes of the government.

The Langbords sued. According to the Third Circuit ruling, the Mint wrote to the Langbords that, “The United States Mint has no intention of seeking forfeiture of these ten Double Eagles because they are, and always have been, property belonging to the United States; this makes forfeiture proceedings entirely unnecessary.”

It would spark a legal battle that lasted for more than a decade. The initial 2011 jury ruling favored the Mint. But in 2015, Langbords appeared to score a victory. Because the government had taken so long to respond to the Langbords’ claim — too long, in the view of a Philadelphia federal appeals court — the Double Eagles had to be returned.

“The Court’s decision upholds the rule of law and makes clear that the government will be held accountable when it violates the rights of its citizens and the clear mandate of Congress,” the family’s attorney, Barry Berke, emailed The Washington Post at the time.

The fight over the coins was not over yet. Federal officials, who had been “weighing our options” since 2015, as The Post noted, scored a win in Philadelphia on Monday. In a 9-3 vote, the appeals court ruled in favor of the United States once again.

The majority opinion begins with promise: “This appeal presents a high-stakes dispute over ten pieces of gold.” But like many legal skirmishes, the most recent argument does not shy away from the esoteric. (Such minutiae as whether or not the 1933 Double Eagles could be defined as coins became a point of contention between the Langbords and the government. The Langbords said yes. The government demurred, as the gold pieces had never been circulated. The judges decided “coins” was okay, simply because coin is easier to parse than “piece of gold.”)

More crucially, Judge Thomas Hardiman, writing for the majority, concluded in the opinion that the coins had been U.S. property all along. Therefore the 90-day deadline that normally pertains to forfeited items did not apply to the coins — the Langbords could not have forfeited U.S. property, the government argued, only surrendered it.

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Marjorie Rendell said the majority based its decision “mainly on its buy-in to the Government’s audacity—the Government’s say-so that it owned the 1933 Double Eagles and had no intention of forfeiting them.” The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act was designed to prevent such seizures of civilian property, she said, saying the majority had set an “incorrect and dangerous precedent.”

For the Double Eagles it seems the the only judicial place left to go is up. “The Langbord family fully intends to seek review by the Supreme Court,” Berke told Reuters on Monday, “of the important issue of the unbridled power of the government to take and keep a citizen’s property.”