Lawmaker seeks to keep Mint from seizing rare coins

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., has launched a crusade to free some the world's most valuable coins.

Lucas has sponsored legislation that would mandate that any coin manufactured by the U.S. Mint before 1933 -- but not properly issued -- will no longer be declared the property of the federal government. The cutoff date in the Lucas bill has real-world implications, gaining tremendous support among numismatics.

More than 400,000 gold Double Eagle coins were struck by the Mint in 1933, but almost all were destroyed when President Roosevelt took the country off the gold standard, which in effect outlawed the possession of gold coins. But an unknown number still exist-- coins some believe to be stolen from the Mint before they were destroyed -- and they have become incredibly valuable.

In 2002, a 1933 Double Eagle gold coin was auctioned off for $7.6 million, ending a protracted legal battle between the Mint and a coin dealer over ownership of the coin. Both parties split the proceeds of that sale. In 2005, the Mint seized 10 Double Eagle coins from the family of a Philadelphia jeweler.

Lucas argues that other coin collectors could be put in legal jeopardy, especially over rare coins such as the 1804 silver dollar and the 1913 Liberty head nickel, both of which have been bought and sold dozens of times. Lucas, who started his coin collection as a child, said the Mint has selectively targeted owners of rare U.S. coins and its efforts have clouded the rare coin market.

"The Mint has gone after any 1933 Double Eagle that has been found, but has ignored other coins such as the 1913 Liberty head nickels," he said.

Lucas said he does not intend his bill to be only a boon to rich collectors, noting that it also would require the Mint to preserve the rare coins that come into its possession under provisions of his bill, instead of destroying them as the agency has done in the past.

The bill would allow the Mint to sell off excess rare coins, with the proceeds going to the Smithsonian for its national coin collection.

But the Mint opposes Lucas' efforts. During a House Financial Services Monetary Policy Subcommittee hearing last Wednesday, acting Mint Director David Lebryk testified that while he recognizes the desire of collectors for a clear title for coins and medals sold in the secondary market, courts have repeatedly held that the title of U.S. public property belongs to the federal government.

"We are particularly concerned that this bill would protect the title to rare antiquities and other national treasures, currently owned by the public, from the government [for] a person who happens to possess it -- regardless of whether he knew it was public property, knew it might be illegal to own, or worse, played a role in its illegal production or distribution," Lebryk said.

But Lucas noted some inconsistency in the Mint's stance in the 2002 auction of the 1933 Double Eagle nickel. Still, some lawmakers were not persuaded by Lucas' effort.

"I see no reason to reward collectors who happened to have acquired coins illegally taken from the Mint," said House Financial Services Monetary Policy Subcommittee ranking member Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "Courts are perfectly well-suited for this task."

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