Bernard Stark pushed the pile of coins away and stood again, walking to close the door of his office. "No good has befallen anyone who's come into contact with Farouk's treasures. It's quite surprising the government never knocked on your victim's door, demanding a full accounting."
Mike was ready to take Stark into his confidence. "Let's say Queenie didn't come by these ducats in the most honorable way. Let's say she thought the old boy owed her a few quid, and she grabbed some fists full of gold and silver."
"That makes more sense. The feds wouldn't have known where to look, and a lot of this would have come back onto the market with your victim having no clue of the value of the things she had stolen," Stark said, thinking aloud.
"You think the feds have time to be interested in rusted old medals and coins that are only worth a few thousand dollars?" Mike asked.
"When you're talking about King Farouk, I'd say you'd have everyone from the Secret Service to the CIA on the hunt."
Stark had just ignited the spark that had been smoldering in our pockets. Whatever made him bring the CIA into this conversation?
Mercer took the lead, calm and easy, in his usual style. "I guess I'm just missing something, Mr. Stark. We're aware that the king collected royal jewels from monarchies all over the world, and that he had Faberg'e eggs worth a good fortune. Ms. Ransome would have had to have carted off trunkloads of-of nickels and dimes, so to speak-to make it worth her while. We know that didn't happen."
"You'll have to talk to someone in the rare jewel business to find out how many Faberg'e designs existed and what they're worth on the open market. When it comes to this kind of thing, I can assure myself that she need only have taken the right coin, Detective. Just one single piece that Farouk owned, and I'd say I know a lot of people who would have killed for it."
"Maybe she did take it," I said. "Maybe if you can describe-"
"Queenie-is that what you call her? Queenie didn't get the particular coin I'm talking about," Stark said, smiling at me again. "That one actually wound its tortuous way back into our very own hands. I just mean that with objects as rare as the things Farouk bought for himself, one of them alone might be worth a fortune."
"Well, go back to the piece you referred to-the one you wound up with. Maybe there was another just like it."
"Ah, Ms. Cooper. That is the stuff that dreams are made of-sort of like a dirty old black falcon that a private eye set out to find. This coin- ourcoin-was an eagle, and I know for a fact there was only one in the entire world."
"You mentioned the CIA and Secret Service, though," Mike said. "You want to explain what this is all about?"
"I think you should know the story, Detective. Perhaps it will suggest some comparable avenue of investigation. Have any of you ever heard of a Double Eagle?"
Stark walked to a glass display case that stood at the far end of the room. He took a small key out of his breast pocket and unlocked it, taking from the top shelf a black leather box with a hinged clasp.
He sat down and opened the box, staring at the large coin inside before passing it across to us. "Mind you, this is just a proof-a copy of the actual gold piece. But it might be the most magnificent coin ever struck."
I lifted the shining disk from its nest and rubbed my finger over its raised image.
"She's quite gorgeous," I said.
Stark took off a strip of paper that was affixed to the inner lid of the box. "This is a passage from the auction catalog when we sold the piece. It describes her better than I can."
He paraphrased the copy. "Lady Liberty, striding forward in a loose gown, against the wind. Her left hand holds an olive branch while her right is extended with a lighted torch. There's a small representation of the Capitol Building on the bottom, with forty-eight stars circling the edge of the disc, and the rays of the sun emanating from beneath the feet of Liberty. The year of issue was 1933."
Mike took her from me and flipped her over. On the back were a finely etched profile of an eagle in flight, and the designation of the amount of the piece in United States value: twenty dollars.
"You sold one of these at auction?" Mike asked.
"Correction, Mr. Chapman. Don't get your hopes up. We sold the only one of these that existed at auction. July 2002. It was the one Farouk owned."
"You mean only one of these was ever made, that's how come you're so sure?"
"Many were made, in fact, but the government never issued them. They were all destroyed."
"I gotta ask you, sir, what this one went for. What price did you get for it?"
Stark was only too pleased to answer Mike's question. "It was in all the newspapers, Mr. Chapman. I've got nothing to hide." Stark reached over and reclaimed his proof, holding it up between his thumb and middle finger.
"The Double Eagle sold for more money than any other coin in history," Stark said proudly, puffing up as he gave the answer. "More than seven million dollars."
I looked at Mercer's three plastic bags of supposedly rare coins, which together would only fetch a few thousand. It was impossible to conceive that a single piece of gold with a face value of twenty dollars could eventually sell for seven million dollars.
Mike was incredulous, too. "So, just humor me, Mr. Stark. Suppose there was a second one. Just like that one you're holding, all solid and real. Suppose we found it mixed in with these others and brought it back to you. What'd you give me for it?"
"Nothing, Mr. Chapman. Not a dime."
Mike laughed. "At least I'd get twenty bucks' worth."
"No, that isn't true. Your hypothetical piece wouldn't even be worth the twenty dollars engraved on its back side. The coin was literally illegal the very day it was made."
Mike mimicked the position of Stark's fingers, which were still holding the coin. He had a goose egg instead of a gold proof. "Zilch. Zero. Bupkes."
"I suppose if you melted it down you'd get the price of the gold weight, but that's about it."
"Very simple, Detective. After the Mint creates the coins-all coins-they have to be 'monetized.' That's the process the Treasury Department has to go through with every kind of currency, or else-like the Double Eagle-it never becomes legitimate money. It's the process of monetizing the coins that makes them legal tender." Stark sighed. "This particular value is all in the history of this piece, the uniqueness of it."
"You wanna tell me about that?"
"Certainly. If I entertain you enough, perhaps I can charm Ms. Cooper out of some of these other little treasures," Stark said, referring to Queenie's stash. "I'd like to see everything you found in the lady's closet."
He started after the Gold Rush of the 1840s, which placed the young American nation among the wealthiest in the world. "The United States Mint needed a new denomination for the growing economy, something more than the original one-dollar gold piece. The highest value of currency that had been available until then was the ten-dollar coin. So a bill was introduced in Congress to create a twenty-dollar piece, cast with nearly a full ounce of gold."
Stark went back to his glass 'etag`ere and brought several coins back to us. "Plenty of these twenty-dollar gold pieces to go around," he said. "They were minted almost every year between 1850 and 1933."
I looked at the older version that he handed to me. "This one isn't nearly as elegant as yours, is it?"
"You can thank Teddy Roosevelt for the improvement. While he was president, he had a chance encounter with the man most people considered America's greatest sculptor."
"Who was that?" Mercer asked.
"Saint-Gaudens. Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Roosevelt complained to him that the U.S. coins lacked artistic qualities. Old Teddy wanted something to rival the ancient Greeks, with brilliant design and high relief. He had found the man capable of designing it. This new golden Double Eagle became the symbol of American wealth and power, a very desirable object from the first moment it went into circulation."
"There's only one bird on this thing," Mike said. "Why call it a Double Eagle?"
"Because it was twice the amount of the old ten-dollar piece, which had been nicknamed the Eagle."
"What ended the Eagle's flight?" I asked.
"Another Roosevelt, Ms. Cooper. Teddy's cousin, Franklin. By the time he was inaugurated in 1933, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression. You could buy a daily paper for two cents and a pack of cigarettes for a quarter. The only thing that held its value during this crisis was gold itself."
"So there was a run on the banks, and people began to hoard gold coins," Mercer said.
"And two days after he was sworn in, President Roosevelt closed all the banks, embargoed the export of the very precious metal, and took America off the gold standard. After March of 1933, never again was the United States Mint to issue gold coinage."
"So Farouk's piece was made before FDR's proclamation?"
"Ah, the heart of the matter, Mr. Chapman. The Treasury Department prohibited the Mint from monetizing, or legitimatizing, any gold coins from that point on. But it neglected to forbid the actual production of the coins themselves."
"Farouk's Double Eagle was struck after we went off the gold standard?" I asked.
Stark nodded his head. "The Mint was just a factory, after all. The engraving for the coin had already been completed, the bullion was prepared, and within a month after the embargo, one hundred thousand 1933 Double Eagles had been cast. The Treasury realized the gaffe and immediately told the Mint not to license this particular coin."
"So the Double Eagles existed…"
"Yes, Mr. Chapman," said Stark. "But they had only the value of a small gold medallion. They were never legitimized."
Mike sat back in his chair. "That's an awful lot of gilded birds in the nest. How could anybody account for them all?"
"There are wonderfully arcane regulations that have been in existence since this country's birth," he answered. "Romans had their Trial of the Pyx, so our forefathers set up an assay commission. Samples of the strike were submitted in locked boxes to be weighed and tested-a laborious series of examinations-and while this was being done with just a few hundred coins, all the others were kept in storage at the Mint."
"What became of the one hundred thousand?"
"In 1937, the order finally came from the Treasury-right from the president-to melt down the entire strike. As far as the government knew, not a single coin was left."
"So when did the Eagle fly out of the cage?" Mike asked.
"I'm afraid that's the first time our company came into this mix," Stark said. "Nineteen forty-four. My father had been in business about ten years, doing quite well, when a great private collection came on the market which he bought for auction. The owner was a Colonel James Flanagan."
Stark took another sip of coffee. "Papa put an advertisement in all the papers, announcing the sale. And for the final lot, the biggest prize, the ad read, 'The Excessively Rare 1933 Double Eagle.' He was quite thrilled about his coup."
"I guess that let the cat out of the bag," Mike said.
"Needless to say, that wording caught the attention of a few giants in the numismatic field who were interested in bidding, one of whom took it upon himself to call the Mint and quite simply ask what made it so rare. How many coins had the government actually legalized and released was what he wanted to know."
"The answer was none?"
"Exactly. From there on, the feds moved in pretty quickly. The Mint brought in the Secret Service-"
I interrupted Stark and looked at Mike and Mercer. "I know the Secret Service is the law enforcement branch of the Treasury, but I can't for the life of me remember why. I just think of them as the presidential protection force."
Mike helped me with the history. "The Secret Service was created in 1865 especially to investigate and prevent the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, and enforce all laws related to coins and securities of the government. That's all that they were about at first. They didn't get into the protection business until President McKinley was assassinated."
Stark continued. "So there was my father in 1944, sitting at his desk during the second day of the actual auction. In burst a couple of agents who announce to him that the Flanagan coin had been stolen from the Mint, that it had absolutely no value, and that they were going to seize it from him before it went on the block."
Mike wanted the facts. "So whom had Flanagan bought the illegal Double Eagle from?"
"Precisely what the Secret Service wanted to know," he said, seeming a bit chagrined. "They also questioned my father about where he got the information in the catalog entry that said at least ten of the pieces had gotten into private hands."
"Did he have the answers?"
"Most certainly. He and my uncle were extremely cooperative," Stark said, starting to smile again. "After all, they had paid the enormous sum of sixteen hundred dollars for the coin. They had all the bills of sale, and took the agents directly to the jeweler, who was holding it in his safe."
"So the feds got that one back for sure," Mike said.
"I can promise you that, Detective. It was one of the first lessons I learned from my father. And then this lead agent spent the next few months tracking down the other Double Eagles my father told them about. He was like a bloodhound-Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis, London."
"How many were stolen from the Mint and avoided destruction?" I asked.
"Ten. That's what they figured when they went back to examine the assay samples I mentioned to you, which was the only group of coins that hadn't been melted when the orders first came down."
"And how many of them did the feds track down in 1944?"
"Nine. They got nine of them back. All except the one that went to King Farouk."
"Did they ever figure out who committed the theft from the Mint?"
"Seems to be nothing those investigators didn't figure out. There was a crook at the Mint-a man called George McCairn-who was in charge of the Weight Transfer Department the year the Double Eagles disappeared. After 1937, between the time of their theft and the date of the auction, McCairn was arrested for stealing some other valuable pieces from the Mint."
"So he was locked up?" Mike asked.
"For taking these later items. Never charged for the Eagles, because he never admitted being the thief. But the feds thought the method was the same. When the coins came in for assay-and mind you, he had sole control of the keys to the samples-he simply took ten of them out of the bag and replaced them with coins of the same weight and size, but no value."
"The old bait and switch," Mike said.
"Exactly. No one ever looked in the bags," Stark said. "Once it was realized the Double Eagles were not going to be declared legitimate legal tender-never monetized-they were just left to sit out their fate until the moment of meltdown. McCairn had exclusive access to the samples, and had helped himself to ten of the beautiful birds."
"How did they arrive at ten as the exact number?" Mercer asked.
Stark paused. "By the weight of what was recorded in the assay process. That's the best they could figure."
"That Secret Service agent worked damn fast," Mike said, making notes of the people and dates that Bernard Stark had mentioned. "What did you say his name was?"
"The man who tracked down the Double Eagles? It was Strait. Harry Strait."