The Great Coin Heist
The Great Coin Heist
Article by Les Standiford
The Great Coin Heist
The Great Coin Heist
(A duPont Story)
How a bunch of small-time thieves stumbled into the haul of their lives
By Les Standiford
Baltimore, Maryland-March 2004
For Palm Beach attorney Harold Gray, it was quite a sight: There, spotlighted on a tabletop in a dimly lit and well-guarded room in Baltimore, lay the glittering coin he’d been chasing for almost 37 years-an 1866 silver dollar, one of only two such “no motto” coins ever struck by the U.S. Mint. The experts who summoned Gray to reclaim his client’s property valued the coin at .5 million. But Gray thought the figure was low. “More like .5 million or million,” was his own guess, especially reunited with its companion pieces, a matching quarter and half-dollar, also lacking the legend “In God We Trust.” The set’s status among numismatists became legendary once it disappeared in the most famous coin heist in U.S. history.
Though there remained more loot to be recovered, for Gray, then 77, it was a major triumph. “Yes, Mr. duPont wanted this one back,” he said. Given all the history involved, it was classic understatement.
Miami, Florida-October 1967
For Willis H. duPont, heir to one of the most fabulous fortunes in America, his new five-acre estate in Miami’s exclusive Coconut Grove was intended as both pleasure dome and safe haven, where he could enjoy the tropics in cherished privacy. The youngest of ten children born to Lammot duPont, former head of General Motors and E.I. duPont de Nemours and Company, Willis had left the family business in Delaware at an early age, following the footsteps of his maverick forebear, Alfred I., to Florida.
Soon, Willis had established significant interests in cattle, citrus and aviation, and would earn a place among the Forbes 400. He met and married a Spanish beauty, Miren de Amezola de Balboa, and built for them a 27,000 square-foot, 33-room mansion on the shores of Biscayne Bay. There were nine bedrooms and ten baths in the three-story structure, an observatory with a retractable roof, vast swimming and wading pools, a putting green, tennis court, and six-car garage with a helicopter in one of the berths.
Though the home was perfect for lavish entertaining, Willis and Miren did little of that. Willis disliked the fishbowl atmosphere surrounding the rich and famous and, in an era still mindful of the Lindbergh kidnapping, was almost obsessively fearful that his two sons, Victor, four, and Lammot, one, could be kidnapped. To buttress the 10-foot walls surrounding the property and extending 100 feet out into the sea, duPont replaced the security guard he had employed with a stat-of-the-art alarm system, including a network of closed-circuit cameras.
With all that in place, the duponts settle in to enjoy their enclave in relative solitude, sometimes taking a quiet night out with friends. On the rainy evening of October 4, 1967, they enjoyed such an occasion, returning early to check with the maid and butler-who had worked there only two weeks-to be sure all was well with the children before going off to bed.
Shortly after midnight, they were awakened as their bedroom door splintered open and five armed men stormed in. If duPont thought they were kidnappers, he might have been relieved when the leader snapped, ‘We want your money. Tell us where it is, or we’ll blow your brains out.” In moments, the thieves herded the maid, butler and little Victor into the bedroom, where they were bound with neckties. (Young Lammot was left in the nursery to sleep through the ordeal.) A frightened Miren, flanked by a pair of robbers, frantically twisted the dials of the bedroom safe, while Willis was escorted downstairs.
The upstairs haul wasn’t bad-some ,000 in cash and jewels-but what the thieves found in the walk-in safe in the study constituted the real prize. There, in a series of display cases, resided one of the most valuable private coin collections ever assembled.
In short order, the thieves tied up Miren and Willis and dumped .5 million worth of ducats, rubles, and the rarest of the rare gold and silver coins into several duPont suitcases. They then took off in Miren’s new red Cadillac convertible. About 20 minutes later, the butler freed himself and called police.
Because the robbers had managed to avoid the sophisticated alarm system, investigators at the scene suspected the duPonts were victims of an elite group of criminals who’d staged a recent series of waterborne invasions at several exclusive Florida estates.
But it was not long before Willis offered a more prosaic explanation: “We hadn’t turned the sytem on,” he said glumly. The thieves had simply scaled the walls of the compound and made their way inside through an unlocked patio door. “That door never had latched properly,” Willis added.
Gone were 7,000 coins including the famous 1866 “no motto” set, the prized Linderman and Cohen 1804 silver dollars, and a number of gold coins struck by private and territorial mints. One of the more notable specimens of the latter was a token from the Colonial days, the “Brasher doubloon” of 1787.
There were 257 coins belonging to the Mikhailovich collection. Originally the property of a cousin of Czar Nicholas II, it had disappeared from Russia under mysterious circumstances and become to coin collectors what the Maltese Falcon was to Humphrey Bogart. Willis had managed to acquire the collection during the 1950s and had begun an incremental transfer to the Smithsonian Institution. The total value of the theft amounted to about .5 million in present-day dollars, and none of the coins were insured.
The thieves had been decent enough; one was willing to scratch an itch on Willis’s leg after he’d been tied, and another fetched a robe for the trembling maid. However the leader had at one point berated Willis for not “working to earn a living like everybody else.” And when Miren had a hard time remembering the safe combination, he raised his pistol and said, “You’d better or we’ll put a bullet through your head.”
Miren’s police interview constituted one of the last statements either would ever make about the incident. To this day, Willis and Miren steadfastly refuse requests for interviews.
Though Miren’s automobile was recovered intact within hours of the crime, she wanted nothing more to do with it. Reporters watched as a new Cadillac was delivered the next afternoon. Gone, too, was the allure of that magnificent estate on Biscayne Bay. The family was so eager to be rid of any reminder of the incident that they didn’t even put the property on the market. It was given away, donated to the University of Pennsylvania. They left for a more secure enclave in Palm Beach (a 20,000-square-foot estate valued on 2003 tax rolls at nearly million), where their Florida base remains today.
Meanwhile, police pursued the case. Tips pointed to a group of local hoodlums and not the tightly organized professionals as originally supposed, but the fact that they had all been masked and gloved prevented any positive identification.
About four months after the robbery, a break came when Harold Gray, who’d been directed by Willis to try to recover the collection, got word that a shadowy source in Philadelphia had been in touch with a Miami bail bondsman “about those missing coins.” Gray agreed on a price and sent the bondsman and his wife to Philadelphia, where a sting was set up with help from the local FBI. The moment the bondsman’s wife handed over her cash stuffed handbag, agents swooped down. They apprehended two men who had 13 territorial gold pieces from duPont’s collection in their possession.
A few months later, a small-time Miami hood decided to settle a domestic argument by dropping his wife with a left hook. The woman’s father sought out his son-in-law and beat him senseless. When the son-in-law was carried into the hospital, an attendant cut away an odd-looking bandage on his ankle to discover a strange gold coin taped there. Police were called in and summoned Gray, who made his second major recovery-the famed 1787 Brasher doubloon. “We might never have found it if the guy had been a better fighter,” says Gray.
After those initial successes, Gray returned to a more ordinary legal practice, but never stopped his pursuit. Every coin dealer of note knew to contact him or the FBI if any of the duPont coins turned up. In 1982, Gray was informed about a man who’d come to Denver’s American Numismatic Association with a suspicious coin. In an FBI sting, the man, identified as a mob runner, was nabbed and found to be in possession of the million Linderman 1804 silver dollar. Twelve years later, acting on another tip, Gray traveled to Zurich to help Swiss authorities apprehend two Israeli couriers offering to sell several 19th-century gold pieces from the collection.
“We’ve got most of the good stuff,” Gray says today, though a number of territorial gold pieces as well as the bulk of the Mikhailovich collection is still missing, and the case remains officially unsolved. For Gray’s part, he is fairly certain who pulled the job. “A bunch of small-timers stumbled into the haul of their lives,” he says. “They probably sold the coins for peanuts shortly after the robbery. All we can do is try to get them back.”
“You’ve got to understand,” says Miami coin collector Alan Luedeking, “to numismatists these are more than rare coins. They’re irreplaceable bits of history. Having one is like holding a lifeline to the past.” joing a friend in a box at last pring’s NASDAQ-100 Open on Key Biscayne, Luedeking was introduced to his fellow box-mates. Among them were a charming couple named Willis and Miren duPont. Luedeking swallowed, any interest he had in the tennis match before him gone in an instant. “The coin-theft duPonts?” he blurted.
When Willis affirmed with a pained nod, Luedeking went on to congratulate him on the recovery of the “no motto” silver dollar and asked if he was still collecting coins. “He told me he was not,” Luedeking says. “It was quite a disappointment.” Luedeking couldn’t help asking a few more questions. It was like running across someone who’d gone down on the Titanic. Willis revealed that, for him, the most pleasing recovery was the 1804 Linderman dollar, and that of all those still missing, he’d like to recover the “Stella,” an 1879 gold piece said to be worth .2 million today.
Luedeking can be forgiven his eagerness, for the story is the stuff of myth. Have those Russian coins been secretly returned to their homeland? Does some James Bond-like villain display those invaluable gold pieces in a hidden room behind the walls of a South Americqan hacienda?
Anything is possible, Gray admits, and he understands the enduring appeal of the story. For his client, though, and however resolute Willis may be in seeking the return of his coins, memories of the incident will always be painful. Over the years, the reason why has become clear. While younger son Lammot has grown to adulthood, with a wife and child of his own, in 1983, Victor, then 20 and a senior at Rollins College, died in an automobile accident near Lausanne, Switzerland. In a single moment, one of the sons Willis had feared for that night in 1967 was taken after all. Even with all the resources in the world, there are certain recoveries that cannot be made. http://www.kinispolarbear.bravehost.com
About the Author
Les Standiford is the author of the novels Spill (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1991); Done Deal (HarperCollins, 1993); Raw Deal (HC, 1994); Deal to Die For (HC, 1995); Deal on Ice (HC, 1997); Presidential Deal (HC, 1998); Black Mountain (GP Putnams, 2000); Deal With the Dead (GP Putnams, 2001); the e-book, Opening Day (www.LiveReads.com, 2001); Bone Key (GP Putnams, 2002);
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