The Feds Once Arrested A Rooster Statue Made Out Of Solid Gold

Image courtesy of (Courtesy of James Ledbetter/Coeur D'alene Art Auction)

Every now and then, a story reminds us that history is weirder than we can possibly imagine. For example: That time in 1960 when U.S. marshals arrested a nine-inch, 14-pound statue of a rooster and put it on trial.

Quartz has the story, adapted from the recent book One Nation Under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated the American Imagination for Four Centuries. And as author James Ledbetter describes it, it was a hot afternoon in July 1960 when U.S. marshals raided a casino lobby in Nevada.

The marshals weren’t there over issues with gambling, drugs, or any other kind of activity you might expect in a casino in the 60s, though. They were there to seize a statue. Of a rooster.

The rooster was not even stolen goods; it had lived openly at the casino since 1958.

No, the marshals were there because of what the rooster was made of: gold. Solid 18-karat gold, 14 pounds of it.

Why?

At the time, it was illegal for anyone to have that much gold, thanks to the 1934 Gold Reserve Act.

Gold, of course, used to be not just valuable, but literally money. Centuries ago, kingdoms and empires literally minted currency from gold and silver, which over time was stolen, chipped off, melted with other metals, or otherwise debased.

By the time the world marched into the 20th century, we’d all long since adopted paper money and other representative means of currency. But the literal value of a dollar was still based on the value of a certain amount of gold.

The U.S. finally backed away from the gold standard in 1933, during the Great Depression. The Roosevelt administration severed the tie between the dollar and gold in order to be able to, basically, print more money to give people and businesses and jumpstart a collapsing economy.

The gold standard was not actually completely abandoned until 1971, when President Richard Nixon completely blocked the practice of allowing dollars to be converted to gold.

But in the meantime, our solid gold rooster was standing in Nevada in 1960 — while the Gold Reserve Act passed 26 years earlier was still in effect.

The Act barred most Americans from having any gold except that found in jewelry, dental work, or certain art.

After twenty years, this came to a head. “In the late 1950s, the US government discovered it had a gold problem,” Ledbetter describes. “Although it held far more of the yellow metal than any other entity in the world, it didn’t, for contemporary purposes, have enough.”

That’s because in the booming mid-century economy, there was simply more money being generated and spent — enough that the existing gold reserve couldn’t meet demand if everyone tried to claim theirs all at once.

So the feds had a sharp eye out for any large, illegal, potentially poultry-shaped pieces of gold they could reclaim. And that eventually led to the U.S. marshals, armed with a warrant for the rooster’s arrest, going to the Nugget Casino.

The Fallout

After its arrest, the rooster was “confiscated and transferred to a federal bank vault in California,” Ledbetter notes.

The attorney for the casino’s owner “applied for bail for the statue, but was denied.” Perhaps the nine-inch-tall, fourteen-pound, solid gold bird was considered a flight risk.

The casino owner, Ledbetter notes, “never one to miss a publicity opportunity, placed a bronze replica of the rooster in the case outside the restaurant — dressed in prison stripes.”

But wait! It gets better.

Two years after it was arrested, the golden rooster faced trial by jury in a court case called, and we are not making this up, United States v. One Solid Gold Object In Form of A Rooster.

If the feds won the case, the rooster would be theirs to keep, at which point it would be melted down for its gold, which would then presumably be stacked in bar form at Fort Knox.

If the rooster won, however, it would secure its freedom, and would be able to go forth and stand proudly in a casino lobby, advertising, once more.

After a day and a half of deliberations, the jury returned with a verdict in favor of the rooster.

The rooster’s attorney, Paul Laxalt, would soon thereafter go on to become Nevada’s lieutenant governor, governor, and, eventually, senator.

The rooster returned to work in Sparks, Nevada, where it stayed until the property was sold in 2013. It was then sold at auction in Reno in 2014 for $234,000.