Family finds gold in piano; government looks to muscle in

The recent discovery of a UK gold cache raises the specter of every-hungry leviathan ruthlessly employing the law to gobble up assets for its own benefit.

Late last year a hoard of gold coins, English sovereigns minted between 1847 and 1915, was found in old upright piano in Shropshire, in the United Kingdom, after the piano’s new owners had it retuned and repaired.

Under the UK’s Treasure Act of 1996, such discoveries are legally obligated to be reported to the local coroner within 14 days, which was done.

The piano was made by a London firm and initially sold in Essex, near London, in 1906. But its ownership from then until 1983 – when it was purchased by a family in the area who later moved to Shropshire – is unknown, according to the BBC. The new owners were recently given the instrument.

The Shrewsbury Coroner’s Court is currently seeking information about the piano’s whereabouts between 1906 and 1983.

There is a great deal at stake as the objects will qualify as “treasure” and be the property of the Crown if the coroner finds they have been hidden with the intent of future recovery, according to the BBC.

However, if the original owner or their heirs can establish their title to the find, the Crown’s claim will be void.

Under the Treasure Act of 1996, ‘Treasure’ is defined as:

  • All coins from the same hoard, with a hoard is defined as two or more coins, as long as they are at least 300 years old when found;
  • Two or more prehistoric base metal objects in association with one another;
  • Any individual (non-coin) find that is at least 300 years old and contains at least 10% gold or silver;
  • Associated finds: any object of any material found in the same place as (or which had previously been together with) another object which is deemed treasure; and
  • Objects substantially made from gold or silver but are less than 300 years old, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown.

The government has not detailed just how many coins were uncovered in the piano or their value, but Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme at Shropshire Museums said, “It is a lifetime of savings and it’s beyond most people.”

I’d be curious to hear what British citizens think about this law. I understand the government’s interest in unique treasures such as the Irish Crown Jewels, spectacular Viking hoards or Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork, when and if they are uncovered.

But what we have here are simple gold coins – even if in a very substantial quantity.

It would be nice to find the individuals or their heirs who secreted the money away inside the piano; the government, meanwhile is threatening, per usual, to overstep its original purpose and strong-arm the family who, through a bit of blind luck, managed to come into possession of the coins.

Government, which already pockets a considerable sum of the average individual’s wages, has no business confiscating a collection of gold coins simply because it’s forever on the lookout for additional ways to line its coffers.

(Top: Some of the gold coins found inside an old upright piano in the United Kingdom late last year.)

I’ll see your plutonium and raise you one microgram of californium

californium-knows-how-to-party

When comparing apples and oranges, the former sell for nearly double the latter, at least according to what’s available at a nearby grocery store. Yet the price per ounce – 10 cents and 5 cents, respectively – are miniscule compared to some of the world’s rarer materials.

Consider white truffles: An ounce of the prized fungus, which grows for just a couple of months of the year almost exclusively in one part of Italy and is best located by special pigs, sells for more than $140 an ounce. Seem excessive? That doesn’t even begin to compare with some even more expensive items, according to the online publication Visual Capitalist.

Saffron, a spice native to Greece and Southwest Asia and used mainly as a seasoning and coloring agent in food, goes for more than $310 an ounce.

Palladium, a rare metal used in catalytic converters, among a number of items, sells for more $500 an ounce, while gold, the monetary standby of yore, is currently fetching nearly $1,200 an ounce.

Iranian beluga caviar, taken from sturgeon found mainly in the Caspian Sea, brings nearly $1,000 an ounce.

Yet those don’t come close to some upper-end items, according to the Visual Capitalist.

Plutonium, the radioactive element used in the first atomic bomb and employed at nuclear power plants, goes for more than $110,000 an ounce.

The Visual Capitalist estimated that an ounce of high-quality diamonds, nearly 142 carats, would sell for more than $1.8 million.

Finally, californium, a man-made element used to help start up nuclear reactors, would sell for more than $750 million an ounce – if that much californium could ever be produced.

Today, californium can be made only in milligram amounts and is available from the US government for $10 per millionth of a gram, a microgram.

How big would one-millionth of gram of californium be? I don’t know, but it’s probably not something you want to trust the summer intern with.

(Top: Slightly humorous meme in place of image of Californium, which is so small and rare that no decent image of it can be found on the internet.)

Mercury used in western mining: Where did it all go?

Gould_&_Curry mine comstock lode

Advances in US mining in recent decades have helped reduce the industry’s impact on the environment. While there is still room for additional progress, the difference between today and 125 years ago is staggering.

Consider the amount of mercury that was used – and ultimately dumped – into western rivers in the second half of the 19th century in the quest for silver.

Mercury, or as it was better known then, quicksilver, was critical in the removal of silver and gold from ore in the western United States. As the Alta California newspaper noted in 1890, it was pretty easy to determine how much mercury ended up rivers, streams and land: however much was used.

“In the silver mines of a certain region, in order to ascertain the amount of quicksilver dissipated and lost, it is only necessary to know the amount bought, for not an ounce is ever sent out from the mines to be sold,” the publication wrote in January 1890.

The paper estimated that between 1860 and 1889, more than 20.5 million pounds of mercury was used just in the huge silver strikes in the Comstock Lode in western Nevada. While some was likely vaporized, making the surrounding atmosphere toxic, most of the element seeped into the environment, according to the Alta California.

In Nevada, mercury was used to extract silver and gold from ore through the Washoe Process, a concentrating process in which silver was mixed with mercury, either in a drum or on an amalgamation table, where the precious metal bond with mercury. The resulting product was called amalgam.

The silver was then recovered from the mercury by retorting, which involves distilling off the mercury from the amalgam.

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California couple finds fortune in gold coins

saddle ridge hoard

A couple from California’s Sierra Nevada region last spring stumbled across what is believed to be the largest hoard of gold coins ever uncovered in the US, a treasure that will soon be going up for sale.

The pair was walking their dog on their property, located in the same region where the famed 1849 Gold Rush began, when they came across a decaying canister protruding from the ground.

Digging the can out with a stick, they took their find home, pried it open and, to their amazement, found hundreds of $20 gold pieces, all from the 19th century.

When the couple, who have remained anonymous to keep modern-day prospectors from tearing up their property, returned to the site, they located another similar-sized container and six smaller ones, all full of specie.

In all, the pair found 1,427 gold coins.

Nearly all were $20 Double Eagles, while 50 were $10 gold pieces and four were $5 Half Eagles. Most were minted in San Francisco, but one was a $5 gold piece from the mint at Dahlonega, Ga., which only operated from 1838 to 1861.

The coins dated to between 1847 and 1894 and were stacked in approximate chronological order. The oldest coins were in the first can and the “newer” ones were in subsequent cans.

“The arrangement of coins and the varying condition of the cans suggest they were buried by someone over the course of years rather than the result of a single caper like a bank robbery,” according to The History Blog.

The total face value of the coins is $27,980, but the numismatic value is estimated at more than $10 million.

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Canada to melt down 200K+ gold coins

10-Canadian gold coin

Concerned that its gold reserves would disappear with the outbreak of World War I, Canada withdrew nearly 250,000 newly minted gold coins from circulation in 1914.

The currency, minted between 1912 and 1914, represented the first gold coins ever minted by Ottawa. The coins would spend the next century in cloth bags inside a Bank of Canada vault.

Some 30,000 of the $5 and $10 pieces were offered for sale to collectors late last year, but the remainder will be melted down, part of the Conservative government’s efforts to help balance the country’s books.

The $10 coins sold for either $1,000 or $1,750 each, depending on whether they were classified as “premium” quality or not, according to the Globe and Mail.

Final figures connected with the sale, which just closed, won’t be known until spring, but a mint official confirmed that nearly all coins were sold.

The publication, in fact, described the sale as a creating a bit of gold rush among Canadian collectors.

“It’s the most popular topic for 2013, for sure,” said Michael Wang, a Vancouver coin collector who bought individual coins and also paid $12,000 for a six-coin set. “My wife was about to kill me when I told her I bought this thing.

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When counterfeit dimes were worth the effort

1861 counterfeit dime

The practice of counterfeiting money is as old as money itself.

Archaeologists have discovered counterfeit examples of coins produced in Lydia, a Roman province said to be the locale of the first metallic coinage, dating back to the 7th century BC.

Today, we tend to think of counterfeiters as individuals who mass produce paper money, usually in large denominations – $20 or higher.

But until relatively recently, nearly all counterfeit money came in coin form. This was because until relatively recently nearly all money came in coin form, and was known as “hard money” because it contained a commodity such as gold or silver which gave it intrinsic value.

A short 1884 article in the New York Times highlighted just how valuable even small coins – albeit those made of silver – were 130 years ago.

MARLBOROUGH, N.Y. – Counterfeit silver dollars, quarters and ten-cent pieces are being circulated in a number of the Hudson River counties. The quarter dollars and dimes are said to be very good imitations of genuine money. It is said that ticket agents on the line of the Hudson River Railroad have been told to scrutinize carefully all silver offered in payment for tickets. It is believed that the counterfeits were first put in circulation about three weeks ago.

Today it seems difficult to imagine someone going to the difficulty of attempting to counterfeit a dime, never mind working hard enough at it to do it well.

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Aussie prospector hits it big with $300K find

australian gold nugget

An Australian prospector using a handheld metal detector hit the mother lode Wednesday, unearthing a gold nugget weighing 177 ounces, or more than 11 pounds.

The individual, who did not want to be identified, was searching for gold in the Australian state of Victoria when he found the nugget, valued at more than $300,000.

Using a state-of-the-art metal detector, the prospector located the nugget about two feet below the surface in an area which had been searched many times in the past, according to the BBC.

The Y-shaped nugget, 8.7 inches long and 5.5 inches wide, was found near the country town of Ballarat and in an area known as the “Golden Triangle” due to its rich veins which sparked a gold rush in the 1850s, according to Reuters.

Ballarat Mining Exchange Gold Shop owner and dealer Cordell Kent said the prospector heard a faint noise on his detector and removed a dense pile of leaf mulch before he started digging, according to The Advertiser of Adelaide.

“He thought he had detected the (hood) of a car when he saw a glint of gold,” Kent said. “He cleaned the top of it and the gold kept expanding and expanding … he saw more and more gold … he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.”

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