Sounding more like Indiana Jones than a mild-mannered coin dealer, Greg Roberts recalled the day last year when he stepped into a bank vault and saw the 20,000 gleaming $20 gold coins now known as the Wells Fargo hoard.
It was like uncovering "the Holy Grail," said Roberts, president of Spectrum Numismatics International. "I literally almost passed out."
The collection of 1908 coins was extraordinary both in quantity and quality. The coins were further distinguished by a historical quirk. They were among the few coins minted, at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, without the "In God We Trust" motto.
In its biggest deal to date, Spectrum bought the hoard for more than $15 million, Roberts said. He figures the coins will bring at least $30 million on the retail market.
While coin experts have varying opinions about the significance of the find, they agree that the hoard is impressive because of its sheer bulk and because the gold pieces were amazingly well-preserved. When he first examined the coins, Roberts said, they shed soft, powdery gold dust.
"It's a tremendous find," said Rick Montgomery, president of one of the firms that graded the gold pieces.
So far, the discovery has generated interest largely within the coin community. But now Spectrum, which sells to retailers and other wholesalers, has stepped up its marketing campaign to entice the general public. And some dealers are predicting that the high-quality coins, which can cost thousands of dollars each, will enliven the marketplace by attracting new collectors.
"The idea of introducing these kinds of coins to a wider audience is really an event in the coin business," said Richard Schwary, president of California Numismatic Investment in Inglewood, one of a handful of retailers now selling the coins.
Coin experts say it's not surprising that Spectrum would bag the gold hoard. The company is known in the industry for having the financial muscle and marketing expertise to make flashy deals. Last year, Spectrum paid $1.8 million for the 1804 Eliasberg silver dollar, then the highest price ever for a single coin, and quickly resold it for almost $2 million, said Roberts, 35.
The company's overall sales are expected to hit $60 million this year, up from $50 million last year and more than $40 million in 1996.
The coins themselves are shrouded in mystery. Spectrum has offered a vague outline of their history, but the details are blurred by confidentiality agreements and a hush-hush attitude that coin dealers say often accompanies deals for high-priced collectibles.
While all the gold pieces in this hoard are 1908 Saint-Gauden coins--named after the sculptor who designed them--and look much the same to the untrained eye, they have been separated into various "mint state" categories according to their level of preservation.
Coins are graded on a scale of 1 to 70, with those that have never been circulated falling in the 60 to 70 range, depending on their condition. The coins at the top of the scale have the most vivid features, said David L. Ganz, author of "The World of Coins and Coin Collecting."
"At 66," he said, "you have a stunning coin." Coins from Spectrum's hoard have so far been graded in the 63 to 67 range. Roberts said that 2,000 of the coins, which he feels may be the finest pieces, have yet to be graded.
As with other collectibles, the allure of history can greatly enhance a coin's value. (Melted into gold bars, Spectrum's original 20,000 pieces would be worth $5 million to $6 million, the company said.) And the coins in Spectrum's hoard are dripping with history.
In 1906, Roosevelt--seeking to put some zip in the nation's coins--commissioned Saint-Gauden to create the new design. Troubled at having reverent wording emblazoned on money, the president asked that "In God We Trust" be stricken from the coins. Following a public uproar, Congress ordered the motto restored two years later.
In the interim, nearly 4.3 million of the coins were minted without the motto. But experts say most were melted down in 1933 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered that virtually all coins held by Americans be redeemed for paper money. The moved allowed Roosevelt to boost the price of gold and devalue the dollar so that American goods could be sold more cheaply abroad during the Depression, Ganz said.
Private ownership of gold remained illegal through 1974.
While grading services keep "population reports" of the coins they've inspected, no one knows how many of these coins still could be stashed in safes and cupboards across the nation.
"It's an ongoing mystery for everyone," said Stuart Segan, an editor for Coin World magazine.
With or without the motto, the coin is a stunner, depicting a flowing-haired Lady Liberty striding forward, a staff in one hand and an olive branch in the other.
"It's a masterpiece," Schwary said. "It's probably the prettiest coin that was ever struck in the United States."
The coins certainly dazzled Roberts, who on a recent workday sat with what he said was about $2 million of them stacked before him on black velvet mats. While most of the company's valuables are stored off site, Spectrum has spent about $100,000 to secure its suite of offices, which are tucked on the second story of a nondescript office building.
Roberts said he was contacted by the coins' previous owner early last year and in February flew to a Wells Fargo Bank branch in Las Vegas, not knowing how many coins he would find. At that point, he figured it could be 4,000, tops. It wasn't until he stood before the private safe, Roberts said, that he was told the canvas bags inside contained 20,000 gold pieces.
"It was unreal," he said.
Roberts would only identify the seller as someone with whom he had previously done business.
Spectrum officials said they were told that the coins had been acquired about 1917 and apparently remained untouched until about 1972, when they were counted, sorted and resealed in bags. In 1996, the coins changed hands and were stored at the Wells Fargo Bank, they said.
"Somebody was able and had the wherewithal to hold them through the Depression and years of different economic conditions," Roberts said. "It's a mystery. It's amazing to me how these coins survived from 1908 in the condition they're in."
Others in the industry were equally amazed.
"When it came out of the grading service, everybody was flabbergasted," said Schwary. "Thousands of these coins were certified in very high grades."
Early on, dealers advertised in coin magazines and sent mailers to their regular customers. More recently, they have placed ads in more general business publications. Some also have bought radio spots, Roberts said.
So far, the coin sales have been brisk, dealers say. When California Numismatic Investment offered some of the coins for $1,160 each, they "sold like hot cakes," Schwary said. Some customers are buying a gold piece for each of their children, dealers say.
The urge to collect is no stranger to Roberts, who began hitching rides to coin shows when he was still too young to drive.
He became interested in coins after attending a Covina Coin Club meeting with his uncle at 14. Soon he took the entrepreneurial plunge, running an ad in a coin magazine that offered five buffalo nickels for a dollar. He received about 55 orders. "It was the most exciting thing," he said.
About a year later, Roberts opened his first business checking account with $200. By his junior year, the Glendora teen was selling coins to his high school principal. As graduation neared, he persuaded his parents to let him skip college and take a job with a coin dealer.
Today, Roberts sounds certain that he made the right career choice.
"I worked for 20 years, and this happened," he said, gold coins piled before him. "You just never know what's around the corner."
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Making the Grade
The value of a coin is determined by its rarity and condition. Collectors and dealers often hire independent grading firms to rate coins. An overview of the system used to evaluate collectible coins:
* Rarity: Coins from ancient times are so rare that the number in existence is usually documented in collecting literature. It is easier to determine the scarcity of coins from the modern era, since mints document the number of each type of coin produced.
* Circulated coins: Graded on a numerical system ranging from 1 to 59.
* Uncirculated coins: Graded between MS-60 and MS-70. The MS designation stands for "mint state." MS-63 and MS-64 are considered "choice uncirculated," while MS-65 and above are designated "gem uncirculated." The grade MS-70 is considered unattainable, since even uncirculated coins have abrasions.
* Abrasions: Newly minted coins are put in bags and jostled together during transport. This causes "bag marks," or surface abrasions. Coins with fewer abrasions are graded higher. Circulated coins have the most abrasions since they are often dropped and run through vending machines.
* Eye appeal: A coin with an abrasion somewhat hidden in the imprint would be more valuable than one with an abrasion fully visible on a flat, shiny area.
* Strike: Coins minted with new dies have a stronger imprint and are graded higher than those struck by worn dies that leave a more faint impression.
* Errors: These increase a coin's uniqueness and scarcity, making it more desirable to collectors.
Sources: Numismatic Guaranty Corp., Spectrum Numismatics International; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times