Y2K mood music: solid gold

One thing I have learned to appreciate during a lifetime of coin collecting is the unbridled optimism that permeates the world of gold and silver dealers. They never sing the blues, even when global conditions affecting precious metals are grim.

The current outlook doesn't seem promising. Prices have been in the doldrums for years. Mining companies are struggling to stay profitable.

But vendors march to a happier tune. Their advertisements trumpet new investment opportunities every day.

One of my favorite TV spots rhapsodizes about a one-ounce gold coin called the Vienna Philharmonic.

In addition to the usual platitudes about gold's historic value and popularity, the promoters also tout the coin as a valuable resource in the event of a Y2K monetary crisis.

The year 2000 bug thus joins a distinguished list of apocalyptic worries that have created periodic waves of precious-metal mania during the past 30 years.

My family used to subscribe to a number of gloomy financial newsletters during the Carter administration, and I still remember their dire predictions of world oil shortages, hyperinflation, and currency collapse.

A recent news story from Chicago profiled the Y2K Silver Company, which claims to be doing a brisk business selling one-ounce silver medallions that are stamped "Official Barter Unit." To me, this is an obvious oxymoron. The word "official" sounds authoritarian and is definitely contrary to the freewheeling spirit of black markets and underground economies.

Other firms are singing the praises of rare coins, often foreign issues with exotic names such as the French 20 Franc Napolean or the 1915 Austrian 4 Ducats. Newspaper ads for these numismatic offerings also contain a variety of intriguing abbreviations. NGC, ANACS, and PCGS are rating services that certify the condition of each item.

More revealing is the bold display of such terms as M/C, VISA, AMEX, DISCVR, and CHECK. I'm always bemused that people who sell precious metals as hedges against financial catastrophe are happy to have customers pay for purchases using the current (and potentially unstable) system of banking and credit cards.

However, I can't be overly critical of the metal merchants because I'm still a customer. Real silver dollars make nice birthday presents for kids. But I never tell the recipients that their gifts might be worth big money some day.

Back around 1985, there were two sisters I read about in a newsletter who predicted gold would hit $2,000 per ounce by the end of the decade. I wonder if those women are now living in a remote cabin, stocking up on Official Barter Units.

So when the TV commercial for the Vienna Philharmonic pops on my screen, I listen with enjoyment. But I'm not picking up the phone to order. I've heard this music before.

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