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The price of gold: as influential as a global power

The record price of gold and the universal obsession with the sparkling metal make it a parallel global power.

By Jessica BruderCorrespondent / July 16, 2011

The price of gold is almost a global power of its own and its history and humankind's obsession with it are the subject of the cover story of the July 18 issue of the Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine. In this photo are gold nuggets at a gold exchange in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

Photo Illustration/AP

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Italian Bar Camp, Calif.

Lee Mace knelt on a sun-dappled riverbank in the heart of California's mother lode. For two hours, he'd been taking turns with his wife and their three children, shoveling dirt into a home-built oak box, pouring buckets of water over the top, and rocking it back and forth like a cradle. Gravity carried the heaviest particles through a series of screens to a trap at the bottom, where Mr. Mace removed them to cull by hand in a shallow prospector's pan.

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He tilted the pan gently. He squinted into the black silt, as if reading tea leaves. "Look," he said. And then they appeared: a constellation of glowing flecks, none larger than the head of a pin.

It's hard to believe that crumbs like these have obsessed humankind through the ages, but such is the history of gold – indeed, the price of gold, which has become a parallel global power of sorts. Treasure hunters have sought the rare yellow metal since the dawn of civilization. In 3600 BC, gold was first smelted by the Egyptians, who believed it was the flesh of the gods. The Greek poet Pindar called gold "a child of Zeus," adding that "neither moth or rust devoureth it, but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession."

Empires have risen and fallen on tides of gold. Driven by gold lust, Spanish conquistadors razed the civilizations of the Aztecs and the Incas, who believed gold came from the sun. Tempted by the promise of gold, explorers embarked on some of the most epic and dangerous wild-goose chases in recorded history. (Though El Dorado has since been confined to the dustbin with Atlantis and Shangri-La, the mythic city endures as a metaphor for the pursuit of impossible wealth.)

Today, investors herald a new golden age. On April 21, the metal's market value surpassed $1,500 per troy ounce for the first time.

Gold prices have climbed steeply since the turn of the millennium, following two decades of gradual decline after the precious metal's last peak in 1980.

Gold's worth has increased fivefold in the past decade and more than tripled since 2005. And as prices soar, bolstered by private investment and central banks, which started stockpiling gold last year after two decades of selling it off, the metal is poised to remake the world all over again.

"We are at one of these transit points in the history of gold. And I've got a long view: My perspective goes back 6,000 years, not just the past six hours," British historian Timothy Green says with a chuckle. Mr. Green, has studied the yellow metal for more than 45 years and is the author, most recently, of the book "Ages of Gold," published by GFMS, a precious-metals consultancy in London.

"The grass-roots demand for gold – having gold coins under the bed or buried in the garden or wherever you want to hide them – that's coming back," he notes. It has also grown easier to own "paper gold." Gold exchange-traded funds allow investors to bet on gold without actually owning it and have proliferated in markets worldwide since they first appeared in 2003 on the Australian Securities Exchange. These are a far cry from ancient times, when, Green adds, "only the wealthy rulers, the princes, the Tutankhamens, could afford to have gold. It was a symbol of wealth and power."

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