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Gold Hunt: Revisiting The Past, Finding Stellar Origins

Reporter Alice Furlaud received an unexpected bonus recently. It began with a letter she found from her late husband, Max, dated 1997 -- two years before he died.

The letter describes all our assets. There weren't many -- only our house and, to my amazement, a list of gold coins. Max was a wonderful writer who won lots of awards for his documentary films, but not much money. And yet, it seems there was this safety deposit box in Gstaad, Switzerland, full of Krugerrands and New Sovereigns -- whatever they were. I decided to take a chance, and I set out for Switzerland on what might have been just a wild gold chase.

Off To Switzerland

It was Sunday when I arrived in Gstaad, so I took the lovely little train through the mountains to the un-touristy village five station stops away from Gstaad, where Max and I once lived for part of every year, for about 12 years.

I looked across the railroad tracks, across the valley and up on the mountain, which we always thought of as the wrong side. It got freezing cold in November, the shadows came, and you couldn't stay there. I began to weep a little as I looked at the chalet. When we lived there, it had no plumbing and the barn belonged to a wonderful young family. We lived among their herd of cows. They all had names, and the bells, my goodness -- when they were under our window, it was like a Hindu temple.

The next day I went to Credit Suisse. The safety deposit box was there, and it did have gold coins in it, exactly as Max had listed them. (The bank clerk who opened the box refused to be interviewed; Swiss bank secrecy doesn't apply only to those secret accounts dishonest people have to avoid taxes.) I marveled at the clanging of those Krugerrands and New Sovereigns.

Consulting The Gold Expert

When I got back home on Cape Cod, I brought a sample of each to show Tom Carney, a well known expert who deals in coins. I like Tom a lot, partly because he has four elderly rescued cats. Tom told me the Krugerrand is a heavy gold coin, slightly larger than a silver dollar. But it's not pure gold.

"They put some other elements in it to keep it so it's hard," he said.

"And whose picture is that on it? It looks a little like Peter Sellers. And who is he?" I asked.

As per Tom's suggestion, we looked the name up in one of his telephone-book-sized coin dictionaries. The bearded man on the Krugerrand is Paul Kruger, the Boer president of the South African Republic. And on the other side is an antelope-ish animal, the South African springbok. Oh, dear -- was Max contributing to apartheid when he bought these coins? But it seems that everybody does it.

"There are three coins that are internationally traded: the Krugerrand, the Canadian Maple Leaf and the American Gold Eagle," Tom said. "There are several others: the Chinese Panda, Australian Nugget."

I pointed to a smaller coin that Tom said was an English Sovereign. "They're also a blend, because they're used in jewelry," he said.

The sovereigns may not be pure gold, but they do have a lovely picture of the young Queen Elizabeth on one side and Saint George on horseback killing a poor defenseless dragon on the other.

"That's a standard that's been used since all the way back to the 1700s," Tom informed me.

I think I remember when Max bought those gold coins. It was 1973, we were briefly homeless except for that Swiss chalet without plumbing or heat, and we were spending the winter in London, cat- and house-sitting. We both worked in a little needlepoint factory for a while, and I remember all of our friends were saying this was the time to buy gold.

Gold From The Heavens

But why is gold such a very special metal? It even has sex appeal -- and I don't just mean women called "gold diggers." Remember Danae, the lady in the Greek myth who was seduced by Zeus? He disguised himself as a shower of gold! I asked Tom what gives gold its magic.

"Well, first of all, gold is the last element made in a supernova, which is the explosion of a star. Our sun cannot even produce gold. Basically, a sun has to be at least 30 times the size of our sun when it explodes in a supernova. It has to be a massive star," Tom said.

Max would have loved Tom's astronomical description of gold.

The sad thing about my Swiss gold rush is that Max wasn't there to enjoy it with me. We both would have laughed with delight at the modest increase in value of the coins he had bought for so little. Max certainly wouldn't have minded that they weren't worth a fortune. "Look at King Midas," he'd have said.

Midas got his wish that everything he touched would be turned to gold, forgetting that this would include his food. Every morsel turned to gold before he could swallow it.

And on that note, we'd have gone out to dine where I did, at our favorite restaurant in Gstaad: the Posthotel Rossli.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alice Furlaud