Collectors of old coins fill their vaults with nostalgia. Think of the Boy Scout who covets his first buffalo nickel, or the uncle who cherishes his special-edition set.
But a new class of collector is focused on the future: people who are clinging onto precious metals for fear that the nation's currency will implode.
And they were out in full force Saturday and Sunday to buy up freshly minted gold and silver U.S. coins at the Carolina Coin and Stamp Show, which was held at the N.C. State Fairgrounds.
"These are Americans thinking that they're going to wake up one day ... and our dollar is not going to be worth a dollar," said Jim Neely, owner of Fuquay Coins & Jewelry in Fuquay-Varina. "They think that they may have to trade silver or gold to get by."
These aren't camouflaged survivalists holed up in bunkers. Many are engineers, programmers and other white-collar types who have lost faith in social structures, in governments and in those who run them.
"We're about up to here with promissory notes," said John "Doc" Yancho, a retired chiropractor and a co-owner of Rare Coins of Raleigh. "We want something tangible. It's the fear factor."
Demand for bullion - as the precious metal is called - is so strong that dealers are putting customers on waiting lists. Yancho said one man called hoping to buy $50,000 in coinage.
Gold and silver have long been valued as insurance against currency fluctuations. And the value of these metals rises when stocks, real estate and consumer confidence tank.
One popular benchmark - gold American-eagle coins - has climbed over $1,400 per troy ounce, rising more than 400 percent in the past decade, according to the Certified Coin Exchange, a dealers network. Silver coins also have surged to more than $30 per troy ounce.
Dealers this weekend said the recession has resulted in a surge of buyers who are amassing bullion. These customers prefer to buy coins stamped out of gold and silver and valued many times their face value. A 1-ounce silver dollar costs more than $30 today and a 1-ounce $50 gold coin goes for $1,650.
The bullion investors say that social decline and unrest are the inevitable consequences of the overspending that has led to a record national debt.
The reason these government-skeptics prefer coins over ingots: The quality of the metal is certified by the U.S. government.
Brian Bell, an electrical engineer in Apex, has been accumulating gold and silver for three decades.
"The real deal is, you can take gold and silver anywhere in the world and feed your family," Bell said. "It's a smart thing to have."
But not all the collectors buy into this world view. Some, especially traditional collectors who prefer coins for their historical value, suspect something else is behind the price run-up.
"Have you ever heard of a bubble?" said G.E. Shuford, a firearms instructor in Cary. "It's still just a metal. You can't eat it, you can't drink it. It can be overvalued."
Abdi Salahshour, a software architect from Raleigh, concurs.
"They're paying a premium," Salahshour said. "They're going to be disappointed one day when they're not going to be able to sell it at that price."
Market experts have been warning of a gold bubble for the past year. But though many economists expect the dollar to rebound as the U.S. economy recovers, some have said that a collapse of the dollar is not inconceivable.
The bullion collectors are a secretive bunch. Don't even think about asking how much they have squirreled away. Many won't tell you their name. Even some dealers don't reveal their full names on their business cards.
Jay Nichols said he's not one of the radical survivalists. The retired municipal surveyor is just preparing for the inevitable.
"Things are going to get bad," he said. "I can see people having to protect their own houses. What happens when the state of North Carolina declares bankruptcy? They can't pay the police, can't pay the fire department."
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