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This fella got the gold rush wrong

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Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Retired business editor Jack Markowitz writes Sundays and Thursdays.

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By Jack Markowitz

Published: Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Walter Samaszko Jr. had one of the great ideas of our time. He bought gold.

And one of the worst ideas of any time. He hoarded it. Never enjoyed life the way a fellow worth $7 million ought to be entitled.

Yet anyone whose savings may yet go down the drain can't be too sure about that.

In one respect Samaszko had plenty of company. He was extremely wary of paper money. Or as some call it, fiat money, worth just what the government says it's worth.

What the Federal Reserve has been doing with money the last four years — the last 100 years, its fiercest critics say — is just a shame if not a crime. Creating trillions more dollars to prop up a government that can't quit overspending. And thus setting up a potentially terrible inflation down the road.

Just such a revolting prospect gave Walter Samaszko his marching orders, although in fairness he started decades ago, when the Fed was “using the printing presses,” as it's said, more sparingly.

He started, and may never have quit, buying gold and silver coins and bars. And this as early as the 1960s, when gold traded around $200 an ounce and silver $6 or so.

Not the sort of speculation you'd expect from a quiet bachelor living in a small tract house, just 1,200 square feet, at Carson City, Nev.

In fact he was still living with his mother. She may have been the brains behind the early buys.

But she died in 1992, so for 20-odd years her aging boy occupied the place as a recluse, littering but never changing much, an old shag rug on the floor.

He had acquaintances but no close friends or relatives, just went about his business, such as it was, visiting a local coin dealer, without calling attention.

“He wasn't exactly a hermit,” town clerk Alan Glover said in a Los Angeles Times interview. “He shopped for groceries, talked with at least one elderly neighbor ... but didn't belong to anything.” The car in his garage might have hinted at a cool side, once. It was a Mustang bought new — in 1968.

When Samaszko died last fall at age 69 (he had heart trouble) the end was sadly typical of many loners. Neighbors hadn't seen him for a month. Police had to force their way in and found him.

The place was cluttered, as Glover put it, by “everything inside that home you could think of.” Checkbook? Yes, for a bank account with $200 in it. Also $12,000 in cash and stock accounts totalling $165,000. But no will.

Cleanup workers discovered the real treasure, in part by following a curious crawl space from the garage.

There was gold in sealed boxes labeled “books.” And gold wrapped in foil, stored in ammunition boxes. A dining room silver set, too; and U.S. $20 coins and Mexican 5-pesos; other coins from England, Austria, and South Africa minted in the 1940s. The weight alone indicated a worth of $7 million; but additional value for coin collectors was yet to be determined.

A single heir was traced by way of the mother's burial record. She's a first cousin, a substitute school teacher living in a California apartment. It's nice that she can use the money.

But Walter Samaszko should have used more of it himself. Distrusting Congress and the Federal Reserve is one thing, but thrift should be a virtue not a vice. Let us be middling in our monetarism.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email



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