Donald Kagin was pointing at eagles holding tiny arrows. Kagin is a serious man and I was scribbling serious notes. Then he was pointing at an eagle holding a branch, and telling me about the implications of the history of the eagle. His tasseled-loafered, monogrammed-cuffed demeanor cracked into delight—that pure kind you only see every couple years. A little rubbed off. The million dollars’ worth of loot in front of us—part of the largest buried treasure ever found in California—might’ve helped. It was complicated.
I’d come to Tiburon, California, on this Wednesday morning to meet arguably the nation’s most learned numismatist. In preparation I’d become learned on what numismatics is: in brief, the study or collection of coins and bank notes and other currency. Kagin’s father was a numismatist. Kagin and his future wife hit coin shows on dates. As president of Kagin’s, Inc., the oldest family-owned numismatic firm in the U.S., Kagin, who is 64, holds the nation’s first bachelor’s degree in the field—and its sole doctorate. His son and daughter-in-law have tumbled into the family business, too, like quarters down a slot.
The abstract idea of money, the one we think about most, divides us through greed and jealousy. But physical money, the stuff in our pockets, binds and passes between us.
Kagin showed me around his small office, in an unlikely location I promised not to divulge. Countless old auction catalogs lined the walls; obscure historic currencies filled the shelves: brick tea, a throwing knife, a wiry elephant’s tail used by tribal chiefs in the Congo. By the front door, nearly waist-high, sat an example of the largest currency in the world, stone money from the island of Yap. “Worth a wife or two at one point,” Kagin noted.
The so-called hobby of kings is a funny mix of deep-dive academic research—stamping techniques, economic theory, the study of leprosy-colony money—and your inner 12-year-old squealing OMG these nickels are worth a fortune! Kagin keeps his squealing inner tween tightly under wraps. Arrayed before us, on a table suitable for lunch, were some head-slappingly valuable coins. Wearing a graying goatee and appraiser’s detachment, he spoke of them with a professorial calm.
“Look at the symbols,” he said, fascinated by those tiny arrows, not a the massive value. “You’ve got the eagle holding arrows, representing force, to preserve these branches of peace over here. Coins and notes are allegory.” Between his 1981 doorstop of a book, Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States, and his meticulous one-man show on pioneer gold—yes, Kagin’s second love is theater—he has done his best to translate that allegory.
A phone call last year introduced him to the greatest find of his career. A California couple had gone to walk their dog on their property in the Sierra Nevada. They’d taken this walk countless times before, but on this day the woman noticed a rusty canister sticking out of the ground. What happened next will sound familiar, either from a news report you read at the time or that fantasy you cultivated as a child. Using a stick, the couple managed to dig the canister out. It was heavy; the man figured it held old lead paint. Then the lid slipped off. No, not paint. Gold coins. Many gold coins.
Over the next week, “John and Mary,” as the couple pseudonymously termed themselves, pulled seven more cans of gold from the ground. They were likely stashed there by a 19th-century local with minimal trust in banks. What became known as the Saddle Ridge Hoard comprised 1,427 coins, valued at $10 million. John and Mary kept them in an ice cooler buried under a woodpile in their yard.
Kagin and a colleague heard from John and Mary when the couple sought advice on selling their find. (Kagin is one of the only people who know John and Mary’s true identities.) A good numismatist is many things: a historian, certainly; but also an economist, an archeologist, an anthropologist, a metallurgist, an iconologist, and, in this case, a consigliere. The couple proposed hawking off the coins piecemeal; this turned Kagin into a moneyman in the traditionally remunerative sense. He convinced John and Mary that auctioning all the gold all at once, as a branded hoard, would fetch a higher price.
Kagin described the Saddle Ridge Hoard as “the single greatest buried treasure find in U.S. history” in a voice a notch or two calmer than one would expect. “The drama and mystique were as compelling as the gold itself.” Kagin believes that money tells us more about a civilization than any other type of artifact. “You’re buying the story when you buy a Saddle Ridge piece.”
A good numismatist is many things: a historian, an economist, an archeologist, an anthropologist, a metallurgist, an iconologist, and, in this case, a consigliere.
An impressive chunk of that story now sat before us: three of the rusty canisters and a handful of the coins, including one worth $1 million. At one point Kagin left the room to talk with a client. For a fleeting moment I contemplated my ethical compass and sprinting speed. True, this was “history in my hand,” as Kagin put it. But I’m a writer and I have two kids. This was also a sweet mansion in my hand.
Hang out in a numismatic firm long enough and money starts taking on a strange cast. Or maybe its ordinary cast simply wears away. The abstract idea of money, the one we think about most, divides us through greed and jealousy. But physical money, the stuff in our pockets, binds and passes between us.
Later, when Kagin was back, I asked how the windfall had affected John and Mary. Had the new zeros in their bank account changed them?
“Not at all,” Kagin replied. “And you?” I asked. “What would you do if that had been your money?”
He smiled, the answer stamped onto him long ago: “I’d buy more coins.”
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