The Magical Thinking of Silver Swindlers - Pacific Standard

The Magical Thinking of Silver Swindlers

Enjoy their absurd history lessons—but don't buy them.
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(Photo: Aleksandar Mijatovi/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Aleksandar Mijatovi/Shutterstock)

If you're looking for the “cutting edge of numismatics”—and who, after all, is not—GovMint.com suggests you contact the Royal Mint of Australia, famous among coin-fanciers for forging the world's first double-hologram currency. Behold the “five-kangaroo coin.” A patina of iridescence creates the desired impression; from certain angles, the aesthetic is distinctly Jerry Garcia.

It is not an accident that the latest gold rush accompanies the political ascent of Barack Obama.

On the other hand, if your taste in currency-collection has an element of Zionism, GovMint is equally pleased to hawk its partnership with the Holy Land Mint of Israel—once state-run but privatized in 2008 and therefore very much open for some kind of business with GovMint. We have no idea what kind of business, precisely, because GovMint discloses little of its partnerships beyond a hazy list of allies. This strategy of credibility-by-association is embedded in the company's very name: It is neither a government nor a mint but desires the privileges and deference due to both, without any of the associated accountability.

In other words, GovMint is at the cutting edge of numismatics: The company is itself a double-hologram. Come, buttress your wealth while gaining the illusory blessing of history.

The newest and shiniest GovMint fairytale concerns the French Revolution, and one has a hard time discerning what they're after with this one. It's called the “Lucky Silver Angel Coin,” versions of which (the company claims) have preserved various historical potentates from misadventures. The coin's virtues are established largely via ersatz anecdotes about the French:

As the legend of the Angel grew, these coveted coins were believed by many to bring good luck to the bearer and to even cure sickness and save lives. And the stories are incredible. ...

In 1792, the well-known French coin designer, Augustin Dupré, designed a beautiful new Gold Angel coin for King Louis XVI. But as the French Revolution erupted, Dupré’s fortunes took a dramatic turn and he suddenly found himself sentenced to death at the guillotine. As legend has it, Dupré stood before the guillotine to be executed one stormy day and he pulled one of the Angel coins he had designed out of his pocket and rubbed it for good luck. At that moment, a bolt of lightning struck— causing his execution to be postponed. Before it could be rescheduled, Augustin Dupré was granted a pardon. From that day on, he proclaimed that it was the lucky Angel coin which had literally saved his neck!

Military historians, meanwhile, can at long last enjoy a unifying account of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo:

Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have carried an Angel coin in his vest pocket throughout his steady rise to power in France. As Napoleon’s empire grew, his Angel coin accompanied him on each heroic campaign. But legend tells us that, on the eve of a great battle in 1815, he reportedly flung his coin arrogantly into a river. The very next day, Napoleon was defeated in the Battle of Waterloo and forced into exile.

In essence, GovMint has taken the Drunk History model and applied it to numismatic hucksterism. The company is doubly creative when it comes to pricing. As would-be-watchdog BuySilver.org warns:

The prices on GovMint.com are the most problematic part of the website from the viewpoint of a potential customer. They are quite steep, and are higher than the prices found on other precious metals sites such as APMEX. A comparison between a handful of prices will illustrate the extent of the difficulty. Of course, you may well opt to buy anyway, but you should know that you are paying a very hefty premium over spot for GovMint.com’s bullion products.

Of course, you won't get those caveats on the radio, which is where GovMint finds most of its suckers. By paying for premium placement on right-wing talk shows, the company and its ilk are like friendly telemarketers—except you can't hang up on them. Tales about Dupré and Bonaparte and even Henry VIII swirl through the truth-vacuum as voices enjoin you to “call now!” Dupré alone appears hourly on the radio this summer. As history lessons go, these ones are pretty aggressive.

In political talk radio, the membrane between editorial and advertorial is pure capitalist gossamer: One moment Sean Hannity is lamenting the state of the Fed under President Obama, and the next he's saying, hey, why not call my pals at Goldline? Adverts for precious and semi-precious metals are a fixture, alongside IRS-bashing credit consultants, niche survivalist products such as Food Insurance, and a variety of salves for impotence and low-testosterone (Ageless Male!). Hannity and Glenn Beck will likely retire before anyone starts rehydrating apocalypse-ready dried-food stockpiles, or before their ageless male audience is entirely extinct. In the meantime these guys keep selling gold and silver to a set of permanent paranoiacs—a sales push that has continued without pause or shame even after the silver bubble began to deflate some 18 months ago.

When Goldline, one of Glenn Beck's staunchest sponsors, was charged with 19 counts of fraud in 2011, Beck proved unflappable. In Santa Monica, the company's headquarters, the city attorney accused Goldline of “running a bait and switch operation in which customers, seeking to invest in gold bullion, are switched to highly overpriced coins by using false and misleading claims.” In a settlement, Goldline agreed to distribute $45 million in reparations among 43 complainants. The Los Angeles Timesreports:

Goldline agreed to an injunction that requires the company to "change its unfair sales practices" and to disclose price markups in recorded telephone conversations with customers, said Adam Radinsky, head of the Santa Monica city attorney's consumer protection unit.

Meanwhile, sales tutorials had company reps steering bullion-seekers away from the real thing and instead toward overpriced “collectible coins,” an amalgam of impure metals tarted up with gold and silver.

Beck continued to hawk their goods, and does so still. His audience cares deeply about defining themselves in opposition to Obama, and for an audience leery of paper and derivative investments after the fiascoes of 2008, investing in metals feels familiar and comfortable. Yesterday's libertarian gold bugs have brought their investing strategies into mainstream conservatism. That the government's consumer-protection apparatus occasionally targets these companies is, if anything, proof to the credulous: They wouldn't be persecuting Goldline if they didn't hate freedom. And so the middlemen—the pewter-peddlers—have made a killing.

It is not an accident that the latest gold rush accompanies the political ascent of Barack Obama. Previous wobbles in the market did not jumpstart gold sales on anywhere near the levels of 2008-11, just as no previous Democratic president saw anything like a comparable boom in gun sales as a result of his election. The advertorial narrative on right-wing shows has rarely been simpler or more cohesive. Their sales pitch is fully integrated. You need Food Insurance because you fear Obamaville; you need gold because paper money is subject to executive voodoo; you need guns because Obama—having enacted less gun regulation than Ronald Reagan—is just totally after your firearms.

Investment advice is not always gimlet-eyed on CNBC (quite the opposite), but the network has done adequate coverage of precious-metal scams and their proliferation during Obama's first term. The Federal Trade Commission reported a sharp increase in fraudulent wealth schemes between the years 2009-11; in 2012 the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued a special alert, advising consumers about the aggressive uptick in precious-metal fraud. Before you enter the demimonde of mail-order precious metals, remember that the success of these enterprises is rooted in the familiar bait-and-switch of fear and fairytales. Enjoy the fairytales—they are deliciously absurd—but remember that the witches here are Goldline and GovMint, duping Hansel and Gretel with breadcrumbs such as “5 Ways Coins Are Better Than Art, Antiques, or Gold Bars.” You're better off buying pyrite. Trust me.

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