How much gold does the average U.S. household own? It is a deceptively simple question that has a very complicated answer. For one thing, there are no reliable statistics surrounding private gold ownership in the U.S. And people certainly aren't going to willingly volunteer this very personal information either. However, I believe this question will become increasingly important as our global monetary system is inevitably reordered in the decades to come.
Before we make an attempt to answer this question of private American gold ownership, let's talk for a moment about the official U.S. government gold reserves. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the United States currently holds over 8,133 metric tonnes, or 261,498,926 troy ounces, of fine gold at secure facilities around the nation. Over 50% of this stash, approximately 4,583 metric tonnes, is stored at the world famous United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where it is guarded by an active U.S. Army camp.
If these official U.S. gold reserves were distributed evenly across the estimated 125.8 million American households, it would total about 2.08 troy ounces (64.7 grams) of gold per household. Of course, this analysis ignores the rumors that have persistently circulated for many decades that some (or even most) of these official U.S. gold reserves have been leased or sold without public knowledge. These rumors have been stoked, in part, because the U.S. gold reserves at Fort Knox have not been audited since 1953.
Regardless, these really aren't the numbers we're looking for. Instead, we want the average private gold ownership per U.S. household. Or, more specifically, we want the median level of gold ownership per U.S. household.
Conspiracy theories about Fort Knox aside, it is obvious that official government statistics are not going to provide us the information we want in regard to average private U.S. household gold ownership. So I am going to try a different approach here. I am going to use my experience with gold scrapping and cleaning out elderly relatives' homes to make an educated guesstimate about the amount of gold owned by the average U.S. household.
In order to attempt to derive a more meaningful number, I am going to explicitly exclude very wealthy households from my estimate. This demographic is much more likely to own an abnormally large amount of very expensive gold jewelry and gold coins. I will also ignore precious metal stackers and gold-bugs in this analysis; these people will obviously have more gold than the average middle class household. In addition, I will exclude extremely poor households that are likely to possess no precious metals at all, other than perhaps a pair of wedding bands.
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The primary source of U.S. household gold is undoubtedly held in the form of solid karat gold jewelry. Most solid karat gold jewelry ranges from 9 karat gold (37.5% fine) up to 18 karat gold (75% fine). However, most people own a lot less solid karat gold jewelry than you might think.
Most karat gold jewelry is very lightweight; hollow pieces are not uncommon. This is done to keep the weight, and therefore the cost, of the gold jewelry down. So, for example, your average solid karat gold women's ring or wedding band might only weigh between 2 and 5 grams, and contain 1/40 to 1/8 of a troy ounce of fine gold. As you can see, it takes quite a bit of solid karat gold jewelry before you can even accumulate one troy ounce of pure gold.
It is far more common to encounter costume jewelry in the average U.S. household, which I loosely define as gold-filled and gold-plated jewelry. Gold-filled jewelry has a thick layer of karat gold that is mechanically fused to a copper-alloy base. In contrast, gold-plated jewelry is made by electro-depositing a very thin layer of gold directly onto base-metal.
Gold-filled jewelry can often be economically recycled for its gold content, provided it is judiciously mixed with solid karat gold jewelry before being sent to the refinery. However, gold-filled jewelry's fine gold content by weight is between 2.1% and 7.5% - substantially less than even the lowest solid carat gold alloys. Because it is so diluted, it takes a huge amount of gold-filled jewelry to accumulate a significant amount of pure gold.
Gold-plated jewelry is even worse. The thickness of gold electro-plate is typically measured in microns, or 1/1000s of a millimeter. Most gold-plating on jewelry is between 0.1 and 5 microns in thickness. As a result, electro-plated gold jewelry is impossible to economically recycle, rendering it, to the best of my knowledge, the leading cause of permanent gold loss in the world today.
Another major source of gold found in the average U.S. household is gold coins. These are fairly uncommon, but some people have a random gold coin or two tucked away, even if they aren't collectors. These coins usually come in two forms: old circulated gold coins and modern bullion coins.
The first type of gold coin commonly seen in American households is pre-1933 semi-numismatic U.S. gold coins. These were issued by the U.S. government before 1933, when the United States was still on the gold standard. These coins come in denominations from the diminutive $1 gold piece to the gigantic $20 double eagle. Although these coins were fully exchangeable with paper currency before the Great Depression, they tended to see little circulation because they represented such large sums of purchasing power. Apart from collectors, most households that have these coins today inherited them.
Modern gold bullion coins are another type of gold coin frequently encountered. The Canadian, U.S., Mexican, Australian and British mints (among others) began producing these coins in the 1980s. The smaller fractional sizes - 1/4, 1/10 and 1/20 troy ounce coins - have been popular gifts for graduations, holidays and birthdays. As a result, even average people with no interest in gold bullion have sometimes accumulated one or two of these coins.
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The final type of gold commonly found in households is rather unexpected - electronics scrap. Many people don't realize it, but gold is a vital component in almost every high-tech gadget out there! In particular, heavily gold-plated contacts are used in CPUs, RAM sticks and other vital electrical contact points where corrosion resistance is a necessity. Cell phones, desktop and laptop computers, tablets and set-top TV boxes are just some of the electronics that contain gold.
Of course, the only problem is that electronics don't contain very much gold at all. As the price of gold has steadily risen over the last 15 years, hardware manufacturers have gone to great lengths to reduce the amount of gold used in electronics. This makes recovering the gold from computer scrap very difficult. In spite of this, there is a thriving market for electronics scrap on platforms like eBay. The average U.S. household might have, in aggregate, a single gram of gold stored in electronic equipment and computers.
So now it is time for the big reveal. How much gold does the average U.S. household own? In my opinion, a good guess is between 1 and 1 1/2 troy ounces (31 to 47 grams) of pure gold, plus or minus 1/2 troy ounce (16 grams). Almost all of this gold will be in the form of solid karat gold jewelry and gold coins, with a smattering from gold-filled jewelry and electronics scrap. With gold currently trading at $1,300 per troy ounce, this translates into anywhere from $650 to $2,600 of gold, give or take, per household.
There are a few conclusions we can draw from our estimate of average U.S. household gold ownership. First, it is safe to assume that these private gold holdings do not represent a significant addition to most peoples' net worth. Second, we can infer that the silver holdings of most American households are also proportionately low; applying a traditional 15x multiplier to gold holdings probably gives a reasonable estimate of household silver holdings. Third, we can presume that the median U.S. household value of all other tangible assets, like gemstones, antiques and fine art, is also rather small.
These are important findings. A massive dislocation is coming in the paper asset markets, where most Americans currently have the bulk of their (non house) net worth. Hard assets, like precious metals, gemstones, fine art and antiques, can serve as a buffer during this future period of financial chaos. But it doesn't work if you don't own any. Invest accordingly.
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It is no secret that I like buying antiques for investment purposes. But lately I've also been exploring the idea of investing in future antiques. I define future antiques as contemporary artwork, jewelry or other objets d'art available for relatively modest sums of money that have a good probability of being highly desirable in the future. In theory, buying undiscovered masterpieces for low prices when they are new and then waiting two or three decades should lead to massive profits.
Of course, this strategy is easier said than done. The real problem is determining what will be considered desirable future antiques and what will be considered mediocre. However, we do have a roadmap to help guide us - The Antique Sage's five rules for determining an antique's desirability. Portability, quality of materials and construction, durability, scarcity and zeitgeist are the five distinct aspects that help define investment grade antiques. Luckily, these rules apply to new artwork just as reliably as century-old antiques.
These guidelines do leave a lot of room for interpretation, though. Many future antiques will score very highly on some of the five factors while lagging in others. So how is the forward thinking art connoisseur or investor supposed to choose?
In my opinion, quality and zeitgeist are the two most important attributes to consider when looking for future antiques. Quality is a fundamental attribute for antiques. We are looking for items made from the highest quality materials available. In addition, we want our future antiques to be crafted with the greatest care by artists of the highest skill level.
Zeitgeist is a little more complicated. Zeitgeist can loosely be thought of as the prevailing artistic milieu of a given time or age. Motifs, styles and subject matter are all hallmarks of zeitgeist. All art produced in a given time and place will reflect the cultural backdrop of that period regardless of the individual training or personal preferences of an artist.
We shouldn't forget the role of the artist when scouring the internet for future antiques, either. I have found that many of the best contemporary works of art available today are often created by self-taught or non-traditionally trained artists operating outside of the established artistic community. This is sometimes referred to as outsider art or folk art. As an added bonus, informally-trained artists often charge less for their works than traditional artists.
Artists without formal training can have unique and fresh approaches that result in groundbreaking, visually distinctive work. This can manifest itself in what I term the "It Factor". When I am sorting through a large number of works, the ones that have the It Factor make me stop and exclaim "Wow!" The It Factor just means that an artwork, for whatever reason, is truly exceptional.
In order to get a better idea of what I've been talking about, let's briefly examine a few specific examples of items that I believe will become future antiques. The first piece is a contemporary nephrite jade pendant that I recently featured in an Antique Sage Spotlight post. This exquisite work of art was hand carved by a self-taught artisan jeweler named Alif Ballangrud who lives on the coast of Oregon. This breathtaking jade pendant exhibits all of the five elements of antique desirability, and really exudes the It Factor. Perhaps best of all, this magnificent jade carving is for sale for the surprisingly modest price of only $425! I have no doubt that this one-of-a-kind piece will be much more valuable in a couple decades.
Another work that I think has a high probability of ascending to the pantheon of future antiques is another one of my Spotlight posts - a 2011 drypoint print by Mariko Kuzumi. This lovely nature-themed print deftly juxtapositions vibrant color with monochromatic lines to create a compelling work of contemporary art. The artist, Mariko Kuzumi, lives and works in New York City, but I feel that her Japanese heritage really shows through in the work. In any case, for only $200, this contemporary drypoint print is a marvelous piece with great future potential.
Future antiques don't have to be conventional art, though. For example, there has been a renaissance over the last few years in poured silver bullion bars. Most silver bars produced by refineries today are struck or extruded, methods that lend themselves well to mass production. But a tiny portion of the precious metal community has banded together and begun creating vintage-style, hand-poured silver bars. Half collector's item, half silver bullion, modern poured silver bars represent an attractive and unusual precious metal investment.
One of the premier makers of these new hand-poured silver bars is Backyard Bullion. Backyard Bullion, also known by the acronym BYB, is a self-taught craftsman who started off in his backyard with a simple blowtorch and crucible. But he has since evolved into a top-notch fabricator of poured silver bars.
These superb silver bars are available in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all share a level of care and attention to detail that is only available in the finest of hand-made future antiques. Some BYB poured silver bars are even hallmarked by the Edinburgh Assay Office in Scotland, a fact that will undoubtedly positively impact the future desirability of these objets d'art. While BYB artisan-poured silver bars already sell for healthy premiums over the spot price of silver, I strongly suspect they will appreciate briskly in the years to come nonetheless.
Of course, every investing strategy has its drawbacks, and investing in future antiques is no different. By trying to divine the future popularity and demand for certain types of art and antiques, you run the risk that misjudging the market. Maybe that artwork you purchased directly from a promising artist ends up being ignored and shunned for no good reason. Or perhaps your fine antique is finally appreciated for its great style and compelling quality, but only after several decades has elapsed.
Because of this uncertainty, buying future antiques should be considered a higher risk investment strategy, like investing in micro-cap stocks or high yield bonds. As a result, I would strive to limit the exposure of these works in your investment portfolio to reasonable levels. However, if done intelligently, buying the antiques of tomorrow, today, can reward the patient tangible asset investor with phenomenally high returns.
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Photo Credit: PCGS
In today's age of serial asset bubbles, it is easy to believe that financial history began in the late 1990s. But this is not the case. Few investors know this, but the U.S. rare coin market experienced a truly gargantuan certified coin bubble in the late 1980s.
I had my own, personal experience with this certified coin bubble. In the late 1980s, I was subscribed to COINage magazine, a nationally distributed industry periodical. Among its pages I found an advertisement for a coin I desperately wanted - an 1872 U.S. three-cent nickel that was certified MS-62 by PCGS. This eccentric coin was available for the princely sum of $795, an amount that a 13 year old boy in 1989 could never hope to afford. In the end, that was probably for the best.
The U.S. mint struck the three-cent nickel from 1865 to 1889. This small, odd-denomination coin was a reaction to a shortage of small change that arose during the U.S. Civil War. During the war, the U.S. government issued "shinplasters" - cheaply-made, legal tender fractional notes meant to temporarily satisfy demand for low denomination cash. Once the war ended, the U.S. mint flooded the economy with small-denomination coins to replace the hated shinplasters. The three-cent nickel was one of these new, post-Civil War denominations.
The three-cent nickel that I badly coveted wasn't in a particularly high condition. MS-62, otherwise known as Mint State-62, is much closer to the lowest mint-state grade of MS-60 than the perfection of MS-70. An MS-64 or MS-65 example really would have been much better (and more expensive). But a mitigating factor was that 1872 was a somewhat less common date for the three-cent nickel series. The mintage was only 862,000 versus 11 million plus for the most common date in the series.
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That scarcity didn't stop the coin from plummeting in value when the certified coin bubble burst. Even today, nearly 30 years later, you can still buy a slabbed MS-62 three-cent nickel for only $200. That is a stunningly high cumulative loss of nearly 75%. If you measure the decline in inflation-adjusted terms, the situation is even worse, with a loss of over 88%!
There were several root causes of the massive certified coin bubble of the late 1980s. First, memories of the 1970s and its dreaded inflation still lingered in the minds of many investors. In early 1987 the price of silver spiked to more than $10 a troy ounce, almost double its normal price at the time. Many people thought inflation might be making a comeback and rare coins seemed to be the perfect way to hedge this risk.
Another contributing factor to the late 1980s certified coin bubble was the 1987 stock market crash, widely known as Black Monday. On October 19th 1987, the Dow Jones Industrial Average collapsed by 22.61%. It was the largest one day percentage loss in the index's history. Even though the resulting bear market in stocks was over within a few months, many disillusioned equity investors looked for alternative investments. Numismatically valuable U.S. coins seemed to offer a good substitute to the treacherous stock market.
But the most important factor in the certified coin bubble was undoubtedly the development of slabbing itself. Third-party certification was an attempt to impose grading standards on an industry that was famous for its inconsistency. In 1985, PCGS became the first third-party coin grading company. PCGS found immediate success in the numismatic industry and soon spawned a close competitor, NGC, in 1987.
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The advent of independent, third-party certification had a seismic impact on the rare coin industry. Before slabbing, numismatics was overrun with fly-by-night companies and boiler-room operations that sold severely over-priced, grade-inflated coins as investments to unsuspecting consumers. The arrival of PCGS and NGC changed the industry nearly overnight. Now dealers, collectors and investors could buy or sell slabbed coins "sight unseen" because they all trusted the grades given by the major grading services.
This situation is typical of all great bubbles. A legitimate innovation or discovery takes place that promises the future creation of tremendous wealth. In this case, the certified coin bubble was driven by the almost religious belief that slabbing would transform the numismatic market. It was widely thought that certified coins would enjoy greatly improved liquidity generated via massive institutional demand from financial firms. Proponents at the time felt these factors justified perpetually rising rare coin prices.
As the late 1980s unfolded, the enthusiasm for slabbed coins reached a fevered pitch. As with so many other bubbles, it didn't take long for Wall Street to join the certified coin bubble. In February 1989 the respected financial firm of Kidder, Peabody & Co. started a limited partnership, the American Rare Coin Fund. A year later Merrill Lynch launched a similar fund called the NFA World Coin Fund Limited Partnership. UBS, another Wall Street firm, created an internal rare coin division dedicated to advising its high net worth clients on numismatics. The potential for certified coins seemed almost limitless at the time.
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And then it all came crashing down. The U.S. certified coin bubble peaked sometime in mid 1989 and slowly - almost imperceptibly at first - began to weaken. By late 1989 some categories of high-grade, common date coins, like Morgan silver dollars, were clearly in decline. But the real, gut-wrenching carnage didn't hit numismatic dealers and coin shows until the 1990 - 1991 timeframe.
The PCGS3000 Index, a key indicator of the rare U.S. coin market, peaked at $181,088 in May 1989. The index bottomed out in December 1994 at $46,819 - a vicious 74% loss. Even now in January 2018, the PCGS3000 index rests at $57,076 - a loss of more than 68% since the 1989 peak.
I think it is important to learn the right lessons from the late 1980s certified coin bubble. It isn't that tangibles are bad investments - far from it, in fact. I think that tangible assets are, generally speaking, great buys at the moment. After all, some high-grade, certified U.S. coins are available today for the exact same prices they sold for in the mid 1980s!
Instead, you should be wary of any asset class that is over-hyped by the financial media and Wall Street. Avoid investing in that hot stock or index fund that all your friends, co-workers or relatives can't stop talking about. Right now these dangerously overvalued assets include high-flying tech stocks, like Netflix, Amazon and Tesla, along with virtual crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. Ironically, some certified U.S. rare coins are a great investment at today's prices; it just took nearly 30 years to get there.
Read more thought-provoking Antique Sage coin articles here.
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As 2017 departs and 2018 arrives, it makes sense for those interested in alternative assets to reassess their financial situation and make these smart moves. So here is the Antique Sage's 2018 to do list for alternative asset investors:
Rebalance your portfolio from conventional assets to alternative assets
The paper asset markets have had a tremendous bull market run over the past 9 years. So there is every probability that the stocks, bonds and mutual funds in your retirement or brokerage account are worth far more than they were just a few short years ago.
So now is the perfect time for you to take a little of your winnings off the table. Sell some of your stocks and bonds and reallocate the proceeds into an asset class that hasn't performed as well. Of course, there are very few asset classes that haven't performed well recently.
But there is one asset class that was completely overlooked in 2017: bullion, fine art and antiques have lagged substantially behind. In my opinion, this makes them perfect for alternative asset investors in 2018. Their prices are low and their valuations are reasonable. A move from traditional paper assets like stocks and bonds into fine art and antiques would simultaneously de-risk your portfolio while improving future return potential.
Don't buy into the crypto-currency hype
Alternative asset investors may be sorely tempting to throw their money at those alternative asset niches that have done the best in 2017. In this case, I'm referring to the crypto-currency complex.
Most crypto-currencies, including such illustrious participants as Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Ripple, absolutely skyrocketed during 2017. Bitcoin went from about $1,000 to $14,300 for an astounding 1,330% one year return. However, Bitcoin was far from the best crypto-currency performer of 2017. Ethereum rose by 7,470%, Litecoin increased by 5,775% and Ripple soared by an unbelievable 33,186%.
Now, I like the idea of crypto-currencies. The world very much needs a form of money that is beyond the self-serving manipulations of corrupt central banks. But Bitcoin, along with nearly every other crypto-currency currently in existence, has some pretty glaring flaws.
In short, it might be tempting for alternative asset investors to shift the entirety of their alternative asset allocation into crypto-currencies, especially in light of their recent outperformance. But they should resist that urge. Investment returns come in cycles. Assets that perform well for an extended period of time inevitably underperform at some point in the future - usually when you can least afford it.
Buy yourself a wonderful piece of fine art
Life always seems to move faster than we would like it to. There are always appointments to make, chores to finish and bills to pay. But it is vitally important to step back and appreciate the world every once in a while.
A perfect way to do this is to buy a piece of beautiful art. It could be a colorful print to display over your couch, or an avant-garde sculpture for your coffee table. It could even be a fine piece of antique jewelry for you (or your spouse). Almost anything that has been crafted by human hands with the primary intention of being aesthetically pleasing can qualify as art.
The only rule is that it should be a piece of art that appeals to you. This might seem self-evident, but a surprising number of alternative asset investors get caught up in the idea of appreciation potential above all else.
Don't fall into this trap. Instead, buy a stunning piece of art just because it speaks to you. If you are lucky, that artwork will not only give you countless hours of viewing enjoyment, but also a reasonable investment return as well.
Make sure you have enough cash or other short-term investments on hand
With the stellar run that both the stock and bond markets have experienced over the last several years, it is easy to believe that the good times will last forever. And it is true that securities markets may continue to rise at a rapid clip for a while to come. But the fortunes of the stock market can change with shocking abruptness.
Therefore, it is wise to reassess your financial position and make sure that you have sufficient cash on hand to weather an unexpected market disruption. It is even more imperative for alternative asset investors - those who collect notoriously illiquid assets like fine art and antiques - to have a healthy cash buffer.
Having a large pile of cash or other short-term investments will help you fight the urge to sell less liquid investments at inopportune times. This might not seem terribly important right now, when every asset known to man is rising without pause. But having sufficient cash holdings will become vital if there is ever a market downturn. It is good to be able to sleep soundly at night without having to worry about financial Armageddon.