When you think of a gold bar, you probably have a pretty specific picture in mind. It’s sturdy. Shiny. Solid. Square. Clean. Pure. A stackable, extra valuable brick of sorts.
That’s true today, sure. But it hasn’t always been the case. Not globally. And not even domestically here in the United States. When it comes to the gold bar (also known historically as “bullion”), there’s some interesting historical building blocks at play.
While today’s gold bars are typically uniform in size, shape and form, some subtle differences can tell a trained eye when and where a gold bar was cast. Before 1986, gold bars cast in the U.S. looked like rectangular bricks. Today, U.S.-cast bars are trapezoidal in shape, conforming to the long-established international standard for bars. Markings on the side of a gold bar also reveal information about its production, including its “melt” (the molten gold from which the bar is made), fineness and purity. A gold refiner’s stamped seal can also identify where the gold was cast. Registered serial numbers and sometimes even holograms are used by some gold bullion makers as a security measure.
Another interesting fact about modern gold bars? They’re not 100-percent pure gold — allowing them to preserve their original shape, making them easier to stack, store and move. The non-gold material within a gold bar is typically copper, iron, platinum or gold’s less-loved runner-up, silver. Traces of silver or platinum tend to give the gold bar a whitish shade, while iron produces a greenish hue and copper leads to redder-looking bars.
Now, let’s take an even closer look at the gold bar…starting with its ancient and classical roots.
Ingots and Tall Stories
Let’s first flash back to ancient Rome, circa 65 A.D. The author Tacitus, writing in Annals, Book XVI, describes a “tall story” told by a Carthaginian man named Casellius Bassus, in an attempt to win favor with the money-hungry Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar. Some scholars have described Bassus as a “lunatic” – something Nero himself is also often described as, among many other choice words.
Bassus claimed to know the location of “immense stores of gold, not wrought into the form of coin, but in rude and shapeless ingots, such as were in use in the early ages of the world.” The gold was never located by Nero’s men, but we do learn a bit about the “ingot” — a sort of primitive gold bar that was made from pouring molten gold into molds, which were often made of clay. According to some accounts, Romans were even using gold bullion as currency in Mesopotamia…all the way back in the seventh millennium B.C.
Lost at Sea…
Now let’s fast forward all the way to the summer 1622. Aiming for a return home following an ambitious and dangerous New World treasure expedition, a fleet of nearly 30 Spanish galleons are caught in the gnashing teeth of a hurricane (the storms weren’t given names and tracked on The Weather Channel back then) out in the Gulf of Mexico. Nine of the ships sink, and hundreds of people perish at sea, including several Spanish nobles. Also sinking to the briny depths of the ocean? Untold treasures, including emeralds, pearls, silver and gold coins and bars.
The loss was so severe that it crippled the Bank of Madrid and also helped sink the once-mighty Spanish Empire, which had been drowning in debt in recent years and was banking on the successful return of its commissioned treasure fleet.
Many, many years later, in 1985, an American treasure hunter named Mel Fisher discovered the wreckage of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha in the Florida Keys — culminating a 16-year personal search. One of the nine ships lost in the maelstrom back in 1622, it still housed an astonishing 40 tons of treasure, including Colombian emeralds and silver and gold bars. Many of those treasures were later placed up for auction in 2015, including an ornate gold spoon believed to have been used during Communion by Spanish priests looking to convert indigenous people of the New World.
More recently, in 2013, Florida deep-sea divers discovered the remains of the Buen Jesus y Nuestra Senora del Rosario, located some 400 miles off the Keys and 400 meters beneath the ocean’s surface. Another member of the sunken 1622 fleet, it was packed full of around 17,000 artifacts, including pearls, silver coins and gold bars.
This is just scratching the surface of the ocean when it comes to shipwrecks and lost treasures. In fact, it’s estimated that the global ocean floor is home to as many as three million shipwrecks — with untold billions of dollars’ worth of treasure sitting inside them, including scores of silver and gold coins and bars.
Fort Knox and the U.S. Federal Reserve
Now let’s return to the here. And now. Here in America, we invest heavily in security. And in 2020 America, a massive stash of gold bars is socked away in a few seriously secure locations.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York hosts a vault containing the world’s largest gold depository. Located a full 80 feet below street level, it is home to around 508,000 gold bullion bars weighing some 6,350 tons. The current estimate of these gold bars is at least $260 billion. That’s billions in bullions (say that fast five times). Since the current market value of a gold bar depends on several factors like weight and purity level, the New York Fed uses the United States’ official book value of $42.222 per troy-ounce for gold holdings. Most of the U.S. gold in the vault arrived during and after World War II, and the vast majority of the gold stored there belongs to 60 other foreign governments, central banks and international organizations.
Another famous home to gold (made infamous by the classic 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger) is Fort Knox, a U.S. Army post located 35 miles south of Louisville, Kentucky and home to the U.S. Bullion Depository. A certified Kentucky city in its own right, Fort Knox encompasses 109,000 acres across three counties, and its super-fortified vault building (officially known as the United States Bullion Depository) houses a large portion of the official U.S. gold reserves — along with other treasures belonging to or entrusted to the government. The fortress-like depository was completed in 1936, and its iron-clad underground vault is lined with granite walls and guarded by a blast-proof, 20-ton door. As of 2017, Fort Knox houses 4,582 metric tons – or 147.3 million troy-ounces – of gold. The market value of all that gold? Around $100 billion.
All told, the United States holds more gold than any other country — more than 8,100 metric tons. That’s close to 2.4 times the 3,400 metric tons of gold housed in Germany, the next leading country when it comes to gold supply.
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