Because they combine great value with small size and easy portability, rare coins hold special appeal for people who want to keep their wealth concealed and be able to move it around. Most of the time, these people's motivations are perfectly legitimate; they're reputable investors who wish to maintain low profiles. But the very same attributes that make coins attractive to legitimate investors and collectors have also caught the eye of profit-minded people on the wrong side of the law.

This is not a strictly modern-day phenomenon. Centuries ago, pirates hoarded coins in chests of buried treasure. In recent years, however, space-age criminals have found an updated way to use rare coins-and bullion coins, too-to their advantage. One of the most intriguing examples of this came to light in 1988, when Heritage Numismatic Auctions, Inc. of Dallas, one of the nation's largest and best-known coin auction companies, held a public sale featuring valuable gold coins that federal agents had confiscated from members of an international drug ring. The drug dealers had purchased large numbers of coins - rare coins and bullion coins, as well - to help conceal the proceeds from their illicit activities. They had transformed some of the coins, quite literally, into modern-day buried treasure by hiding them in underground caches.

Drug dealers arrested

To put the story in proper perspective, we have to go back two years earlier, when members of the drug ring were arrested on a variety of drug, racketeering, and taxevasion charges. Hoping to obtain lighter sentences, they agreed to a plea bargain - and part of that agreement called for them to forfeit their coins. Finding these coins wasn't a simple matter of going to one of the suspects' safety deposit box. The coins were hidden in three separate locations: buried in plastic bags beneath a Nebraska field, in a briefcase under a rock pile in the Colorado Rockies, and stashed on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

"It was very much like treasure hunting," said Thomas J. Dolan, one of the agents who coordinated the investigation for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. "Part of it was out in the guy's backyard, and we went in with a bulldozer and a map." One of the conspirators had drawn up a crude map showing the location of one hoard of gold coins buried by the ring in the small town of Crawford, Nebraska-population 1,320. The map said the coins could be found between two pine trees seventeen paces apart, and it showed a "white cliff with a crack" as a point of reference. The police found the coins just where the map said, sealed inside Tupperware containers. A second cache of coins was buried elsewhere on the property, but this one proved easier to unearth. A hole had already been dug at this site, then covered with a 2 X 10 board and mounds of earth. In Colorado, the conspirators apparently ran out of Tupperware. This time, the coins were found in a briefcase that was wedged in a rocky crevasse. The DEA had no trouble determining the owner: The briefcase was tagged with a United Airlines baggage claim check. One of the leaders of the drug cartel apparently had some knowledge of the coin market, for the treasure included a number of unusually rare and desirable items. Among the highlights:

  • A virtually complete set of Liberty Head double eagles ($20 gold pieces)
  • An almost complete set of Saint-Gaudens eagles ($10 gold pieces)
  • Dozens of early $10 gold pieces
  • Two high-relief 1907 double eagles
  • An 1879 stella (or $4 gold piece), a rare pattern coin worth tens of thousands of dollars

The bullion portion of the cache contained nearly $1 million worth of bullion-type gold coins and bars, including 1,132 Canadian Maple Leafs, 399 South African Krugerrands, 303 Russian Chervonets, and two 100-ounce bars. Heritage sold these items privately for the government at two auctions in October and December 1988, bringing approximately $2 million - well above presale expectations. This money was placed in the U.S. Treasury's general fund. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 empowers the DEA and other federal agencies to confiscate and sell any items which they believe were purchased with the proceeds of illegal activities, such as drug trafficking and racketeering. Often, the proceeds from such sales are shared on a pro-rata basis with state and local law-enforcement agencies who assist in making the arrests and seizures.