Buried treasure: in clay jars or tin cans

A remarkable story came out of California this week: a couple found a cache of gold coins buried on their property. The coins date to the state’s Gold Rush era, so their value far exceeds their $27,000 face value. Because of their rarity, they may fetch $10 million or more when sold to collectors, according to David McCarthy, chief numismatist for Kagin Inc., which appraised the find. He dubbed the collection the Saddle Ridge Hoard, after the name the owners have for that piece of their property.

 The coins, in $5, $10 and $20 denominations, were stored more or less in chronological order in six cans, McCarthy said, with the 1840s and 1850s pieces going into one can until it was filed, then new coins going into the next one and the next one after that. The dates and the method indicated that whoever put them there was using the ground as their personal bank and that they weren’t swooped up all at once in a robbery.

More about the Saddle Ridge Hoard.

© fullempty - Fotolia.com

© fullempty – Fotolia.com

This is a great boon to the landowners, but I am thinking about the hoarder. Almost two hundred years ago, this person started burying his money in the ground, a little bit at a time, just as if he were making regular savings account deposits.

What was he saving it for? Why did he not spend it on improvements to his home, or additional land, or a college education for his kids or…something?

If he was saving toward a particular goal—maybe he wanted to start his own railroad and was amassing start-up capital—why wasn’t his money in a bank earning interest?

See, I’m a capitalist, and I know that money is only money if it’s in circulation. If it’s buried in the dirt, it’s just hunks of metal. This is not a modern concept. It dates to ancient times. Remember the servant who was reprimanded for burying his master’s money in the ground:

Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.—Luke 19:23

On the one hand, I appreciate that a 174-year sojourn in the ground turned $27,000 into $10 million. But had that money been put into circulation for 174 years, what might have happened? Even if he wasted it on wine and women, the winery might have expanded, employing more people and becoming a leader in Napa Valley exports. The women might have put their kids through school, breaking the cycle of poverty.

I’m not arguing against saving. I’m arguing against hoarding. There’s a difference. The hoarder benefited no one in his lifetime, least of all himself. But when we save by investing, we benefit ourselves in the form of interest (even though rates are so low now as to not even compensate for inflation) and the broader economy by providing liquidity.

I’m getting dangerously close to sounding like a central banker.

Let me pull back. My point is that while most readers of this story probably went into “Wow, what would I do with $10 million?” mode, I went into “Wow, what a colossal waste of resources.” Because leaving your gold—or talent, or any other resource—buried in the ground until you’re dead does nothing for the world. Had those tin cans stayed buried, the world would be a poorer place.

And I’m not just talking about the money. The story itself is a treasure, if only for what it has to teach us about storing up treasures on earth.

UPDATE: Possible legal consequences, not to mention a tax burden.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

2 comments on “Buried treasure: in clay jars or tin cans

  1. “Even if he wasted it on wine and women, the winery might have expanded, employing more people and becoming a leader in Napa Valley exports. The women might have put their kids through school, breaking the cycle of poverty.”

    Love how your mind works.

    The parable of the (wasted) talents has always haunted me. “I won’t be that guy” was how I felt every time I heard it. Within the past decade or so though, I’ve begun to wonder what was going through the servant’s mind. Was he succumbing only to fear? Did he know it?

    It’s also easy to think of this only in terms of our big talent (writing for a lot of us). But it could be our simple presence and actions in the lives of others. For instance, getting so bogged down in our own problems might keep us from sowing a smile, a word of encouragement or some other act of love (a gold coin) in someone else’s life.

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