Commodities

A Gold Hoarder's Legacy


A Gold Hoarder's Legacy

Photo illustration by Darren Braun for Bloomberg Businessweek

Walter Samaszko Jr. was not a guy who wanted company. He covered the windows of his house in Carson City, Nev., with cardboard so the neighbors couldn’t see inside. He made the postman stick the mail through the slot in his garage rather than coming to the front door. He was so good at keeping people away that when he died of heart failure at age 69 in June, nobody noticed until his house began to smell. Someone called the sheriff’s department. A hazmat team removed Samaszko along with part of the floor he was stuck to.

That’s when everybody found out why he hadn’t been more sociable: The dour, white-haired recluse had been hoarding $7 million worth of gold coins, most of them hidden in the crawl space beneath the house. Some were in an old washing machine. There were British sovereigns dating back to the 1840s, Austrian ducats, and South African Kruggerands. But mostly Samaszko had collected rolls and rolls of $20 American gold pieces, the kind with double eagles on them. He also had $12,000 in cash, a stock account worth $165,000—and $200 in the bank.

The person who discovered Samaszko’s secret was Jeri Vine, a local real estate broker hired to clean up his house. She spent five days combing through his possessions. Samaszko had been prepared for the worst. He owned several guns, gas masks, and survivalist manuals. His cupboards were filled with canned tuna fish. He had a lot of Johnny Mathis tapes. Vine threw most of it out. “We had like a 33-yard dumpster on the driveway,” she says. “I filled that thing.”

On the fourth day, Vine opened a metal ammunition box in the garage. It was full of gold coins in plastic cases. She called Alan Glover, the public administrator of Carson City. “Alan, get over here immediately!” she told him. “There’s so much money it’s unbelievable.” The sheriff’s department returned to the house, this time with metal detectors. It took Glover and three attorneys two days to count all the coins. With the help of a numismatic expert, they determined that Samaszko’s clutch was worth $7 million. The gold is being stored in a vault in Reno until a local probate court judge decides its fate.

Samaszko may have been prepared for a societal collapse, but not for his own end. He had no will. Nor did he have any children. Glover was able to locate a first cousin, Arlene Magdanz, a part-time teacher in San Rafael, Calif., who hadn’t seen him in years. Glover expects the probate court to release the fortune to Magdanz after the IRS extracts its cut. (He estimates the federal government’s take will be about $800,000.)

The tale of the elderly recluse who turned out to be a millionaire became a brief sensation, with Vine and Glover appearing on the Today show.

Vine eventually sold Samaszko’s house for an undisclosed price. Some prospective buyers just wanted to see if there was any more gold hidden there. “One guy had his contractor friend go underneath the house,” Vine says. “I told him we went through that place with a fine-toothed comb. Never heard from him again.”

It’s easy to see why Samaszko’s death and the revelations that followed fascinate people. How many of us would have kept $7 million in a crawl space and not touched it? It makes you wonder what other secrets died with him.

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Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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