Five months after an international crash in gold and silver prices buried thousands of local speculators, Washington area coin and metal merchants are reporting signs of a new, if low temperature, gold fever.
"I'm jammed up to my ears in customers," said the manager of a Gaithersburg coin shop yesterday. "Things are picking up."
Gold, which plummeted from a high of more than $700 an ounce to near $400 last March, has since climbed back to $650, once again leading cash-hungry customers to look upon family treasures with more shrewdness than sentiment.
"I'll never wear these again," said a man at Midas Coin Center in Annandale yesterday, preparing to sell the gold wedding bands from a "busted marriage."
At noon yesterday there were a dozen customers at the Annandale shop -- housewives, high school students and retired government workers.
"Inflation" was the one-word explanation given by Lester Lam for bringing a sack of old gold and silver coins he collected during World War II while fighting in Europe.
"You can see here I got a pretty good collection," the retired Falls Church carpenter said to a store employe who was interested only in the weight of the metal.
Lam and his wife, Yowleth, said they brought their treasure to Midas, rather than a more convenient coin shop, because of the store's recent advertising blitz.
"If you watch television at all, you'll see my ad," boasted Paul Sims, the 31-year-old co-owner of Midas as he sat in his office listening to the sweet jingle of his customers' coins.
Sims and his partner, George Ashby, a high school buddy from Richmond, have saturated the local market with radio, television and full-page newspaper ads costing a "few thousand dollars a day," and featuring actor Jim Backus of Gilligan's Island fame.
"Midas Pays More," shouts King Backs, who has been earning his doubloons promoting the two Midas Coin stores in Rockville and Annandale for the last few months.
Not all customers at Midas yesterday considered the prices offered to be regal enough.
"I paid $200 for these rings," said the recently divorced husband who left with his mementos rather than accept the $90 offered by one of the Midas salesmen.
"Look, this ring would cost you $1,500 in a jewlry store, but it has only $48 worth of gold in it," answered Sims, who said he sells most of the jewelry and silverware he buys to refiners in Richmond, New York and Zurich, who melt it down. "If you've got some expensive piece of hand-wrought jewelry, you're going to be disappointed."
Lester Lam seemed more relieved than disappointed after he refused to sell his coin collection "for junk-metal prices."
"I can tell you this: the figure they offered wasn't what I thought was equal to the advertising," said Lam, who emptied all 180 coins onto a shelf by the front of the store, then matched up dull gray coins with fondly remembered war stories for a reporter.
"I'll probably take it home," said Lam, pushing his collection into its sack," and put it away where it's been for the last 40 years."