Mink rubbed elbows with corduroy, blue jeans mingled with silk and big spenders waited behind little old ladies as crowds surged into Deak-Pereka's downtown office yesterday to buy and sell gold and silver.
Some came with their life savings, other with pensions and windfalls stuffed into handbags, pockets, battered boxes and medicine jars, as prices for the metals rose to historic levels yesterday.
"I was told 10 years ago to buy gold, and I didn't," said the bearded, blue-jeans-clad owner of a Georgetown liquor store. He patiently waited more than two hours in line at the office at 18th and K streets NW to buy $2,000 in the metals. "I learned my lesson. The person who told me [10 years ago] is now a millionaire."
But all that glittered yesterday was not gold. A lot of it was silver. Michael Checkan, a Deak-Perea vice president, said, "We've been selling more silver over the last week than gold."
Many of the people said they had never traded in gold and silver before, but the current surge in prices was too much to pass up in New York, the price of gold jumped $50 to $612.50 an ounce.
One elderly woman, huddled outside of the Deak office, said she planned to return the next day with her sterling silver Art-Deco handbag from the 1930s. She refused to go in yesterday. "I wouldn't go in this madhouse," she said.
One of her peers, however, was inside at the Deak counter, ready to trade. He opened a small cardboard box and emptied seven $10 rolls of quarters and a prescription bottle filled with 24 half dollars.
"I was collecting coins because I like to collect them," said Benjamin Blanken, a retired jewelry store executive. "I still have some that I've kept, but I have some duplicates here. These are not coins that are valuable because of their age. They're valuable for their silver."
While Blanken traded, others waited, including one mother with two small children, and a number of workers who took off time from jobs to make a bundle, they said. Lines at times extended outside of the office.
Gary Greenwald, a recent Potomac School of Law graduate, roamed the office lobby with hands at his sides, protecting the more than 40 South African gold Krugerrands jammed in the pockets of his pin-striped suit. Greenwald approached several persons waiting in line and quietly offered to give them a deal by selling them his coins at the market price, so they would not have to pay Deak's price, which includes a 6 percent premium.
Greenwald said he bought the coins in Atlanta several months ago when they sold for 240 and 244. "I really never did this before," Greenwald said. He said yesterday he plans to earn about $15,000 with the coins and invest it in the stock market. Greenwald found several customers in the Deak-Perera line.
Many of the Deak customers were interested in buying silver, which is cheaper than gold. But most metals dealers were out of silver bars and have had difficulty obtaining them for the last two weeks, according to Checkan of Deak's. Some customers had to settle for "junk silver," a term in the trade for silver coins minted before 1964.
The silver content of coins is not as pure as that in bars. Coins minted after 1964 contain even less pure silver than pre-1964 coins.
The scene was just as frantic at other Washington area coin shops. Silver was particularly popular, shop operators reported. "People are buying just about any silver they can get their hands on," said Gene Riffle, manager of the Maryland Coin Exchange in Silver Spring.
"Rising prices have whipped people into a franzy," he said.
Reffle's store was so busy yesterday that he locked the door at one point to keep the crowd of customers inside to a manageable size. As some left, others were allowed in.
One customer bought 52 silver bars at 1 p.m. yesterday from Riffle at a price of $40 for each one-ounce bar. "I was over the market," Riffle said. He said silver was selling for only $39.30 an ounce when he made the deal. The customer paid for his silver with a cashier's check and walked out carrying the silver bars, which are about the size of a match box, in a paper sack.
Bache Halsey Stuart Shields Inc., an investment company that sells gold and silver, reported that telephone calls from interested buyers were up substantially yesterday. Many of the callers wanted to know if they could buy silver coins and silver bars, an official said.
At L. Lucien Birkler & Co., a coin dealer in downtown Washington employes sat behind their desk and counted out dimes, quarters and half dollars. One customer in a pullover sweater and cropped grey hair helped employe Karen McLane stack the money into neat rows.
When they finished they had $230.75 in silver coins on the desk -- at least that was the face value of the coins. Because these coins were minted before 1964, when the silver standard for coins changed, the value of the $230 worth of coins at today's silver price is $6,000.
McLane said that each dollar in pre-1964 coin is now worth $26.
The man, who declined to give his name, pulled a brown envelope from his pocket and counted out $6,000 in cash to pay for the purchase. He asked for a break on the sales tax but didn't get it. But he did get the other thing he requested -- a leftover brown sack from a liquor store to hold the coins for the trip home.
"Silver is more liquid," observed a Washington lawyer who stood in line with his wife at Deak's. "It's always a gamble.It's like gambling on the horses because you don't know whether the price is going to go up or down."
After a while, the tiny office took on the quiet hum of amateur investment counselors, as a greenhorn traders asked each other for advice on how high the prices would go eventually and what they should buy. One blue-jeaned worker with shoulder-length blond hair bought one Krugerrand. He said he invested more than $600 in the coin because, "everyone's buying them" and "we're going to war. There will be a five-year buildup, then we're going to war."
Another customer, clutching a handful of $1,000 bills, gave a simpler answer, "I was getting 5 percent interest on my savings account and I thought it was ridiculous."