Treasure in the Cellar – A Tale of Gold in Depression-Era Baltimore by Leonard Augsburger is an in-depth account of the discovery of a cache of gold coins that was dug up by a pair of teenagers who were passing time playing in the basement of an east side Baltimore house in August of 1934.
The story was well-documented in newspapers at the time. The boys had turned the hoard over to the local police and from there the reporters ate up the story with a voracious appetite. The size of the hoard is almost difficult to contemplate. Not 100 or even 500 pieces of gold – imagine accidentally unearthing more than 3,500 gold coins from your basement crawl space.
The book uncovers details that the newspapers never pursued after the excitement of the discovery wore off. What ultimately happened to the gold? What happened to the boys after the discovery? Where did the gold come from?
Naturally, once the gold was put in the hands of the authorities, there would be lawyers and trials. As the author explains, “It was not a simple case of finder’s keepers.”
Augsburger’s extensive research and organized writing walks the reader through all of the litigation with ease. I stayed engaged without the “yawn factor” that legal speak can often induce. The proceedings are intriguing, and when a surprise second find is introduced the web becomes more tangled.
We get mini biographies of all the players: the boys – Theodore and Henry – and their hard-luck mothers, their capable and persistent attorney, and the intelligent maverick judge whose interpretations of the arguments were often witty and to the point. We hear testimony from all sides making claims to the treasure trove, including the land owners from the distant past, some of their fringe descendants and the present landladies.
History plays a major role in the story and Augsburger well describes a view of Baltimore during the depression, the economy and history of the times. He offers a concise, understandable explanation of the gold recall and banking system in the 1930s under Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also portrays the mind set of the citizens and division of Baltimore during the Civil War, near the time when the treasure was believed to have been buried.
Throughout the book the numismatist is tantalized with the prospect of encountering such a find. The hoard was eventually sorted out by a local dealer, inventoried and auctioned. More than $11,000 in face value, the coins are aptly charted by denomination, date and mint. The author describes the dealer, the collecting climate of the time and the auction, which was a lackluster affair that garnered only about twice face value. If the treasure was sold in one of the auction events of 2008, the final tally would be in the tens of millions.
I enjoyed some of the author’s descriptive language. For instance, when explaining the moment of discovery, Augsburger writes, “Theodore struck it with a hammer, and the pot heaved its last breath, disgorging thousands of gold coins … ”
At just over 200 pages it is a relatively fast read that is written well, peppered with many photos and structured so that it is hard to put down. A thoroughly enjoyable book right from the cover, with its catchy title and corny publicity photo of the boys recreating the “Eureka!” moment. In a word, this book is gold.
There are copious appendices and notes drawn from many sources including the Maryland Historical Society Archives, Baltimore Circuit City Court, and the United States National Archives. I recommend it for the numismatist and non-numismatist alike.