This summer, Americans have heard a lot about how the nation's money is in short supply. That's one reason why some rare money on display is drawing huge crowds.
The World's Fair of Money is under way in Chicago, showing off $20 gold coins worth millions and uncut sheets of $100,000 dollar bills accompanied by armed guards. Normally, this exhibit by the American Numismatic Association, held in different cities each year, lures 10,000 to 15,000 visitors.
But according to association spokesman Donn Pearlman, this year's show is on pace to attract even more. "There's a renewed interest in gold and tangible assets. More investors are showing up with the collectors. This is the gold, silver and bullion coin trading capital of the universe this week", says Pearlman.
And this city is in a "panic atmosphere," reports Scott Travers from the floor of the show. Travers, the author of "The Coin Collector's Survival Manual," tells ABC News: "I have never seen the type of feverish demand for gold coins that I am seeing at this show. People are fearful and want to protect what they have with hard money."
While the show includes rarities like a gold coin minted during the California Gold Rush and now valued at $15 million, more typical items like $20 gold coins from the 1920s are just as much the center of attention. They are seen as a smart investment, says Travers, because their value among collectors is about equal to the value of the ounce of gold that's in them, now around $1,863. "So there's very little downside to them. If gold goes down in value, collectors (who prize the coins for their beauty or historical significance) will still pay about that price. And if gold goes up in value, then the coins become worth even more." Travers says that "dealers at the show can't get enough product to keep up" with the frenzied demand.
The association's director, Larry Shepherd, also believes the record crowds are swelled by people "looking for safer places to put their money. They see that hard assets like silver and bullion and rare coins have gone the opposite way of more conventional assets" like stocks and bonds.
But history contributes to the value of these "hard assets" almost as much as the metal they are made of. The Smithsonian brought rare "high relief" gold coins to the show. They were minted early in the 20th century with such bold emblems on the surface that they could not be stacked and were quickly taken out of circulation, making some worth more than a million dollars today.
And those $100,000 bills? Well, you can't exactly put one in your wallet. They were printed in 1934 and used to transfer funds between federal reserve banks. Electronic fund transfers have now made them unnecessary, and they have been taken out of circulation. But they retain their face value and have come accompanied by armed Treasury guards. The temptation to fantasize about pulling one of those from your wallet is enhanced by the pulsing, orange psychedelic design on the back of the bills.
There's a hint of nostalgia in the show, too: a collection of currency issued by banks when those institutions were trusted enough to back money. They were called National Bank Notes and hundreds of banks around the country, if chartered by the U.S. government, put out bills with their names on them. So. for instance. there's $10 bills from the Hide and Leather National Bank of Chicago. Imagine forking that over for your cab ride.