‘What about the gold?’ ‘Um, what gold?’

The small bag of gold found by the University of Colorado Boulder Division of Continuing Education during a 1998 relocation.

By Clay Evans

There’s gold in them thar drawers. Or there was, until recently, at the University of Colorado Boulder Division of Continuing Education.

When Bernadette Rochell retired as director of budget and finance, one of her staff members stumped her with a curious question: What should we do with the gold?

Gold? What gold?

It turned out that in December 1998, when the division was making a chaotic move from two decrepit cottages in the Grandview Terrace area into a converted fraternity, someone clearing out a desk drawer had happened upon a small plastic bag filled with what appeared to be gold flakes, marked “2 oz #16 Alaskan $580.00.”

“I said, ‘Let’s throw it in the safe’ and then, frankly, I promptly forgot about it,” says Anne K. Heinz, dean of continuing education.

Now, 15 years later, her memory jogged, she gave the task of figuring out ownership of the gold to the new director of budget and finance, Nate Bindel, as one of his first assignments. He took it up the line and eventually CU legal and financial officials ruled that the school could put the gold up for sale to benefit its programs.

“They determined it was not ‘abandoned property,’ but CU-Boulder property, since there was no manner of identifying the owner,” Heinz says.

Of course, at that point everyone was simply taking it on faith that the substance was, as labeled, real gold. But when you work at a major research university with a highly regarded geological sciences program, finding someone to confirm that isn’t too hard.

Enter Fredrick Luiszer, head of the Laboratory of Environmental and Geological Studies, who had been contacted by department Chairman Lang Farmer about determining the makeup of the alleged gold.

“It was amazing how small two Troy ounces was; just a small tablespoon,” he says.

Luiszer took a tiny fragment of the substance — “I calculated that it was worth maybe $1.50” — and began the process by dissolving it in Aqua Regia, a highly corrosive acid mixture. Then he used a peristaltic pump to “nebulize” the resulting liquid into vapor, which was then run through a plasma flame (“It’s like a concentrated microwave,” he says) burning at an astounding 8,000 degrees Kelvin — some 37 percent hotter than the surface of the sun. Electrons from the resulting ionized gas gave off light waves, which were measured by the lab’s spectrometer.

“I determined that it was around 90 percent gold,” he says.

Now it was time to sell. Heinz contacted CU-Boulder alum Daryl Mercer, who has owned Tebo Coin Company since 1978. Mercer said he would sell the gold for no commission and sent it to a gold processer in Texas to conduct a formal assay.

In the assay process, the substance was melted down, drilled and analyzed. The sample was mostly gold, all right, with a little silver.

“So they presented us a check for $2,653.72,” Heinz says.

For the record, that little bag of CU gold appreciated by 457 percent during its time in desk drawers and a safe at Continuing Education. Heinz says the proceeds will fund small scholarships for summer session.

“It’s a fascinating story,” Luiszer says. “Something about gold tweaks people’s imaginations. Very few people are not fascinated by the glitter of gold.”

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