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Below Sea Level, US Stands Guard on Gold

`WE'VE never had a pile tumble over," says "Bill," pointing to a massive stack of metallic gold bars stacked 10 feet high.

Bill is the gatekeeper for the underground gold storage vault of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where the United States maintains massive gold reserves. It is one of the world's most secure safe-deposit vaults. Some 80 central banks and international monetary organizations store gold here. The gold has a market value of about $120 billion.

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Nations used to physically shift the gold bars between piles when a country owed another some money. But that no longer happens, Bill says. Now the gold is usually removed and converted into cash. The bank provides free storage; the only service charge is when bars are moved. Cost? $1.75 a bar.

The vault is 80 feet below sea level on the bedrock of Manhattan Island. Just to get into the vault requires walking through a maze right out of an Indiana Jones movie. The passageway is cut through a specially balanced nine-foot tall, 90-ton steel cylinder that revolves vertically in a steel and concrete frame weighing 140-tons.

Bill hands me a 27-pound gold bar. It has a market value in excess of $150,000. Was one ever lost? Bill says no. But he remembers a story he heard about a moving man for an overseas central bank who supposedly used one as a doorstop - and then drove away. The central bank found the "doorstop" months later, still next to the door, which suggests that most people might not recognize a 27-pound, $150,000-plus gold bar if they found one.

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