The Barney Kaplan Gold Coin Story
A true story just as it happened
Written 10/2011 rewritten 5/14/2016 unedited
I was reminded about this gold coin story, when I happened to see about fifteen gold colored coins sitting in an ashtray in my office in Miami. The gold colored coins were about the size of a United States quarter, but they were a little thinner than a quarter and they had a more copper than gold color.
It was sometimes around 1975, when I was in Detroit Michigan, I had gone there to do business with a friend named Barney Kaplan, his business of supplying excess and surplus merchandise was located on South Wabash Street in Detroit.
I had met Barney, by our doing a bit of detective work. My partner Don and I had started a new division of our company in Miami. We called it “API Marine Inc,” and our main product was the rebuilding starters and generators for marine outboard engines.
At the time, in 1975, our main source of outboard starter parts was the Prestolite Company, located in Toledo Ohio, and their marine starter manufacturing factory being located in Syracuse New York. Our growth with API Marine was hampered by the fact we couldn’t find enough economical parts to rebuild the starters, so we started looking for who was buying all the excess and surplus from the Prestolite Company.
After a bit of detective work we were led to believe that it was a company located in Detroit, but we didn’t have any idea as to who it could be.
It was in late 1975, when my partner Don, was traveling, to Detroit and calling on all our marine distributors. So, one evening, he called me from his hotel room in Detroit, and I asked him to look in the phone book to see if there were any surplus dealers advertising there, Don did look, and that’s how we found Barney Kaplan Surplus.
Barney Kaplan invited us to come to visit him at his warehouse, so I caught the next flight to Detroit, and met my partner Don at the Detroit airport. We rented a car and drove to Barney Kaplan’s warehouse on South Wabash.
It was an amazing place, we found that Barney was a true entrepreneur, and he was sort of like a hoarder, someone who bought and sold all kinds of new and used automotive surplus, and of all things he happened to specialize in marine electrical, which was exactly our business.
Barney, being located in Detroit, which at the time was the automotive and industrial parts capital of the United States, he was constantly bombarded with all kinds of surplus and excess material that most people never knew existed. So we found that a lot of what Barney had in his stock was the perfectly good merchandise that were left over and thrown away by various manufacturers.
Barney’s warehouse was absolutely filled with so many items, we wonder if he even remembered everything that he had, because he had no computer or inventory control system, he just depended on remembering everything he had and where he put it.
When Barney told us he was buying all the excess from the Prestolite Company, we knew that he was exactly what we needed. He told us that he was the kind of guy that could never pass up what he thought was a good deal, even if he didn’t have a customer for it. So after seeing Barney’s inventory he didn’t have to encouraged us to do business with him, we immediately started buying parts for both our marine rebuilding business, as well as our growing export business in Miami, and I started flying up to Barney’s place in Detroit, about four times a year to pick out all the items that we needed. This meant I was personally rummaging through Barney’s entire stock every time I came to Detroit.
One day, while I was in Barney’s warehouse, I was walking around to see what new kind of stuff he had recently purchased, and I found myself in one of his buildings back rooms that had lots of fifty five gallon drums all filled with interesting parts.
As I was rummaging through one of the barrels and I removed a cardboard box to see what was below it, and under the box, appeared to be, thousands of bright, gold colored coins. The barrel was about three quarters full of them, so I took out a handful and studied them.
Each coin had an image of a different State of the United States imprinted on one side as well as the name of the state, and it explained what the state was famous for. The opposite side of the coin it had the states name, and when it was admitted to the union, it had the states capital, the states flower, and the state bird.
The coins were really neat, they looked bright, and they looked very valuable, so I dug out a handful and immediately ran to Barney’s office with them. I thought that perhaps Barney didn’t know he had a hidden treasure in his building.
“I see you found my coins,” Barney said, He then told me the story about how he was in a local Detroit scrap metal dealers building, and noticed the coins. The dealer had just bought the coins for scrap copper prices. Barney said he became fascinated with them, because they looked like real money, so he bought the whole barrel of coins for the price of scrap, by the pound.
Barney told me the coins, once were part of a promotional program that Shell Oil Company had come up with, but they had eventually decided to give the program up, before it even got started. Shell Oil had already had a coin made for every one of the forty eight states and they were going to give them away at their gas stations, hoping that people would want to keep coming back to collect the entire set.
Barney said, he had owned the coins for about a year, and was having tons of fun with them. He said he carried the coins in his pocket and gave them to little kids whenever he had the opportunity. He also said that he had a lot of fun at all the airports, when he was traveling. Barney had the habit of checking for money at every pay telephone as he walked by them. He did this by sticking his finger in the little coin return box. But once he had the shiny Shell Oil Company coins, he started placing one coin in the coin return of every telephone he passed at the airport. Sometimes he sat down to watch the expression on the faces of the people when they found the special coin in the telephone. Then Barney said, “Take some coins back to Miami, you will have a load of fun with them.” So I found an empty coffee tin and filled it up with several hundred of Barney’s coins. I couldn’t wait for them to arrive in Miami so I could sort through them to see if I had all the states.
The following week my partner Don and I were leaving for San Jose Costa Rica to call on our export customers there, so I took a pocketful of the coins with me to have a little fun with them. The first evening we were there, an opportunity presented itself, our balcony was right above the giant swimming pool so I threw several coins into the pool.
In the morning, I awoke to hear a loud fight going on outside. Several of the grounds keepers were fighting over the coins that I had thrown in the pool. I had created a real problem, everyone was diving in the pool and fighting each other over what they thought were real gold coins.
That evening, Don and I took a taxi to a restaurant located in downtown San Jose. Our driver was a regular guy that we used all the time when we were calling on customers. He parked in front of the restaurant, and there was a parking meter there. I saw him grumbling and sorting through the coins in his pocket looking for a fifty centavo coin. I got out of the cab, to take a look at what the meter said, and then I tried one of Barney’s fake gold coins, and it worked perfectly. The cab driver was astounded, and so were we, the coin was the exact size of a fifty centavo coin in Costa Rica, so I gave him a handful.
On our next sales trip, my partner and I were calling on customers in Cancun Mexico. I had brought a pocket full of Barney’s coins with me just in case they fit something there. As we were at the tourist port, we saw a cruise ship that was anchored there, and there was a big crowd on the ship throwing coins into the water and the Mexican kids were diving for them.
I couldn’t resist, and I threw in a handful of Barneys coins, in the ocean, and it nearly caused a riot. The kids thinking they were gold wanted to kill each other to get them. That’s when my partner Don and I quietly exited the area before anyone said anything to us. That’s when I started to have second thoughts about playing with the coins considering the trouble they could cause, but, like Barney, I couldn’t resist fooling around with them.
The following year I took my family on a vacation trip to Port Au Prince, Haiti, and while we were vacationing there, we took a local taxi on a trip into the mountains. When we reached the top of the mountain there were lots of native vendors selling novelties like paintings, wood carvings and other kinds of tourist trinkets.
Our taxi stopped, and immediately we were surrounded with vendors. My kids picked out a couple of small wooden trinkets, and after much haggling over the price, I reached into my pocket to get some change. Mixed in with my coins were some of the Barney Kaplan’s coins, so as all the vendors were sticking their hands in the taxi windows, I handed out a few of the coins. It appeared everyone wanted one, I think they thought they were really gold
As we started to drive away, I saw several of the natives biting the coins with their teeth testing them for gold. The next thing I knew they were throwing the coins back at us. A couple of them nearly broke our cabs window. I could clearly see all the vendor’s faces, and they weren’t happy.
When we got back to Miami, I got to thinking, about how much trouble the coins were causing, so I gave most all the coins away. I kept about 15, and put them in an ashtray on a shelf in the office, and there they sat until today, so when I saw them, I wrote this story.
I remember, whenever Barney and I traveled together, Barney always carried some of the coins in his pocket giving one or two away every time he saw a child. He said the coins were the best thing he had ever bought.When Barney passed on at age 96 in 2014, his sons Jerry and Larry told me they put some of the coins in his pocket, so he could hand them out.