Last week I went on a tour of the New York Federal Reserve Bank museum. Sadly we weren’t allowed to take photos, so you’ll have to imagine for yourself what $48,000,000 in shredded banknotes looks like, but we had an excellent guide, and I really enjoyed the visit – what follows is some hopefully-not-too-inaccurate notes of my personal highlights.

When the Federal Reserve act was passed in 1913, the country was divided into 12 areas, based on their population at the time, and these remain the divisions of the Federal Reserve banking system. Each of these locations has a code, beginning with 1A in the North East, and ending with 12L on the West Coast, and each banknote is marked with the number and letter of the division from which it originated. (Cue much rummaging through bank notes to see where they came from.)

The museum is located on the old bond sales floor, and boasts fine ironwork and Guastavino arches. The whole building was designed to be reminiscent of Renaissance Italian palazzi, and there is lots of interesting information about it on their website. They’re currently renovating the exhibits so this part felt a little disjointed, but it should be good once it’s finished, and our guide, Anna, did an excellent job explaining everything.

The gold vault is 80 feet below, and virtually impenetrable as it sits encased in Manhattan schist, with a substantial layer of steel above. The bedrock also provides a secure foundation, so the heavy gold bars can be stacked to the ceiling without sinking any further into the ground (apparently this is a problem for other banks which store gold, particularly on London’s soggy, sedimentary soil).

Deposits comprise around one quarter of the world’s gold reserves, and belong to 40 countries (individuals have to keep their gold elsewhere). Much of this is legacy gold – deposits which have been there for years, and likely to remain – as it is currently prohibitively expensive to move your gold around (another entry for my list of “would be nice to have” problems), but apparently occasionally some bars get moved from one vault to another as transactions take place elsewhere. If I recall correctly, the largest deposit has something like 107,000 bars of gold, and the smallest just 1. Only a little US gold is held here – most of that is stored elsewhere (e.g. Fort Knox).

The vault is protected by a multi-part security system, of which the centerpiece is the original nine-foot-tall, ninety-ton steel cylinder set within a 140-ton steel-and-concrete frame. A tunnel through the cylinder provides access, then each night it gets rotated to close the entrance and create an airtight and watertight seal within the frame. Walking through it was more exciting than I would have imagined, although the vault itself is somewhat disappointingly utilitarian.

Our visit was organized by a friend of mine who works at the Fed, but I see from the website that the museum tours are open to the general public (reservations required) – all the necessary is on their website, and I’d heartily recommend it.




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