ROME- Massimiliano Barrotta is seeing a surge in customers coming to sell their gold in his Rome store as Italians feel the economic pain of their government's lockdown, imposed to curb one of the world's worst COVID-19 epidemics.
The eight-week shutdown has been gradually eased since May 4, but it has left an economy on its knees, with businesses laden with debt and tens of thousands of new unemployed. The European Commission expects Italy's economy to shrink by nearly 10% this year.
"We have seen an increase of about 50% in our purchases of gold from private customers this year, particularly in the last two weeks," Barrotta, the manager of three "Compro Oro" (I buy gold) shops, told Reuters.
Gold stores, which number around 6,000 nationwide, according to sector watchdog OAS, sprang up during Italy's last deep recession in 2012, as people struggling to survive sold everything from wedding rings to gold teeth.
However, they are not the only option for hard-pressed Italians. Pawn shops, where people sell their trinkets or use them as collateral for loans, are much less widespread, but they are also now doing a brisk trade.
"I'm still paying for the house where I live with my wife. Life is expensive, the mortgage is high, what can we do" said pensioner Nazareno Bucchi as he left the Affide pawn shop in Piazza Monte di Pieta, a central Rome square famous for its pawnbrokers since the 17th century.
The gold market is not just about the poor selling off family heirlooms.
Considered as a safe asset in times of turmoil, the precious metal is also seeing a big increase in buyers, fuelling a recent rise in its value.
Barrotta said that in the last two months demand for gold bars and coins in his store, which continued operating online during the lockdown, has increased by 50% compared to last year, although the price per gram has risen 25% since December.
An Italian who invested in gold over the last month and asked to remain anonymous said he had just bought a couple of coins from the British Mint, part of the Queen's Beast collection inspired by heraldic ancestral beasts.
"I used to buy these coins at around 1,100 euros ($1,202.41 ) each. Now they cost some 1,700 euros", he said. ($1 = 0.9148 euros)
(Writing by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Gareth Jones) ((Angelo.Amante@thomsonreuters.com;))