There was great excitement and wide public interest recently when the U.S. Treasury Department announced plans to redesign all or part of three different paper money denominations – the $5, $10 and $20 bills – during the next decade-and-a-half.   

The changes will touch the lives of virtually every American, and could stir substantial new activity in the buying and selling of collectible U.S. currency.

But the currency changes won’t take effect for a while, since the Treasury needs time to prepare the new portraiture and fine-tune security features. (Noting that Alexander Hamilton will continue to appear on the $10 bill, while Andrew Jackson will be down-sized on the $20, The Wall Street Journal commented that Hamilton, who died in a dual “dodged the bullet” this time.)    

Another exciting story – one with much more immediate and greater potential implications for millions of Americans – is unfolding right now in the precious metals market.

In the first fourth months of 2016, gold rose from $1,060 an ounce to $1,293, finishing April at its highest point since Jan. 27, 2015, a span of over 15 months. That’s an increase of 22 percent. Meanwhile, silver surged during the same period from $13.82 an ounce to $17.87 – a jump of over 29 percent. By contrast, the major stock indexes were up only 1 to 2 percent in this year’s first four months.

Far from discouraging investors and collectors from purchasing gold and silver in bullion and collectible forms, this triggered a burst of new buying activity.

In the first four months of 2016, the Mint sold 351,000 ounces of gold American Eagle bullion coins – exactly twice the amount it sold during the same time frame last year. And April sales were the strongest of all, accounting for 105,000 ounces. That’s a remarkable 256 percent increase over April sales in 2015, which totaled just 29,500 ounces.

On April 21, the Mint sold the entire 125,000 – coin mintage of the 2016 gold “Mercury” dime replica – and did so in a matter of minutes. To some extent, this resulted from massive purchases of 10-coin boxes by profit-minded dealers. But it also reflected heightened interest in gold and gold products from investors and collectors, as well as dealers’ confidence they could find buyers for the coins.       

In retrospect, it would have been fairer if the Mint had reduced the ordering limit from 10 sets per address to just five. That would have boosted the likelihood that ordinary collectors could have bought more of the coins from the Mint, rather than paying strong premiums in the secondary market.

As the least expensive of the three gold replicas of 1916 silver coins the Mint plans to market this year, the dime figured to draw the most orders. It appears the Mint didn’t give this factor sufficient weight.    

The quick sellout left many collectors out in the cold and gave rise to many critical posts in Internet chat rooms. It will be interesting to see how the Mint might modify its approach when it offers gold replicas of the two other coins – the Standing Liberty quarter and the Walking Liberty half dollar – later this year.    

If you’re giving serious thought to jumping on the precious metal bandwagon, a word of caution is in order: All that glitters is, quite literally, not real gold.

In recent months, counterfeit gold and silver coins and bars – generally containing little or no precious metal – have turned up in the marketplace with alarming frequency. The influx began a couple of years ago and has gained momentum during the last year. American Eagles are particular favorites of the fake-makers, but many popular bullion products are appearing regularly.      

Most of the fakes are coming from China, which appears to have replaced the Middle East, especially Lebanon, as the principal supplier of such material. Often, they come in deceptive counterfeit packaging designed to reinforce their credibility.  

Buying gold products, including bullion coins, can be an expensive proposition, with many perils for the unwary. First-time gold buyers should arm themselves with as much knowledge as possible and learn more about the sellers whose ads have attracted their attention. Dealing with reputable, well-established dealers is a great form of protection.

By the way, China is also a primary source of counterfeit paper money. Unless I miss my guess, prolific Chinese forgers are studying photos of Harriet Tubman – the woman whose image will eventually appear on the $20 – even now.