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James U. Blanchard III, for years one of the nation's most prominent dealers in rare coins and precious metals, died March 19 of undetermined causes in his hometown of Metairie, La. He was 55.

"Jim" Blanchard rose to prominence as a "gold bug" in the early 1970s, when he lobbied Congress successfully to legalize private ownership of gold bullion. After more than 40 years, the ban was lifted on Dec. 31, 1974. Blanchard had gained national attention 23 months earlier when he arranged for a biplane to tow a banner proclaiming "Legalize Gold" over President Richard Nixon's inauguration in January 1973. Later, he dared the Treasury Department to throw him in jail for having a 2-ounce gold bar in his possession.

Once the gold restrictions were removed, Blanchard became a leading player in the tangible-assets marketplace, building James U. Blanchard & Co. into one of the nation's largest retailers of coins and precious metals. By the time he sold the business in 1988, its annual sales had reached $115 million.

Blanchard co-founded the Blanchard Group of Funds, which reportedly managed as much as $1.7 billion in investments at one point before being sold in 1995. He also was chairman of Jefferson Coin & Bullion Inc. in Louisiana, one of the largest coin investment firms in the nation.

For years, Blanchard organized annual investment conferences in New Orleans, where the speakers were as glittering as the gold they often discussed. Guest speakers included former President Gerald Ford, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, retired U.S. Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and Nobel Prize-winning economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. The conferences drew thousands of participants during the 1980s, but waned in popularity as inflation faded and the gold market stagnated.

In recent years, Blanchard devoted much of his time to a new passion: developing the largest privatized game preserve in the world. A company he founded several years ago won a contract to develop the preserve in the East African country of Mozambique, and plans called for spending $800 million to create 580,000 acres of parkland along the nation's Indian Ocean coastline. Blanchard reportedly had spent more than $1 million of his own money on the project.

Blanchard was a co-founder of the Industry Council for Tangible Assets and a member of the American Numismatic Association. He also was the author of several books, including his autobiography, "Confessions of a Gold Bug."

Survivors include his wife, Alexandra "Lesia" Lysyk Blanchard; two sons and a daughter. Private services were held March 23, with burial in Metairie Cemetery.