The U.S. Marshals Service will hold its final auction of Silk Road bitcoins on Nov. 5. Silk Road was an underground website used to buy and sell drugs, among other things.
The marshals seized 44,341 bitcoins from the site’s owner, and they’ve been snapped up in a series of auctions. It makes you wonder, who owns the most bitcoins?
It’s a simple question with a complicated answer.
First, let’s get one thing straight. The Marshals Service did not become the world’s biggest bitcoin owner when it seized the Silk Road bitcoin.
“Almost certainly not,” said Peter Van Valkenburgh, director of research at Coin Center, a think tank and bitcoin advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
Van Valkenburgh said it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to say who owns the most bitcoins. Bitcoin ownership has to be looked at in a broader sense — groups.
Van Valkenburgh said the earliest bitcoin makers probably still own a bunch.
“When this technology was new, it was a lot of garage innovators who were just playing around with something on their PC,” he said. “And a lot of those people ended up holding a lot of the bitcoin.”
Other big bitcoin holders: hedge funds. They invest in bitcoins themselves or hold them for clients.
“Individual investors and some institutional investors chose to hold the bitcoins through these entities,” said Gil Luria, a managing director at Wedbush Securities. “So these entities own a lot of bitcoin directly.”
But exactly how much — who knows? Which, of course, is the point of bitcoin.
“The anonymous nature — or largely anonymous nature — of bitcoin, is what makes it particularly attractive.” said Andy Schmidt, a principal executive adviser at CEB TowerGroup who follows bitcoin.
Notice Schmidt said largely anonymous. The U.S. government can track bitcoin owners down. It’s hard, but not impossible. Just ask the owner of Silk Road.