by Terry Wieland
As the stock market resumed its intermittent plunge last week, John Authers, a long-time columnist with the Financial Times and now with Bloomberg, offered, almost as an afterthought, a way to guard against the inflation that’s becoming an ever greater fear.
“You might consider,” he wrote, “Commodities.”
Commodities? Like gold? Like wheat futures? Pork bellies? Yep, those and more. Commodities, as in “real stuff” as opposed to, say, non-fungible tokens (NFT) and crypto-currencies, which at that moment were busy racing each other to the bottom and show no signs of coming up for air.
In the better part of half a century watching the financial world’s ups and downs, I’ve learned two things about commodities like wheat, gold, and oil: One, they can go up so fast you can’t catch them; second, they can be an easy way to lose your shirt and then stay down for a long, long time. In 1999, before the dot-com bubble burst, anyone with money in commodities was seen as right up there with those who’d staked it all on buggy whips and bell-bottoms. Then, guess what? Pets.com turned to dust, the jetliners hit the twin towers, and oil and gold were riding high.
Things can turn in an instant. In 1971, I got a worm’s eye view of what happens. I was in Uganda, living from hand to mouth, when Richard Nixon abandoned the gold standard, unpegged the dollar, and threw foreign-exchange markets into chaos. Since editors weren’t buying Uganda stories that season, my eating regularly depended mostly on small-time black-marketing in currency. (Idi Amin had just seized power and not yet become a foreign-editor’s pin-up boy.)
Suddenly, a fistful of Uganda shillings, worth not much before, was suddenly worth much less, if you could even find a buyer. Worse, my M.O. depended on the time lag between transactions taking place and flimsy paper receipts finding their way to the counting desks of the central bank. It was a tense time there for a while, and in the end I found myself P.I.’ed (Prohibited Immigrant, big “PI” in your passport, with a black bar through it) and escorted to the airport. It was fun while it lasted.
I left Uganda with a 22-karat gold bracelet, shaped like a cobra, with rubies for eyes, hanging from my neck on a leather thong. Customs never thought to look there. Between my Tudor watch (cousin to the Rolex) and the gold bracelet, and a couple of friendly crooks with money to lend, I made my way home. Fortunately, I acquired the bracelet before the Nixon bombshell; the price of gold began to soar immediately and the formerly friendly Asian gold merchants in Kampala were instantly hedging their bets.
All of this is relevant because what we were engaged in was life and death: Death by starvation on my part, death by not escaping Uganda on theirs, and it all depended on commodities which are routinely traded and seen, by most, as just numbers on a screen. They were more than numbers to us.
Which brings me back to putting money into commodities today. Al Stewart’s “Running Man” — “false name inside the passport, the gold bars and the gun” — was investing in commodities. We’ll consider the passport a work of art, comparable to a minor Renoir but, in certain circumstances, worth more, and we’ve already dealt with gold. Which leaves guns.
Unlike tulips in Amsterdam in 1635, or limited-edition plates issued in 1975, guns as historical artefacts have both historical and collector value, and hard uses. Al Stewart’s fugitive’s gun could be a Singer-made 1911, in which case he could use it to plug his pursuers or pawn it for $5,000. As investments go, that’s real value.
There was a fine example — three, actually — at Rock Island’s auction in May. Three Colts were offered for sale: Wild Bill Hickok’s 1851 Navy, a Single Action Army recovered intact from the Little Bighorn battlefield, and a Walker with provenance to both the Texas Rangers and the Civil War.
None of them was unique. Hickok owned several 1851 Navies, and who knows when, or for what, he used this one; the Custer Colt was pretty well documented as having been at the battle, but by whom it was used, no idea; the Walker was not the best Walker ever, nor the worst, nor connected with a famous man. In other words, they were middling specimens of highly desirable types.
The Hickok pistol was estimated to sell for between $140,000 and $ 225,000. It realized $616,875.
The Little Bighorn SAA, estimated to bring between $350,000 and $550,000, realized $763,750.
The Walker was estimated at $250,000 to $375,000. It realized $499,375.
That’s a cool $1.88-million for the three, and I can guarantee you that’s a lot more than they sold for in 1971.
Where will they be, value-wise, 50 years from now? Or even five years from now? It seems to me a more relevant question is where will a BitCoin be? For the answer, think tulip bulbs, limited-edition dinner plates, and shares in Pets.com.
Gray’s Shooting Editor Terry Wieland long-since learned the value of a wristwatch you can trade for an airline ticket home from anywhere in the world. And, it tells you the time. He’s still looking for a way to work Warren Zevon’s “Lawyers, Guns and Money” into one of these.