The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession

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9780375416088: The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession

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Over the centuries, gold had stirred the passions for power and glory, for beauty and security, and even for immortality.  No other object has commanded so much veneration over such a long period of time.  The most striking feature of this long history is that gold led most of the protagonists in the drama into the ditch.  Gold had them, rather than the other way around.

Power and passion begin with the magical, religious, and artistic qualities of gold.  As the story progresses from primitive uses to the invention of coinage and the transformation of gold into money and the gold standard, gold speaks more loudly of power as it acquires increasing importance as money.  Ultimately, the book confronts the future of gold, in a world where gold has been relegated to the periphery of global finance.

Along the way, we meet Moses and Midas, Croesus and Crassus, Byzantine emperors and humble miners, unscrupulous moneyers and ransomed kings, Francisco Pizzaro and Benvenuto Cellini, Charlemange and Charles de Gaulle, Richard I and Richard Nixon, Asian monarchs and Arab potentates, Isaac Newton and Winston Churchill, David Ricardo and John Maynard Keynes, and the Forty-Niners and the speculators who pushed gold to $850 an ounce in 1980.  It has been an icon for greed and an emblem of rectitude, as well as a vehicle for vanity and a badge of power that has shaped the destiny of humanity through the ages.

In the end, this story is a morality tale.  The pursuit of eternity will not be satisfied by gold, or by anything else we choose to rpelace gold.  Gold as an end in itself is meaningless.  Hoarding does not create wealth.  Gold makes sense only as a means to an end; to beautify, to adorn, to exchange for what we want and need.

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Review:

In the first chapter of his book The Power of Gold, Peter Bernstein quotes the immortal words of King Ferdinand of Spain, who once declared: "Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all hazards--get gold." As ensuing chapters reveal, man's obsession with finding, keeping, selling, and evaluating gold has rarely been a humane adventure and has always been a hazardous one. Digging deeply into history's treasury of torrid tales and complicated deals, Bernstein examines gold's lure with an economist's passion for quantification, a historian's eye for detail, and a sociologist's feel for its consequence.

Useless as a metal for most practical purposes, gold originally held value as decoration and adornment for the wealthy ancients. Later, it was minted and used as coins by the Lydians in 635 B.C. That, Bernstein goes on to reveal, put gold on a path from the concrete to the abstract, from evidence of wealth to the standard behind wealth in other forms, and finally to the tenuous place it holds in today's virtual world of credit cards and computer chips. Along the way lie wild stories of lives destroyed, fortunes won and quickly lost, and values transformed: the massacre by the Spanish invader Pizarro, whose small band of men decimated the formidable army of Emperor Atahualpa, "the Inca," through more duplicity than military skill; the roller-coaster ride of the 1890s, when the rippling impact of the Baring Brothers bank crisis in Britain sent the isolated United States into an economic meltdown; and the surplus of the Gold Coast natives of Timbuktu, who willingly traded their gold for much-needed salt, ounce for ounce.

Bernstein is a great storyteller. His accounts of mythological, ancient, and recent history ooze with odd and entertaining details that bring each successive tale of obsession to life. If not for his skill, the sheer volume of events collected here--presented more anecdotally than systematically--would be overwhelming. In the end, though, it is Bernstein's fascination with the power of gold to entangle and entrap its possessors, and its ultimate ability to change the course of entire eras and civilizations, that makes his book as fascinating as it is informative. A dense but entertaining read. --S. Ketchum

From the Publisher:

"Bernstein...gives us a multifaceted depiction of the powerful pull gold has...his grasp on things financial...is firm, and he's admirably adept at explaining them." (New York Times Book Review)

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Bernstein, Peter L.
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