Economy & Politics

The Big Scammers How Bunker Hunt took control of the silver market

Hunt always used the subway for appointments in New York. Despite the ostentatious thrift, Hunt was broke in 1988
Hunt always used the subway for appointments in New York. Despite the ostentatious thrift, Hunt was broke in 1988dpa

In the spring of 1974, gunfire raged across the Circle K Ranch southeast of Dallas, Texas. The multimillionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt has invited to a shooting competition. But this “shoot-out” is not about prize money or honor, but about a job. The twelve most accurate marksmen are to accompany a transport of value: 40 million ounces of silver. The cargo is brought to the airfield in armored trucks and flown to Zurich in three specially chartered Boeing 707s. The futures exchanges’ warehouses in New York and Chicago are too uncertain for Hunt, where he is afraid the US government could confiscate his property at any time.

As strange as the action appeared at the time, it only marked the first climax of one of the greatest commodity speculations of all time: Hunt wanted to monopolize the entire silver market. By the peak of 1980 the price of silver had increased tenfold – and then plummeted again to a tenth. Hunt went down in history as the man who made two raw materials – oil and silver – each one of the richest men in the world. And who slipped twice into bankruptcy.

Even papa gambled

Gambling, that is what Nelson Bunker Hunt, born in 1926, knew from childhood. His father, Haroldson, was what the oil industry calls a “wild cat”: someone who buys land and drills it without knowing whether it’s just mud or oil that comes out. He earned the necessary money at the poker table. Money didn’t mean anything to him, it was just an instrument “that shows the score,” said Haroldson – a saying his son would often repeat later. Wealth and bankruptcy followed in quick succession before Haroldson became filthy rich with an oil field in Texas – so rich that none of his children ever had to work.

Neither does Nelson Bunker. After a few years in the Army, the young man dropped out of college and emulated his father. He bought land and drilled. Papi gave credit for the mostly unsuccessful undertakings. He could find more oil with the help of a map than Nelson Bunker with an army of first-class geologists, scoffed the increasingly cynical Haroldson Hunt – to whom a film memorial was later set with the character J. R. Ewing in the series “Dallas”.

In a book published in 1980, Nelson’s biographer Harry Hurt III suspects that what many observers saw as pure greed was in truth the son’s struggle for recognition by his father.

In 1961, the Hunt offspring finally landed a coup: In Libya, he had bought two concessions for oil drilling among hundreds of areas, number 2 and number 65. A direct hit: He came across the so-called Sarir field, the largest deposit ever found in Libya. Even at the ridiculously low oil price of $ 1.50 per barrel at the time, Hunt’s share was worth around $ 55 billion in today’s purchasing power.

In the late sixties he was one of the richest people in the world. Even so, it was in the local Dallas phone book throughout his life. Material luxury meant little to the deeply religious hunt. On the plane, the bulky Texan in his ill-fitting suits squeezed into the wood class. At business meetings in New York, he took the subway – a test of courage at the time. He only developed a passion for horse breeding, which on top of that made him more money than he put into it. At times he owned over 1,000 horses.

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