Fool’s gold

In this, the last of my series on fraud in history, we’re looking at the gold-brick scam. Of course, it needn’t be an actual brick or even gold. The essence of the trick is that the victim is shown a sample of whatever the fraudster is selling. The sample is genuine, but after the fraudster is long gone, the rest of the purchase proves to be fake.

The trick is supposedly named after a famous case in the United States in 1879.

What happened was that Mr N D Clark, the president of the First National Bank of Ravenna, Ohio, was visiting a mine he owned at Leadville in Colorado. He was approached by five miners, who asked him to advance money on a 52-pound gold brick, which for some reason they weren’t able to ship at the time. The owner told a hard-luck story about having lost all his property and urgently needing money.

Mr Clark had the brick taken to a blacksmith, who cut off one corner. An assayer pronounced the gold to be genuine and Mr Clark advanced the miner $10,000 on condition the brick, and the miner, accompanied him to Chicago to get the balance. The miner, of course, vanished off the train on the way… The corners were gold right enough but the body of the brick was worthless… (Michael Quinion from World Wide Words)

The item might be precious coins or jewelry or even artwork. The trick is often a long game, relying on building trust over time. Let’s say you are in England in the early 19th century during the craze for antiquities and you want to offload a cargo of forged works. (Art and antiquities forgery goes back at least two millenia.)

First, you need some credibility with collectors. Perhaps you invite a few of them for a private showing of the works you claim to have brought home in your personal luggage (all genuine, of course).

They are all excited. You’ll quickly figure out who will insist on waiting to see the rest of the shipment, and who can be convinced to purchase it sight unseen.

It is simple, really. “My dear sir, I am embarrassed to admit it, but I have found myself in unfortunate circumstances and must sell immediately. The rest is in my warehouse in Bristol, but I have no time. I am willing to sell it for half its real price, but I must have the money now.”

If you’re lucky, you’ll have two marks who can be convinced to bid one another up, but half of a fortune is still nothing to be sneezed at.

A simpler and shorter version of the same con requires two fraudsters. As with most scams, the fraudsters rely on the greed of the victim to suck them into the fraudsters’ trap.

The first fraudster offers something for sale, but for some reason then goes out of earshot, leaving behind the object or animal. The second, pretending to be a passerby, rushes up and recognises the object or animal as something rare and expensive. “Why, that’s a rare Tibetan Mountain Horse. Did you know that any cold bred from that horse is guaranteed to win races.” Or whatever will work.

The second fraudster makes himself scarce, and when the first returns, the victim buys the object or animal for what he thinks is an excellent price, hugging the secret of its rarity to himself.

And the two fraudsters laugh their way home.

As the old saying goes, the more things change the more they remain the same. In fact, when I was looking for stories for this post, I even found a Fraud Museum. If you’re in Austin, Texas, call by and see some of the great scamsters of history.