Warren Buffett? Frank Fellinger? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest and most perceptive comment about the precious metal gold is attributed to the super-investor Warren Buffett:
Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or some place. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.
Did Buffett really say this?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI of this quotation in a major newspaper was printed in The Times of London in July 2003: 1
Warren Buffett, the renowned investor, famously dismissed gold in a speech given at Harvard in 1998. He said: “It gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or some place. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”
The five year gap between 1998 and 2003 weakens the probative value of this citation. QI has not yet located a transcript of the supposed 1998 speech. A statement from Buffett himself on this topic would be desirable.
So, QI reached out to the accomplished financial journalist Jason Zweig of the Wall Street Journal who contacted the personal assistant of Warren Buffett with an enquiry about the quotation. The assistant conferred with Buffett and sent the following reply: 2
I double-checked this with Warren. He never writes out prepared speeches. But he has said things like this in the past.
This statement supported the attribution and corroborated multiple citations that name Buffett as originator of the expression; however, the answer was still not definitive. A cite with a date closer to 1998 giving more details of the speech would be welcomed by QI.
Pronouncements about gold and silver that conform to this theme have a very long history. In 1877 a newspaper in Galveston, Texas wrote about the “The Monetary Problem” using similar vocabulary and tropes. Remarkably, this passage from more than 135 years ago also included a puzzled alien creature: 3
Look at the actual history of our metallic money; see at what great cost we procure it from its ores, coin it, pass it from hand to hand, finally to bury it again in the vault of some bank. The dust of centuries rests upon coin laid away in the Bank of England. A hundred millions are now buried under the Treasury building in Washington, and probably ever will be together with much more, for should the government ever accumulate enough to offer to redeem the greenback at par, nobody would present the greenbacks for redemption. The paper, being the more convenient money, would be kept and the gold and silver left to slumber where we have been at such pains to store it.
If a being from another world should come among us to study our habits, how he would be puzzled as he saw us with infinite labor obtain from deep in the earth a shining substance, zealously guard it to an establishment where it was cut into small pieces, and then hide the pieces where they could be neither seen nor touched; occasionally he would observe an expression of fear and anxiety upon our faces, we would rush wildly about, drag out our precious pieces and hide them elsewhere, and yet drag them out again and yet hide them elsewhere.
Thanks to top researcher Suzanne Watkins who found the marvelous citation above.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 2003 July 21, The Times (UK), Section: Business, “Demand for global listing helps to put new gloss on gold”, Quote Page 21, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- Personal communication via email from Jason Zweig to Garson O’Toole dated May 21, 2013. The message contained the forwarded message from Debbie Bosanek, Assistant to Warren Buffett. ↩
- 1877 August 9, Galveston Daily News, The Monetary Problem, Page unnumbered (final page), Column 5, Galveston, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩