Skip to main content

Status Symbols Are Never Cheap

May 2024
1min read

There would seem to be little disagreement that “rich is better,” and since the end of World War II the world economy has been generating enormous private wealth. In the last two decades especially, as Germany and Japan recoved from the war and turned into economic superpowers, the numbers of the very, very rich have grown by leaps and bounds. In 1988 Fortune magazine listed 129 billionaires in the world and didn’t even bother to list those who possess mere tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Being rich, of course, is supposed to allow you to have not only the necessities of life but its luxuries as well. Unfortunately, the supply of some luxuries is fixed, and as the numbers of rich people grow, the price of these luxuries soars. Mercedes, presumably, will always be willing to roll out one more 560 SL to satisfy demand, but the sturgeon of the Caspian Sea are not so accommodating. The amount of top-grade caviar is strictly, ineluctably limited.

So is the number of paintings by world-class artists. While more and more of them are painted every year, there is usually a considerable time-lag before the masterwork status of new paintings is generally recognized. At the same time, museums remove old masters from the marketplace constantly.

As a result the prices of both caviar and great art have reached staggering levels in the last few decades. That’s why they remain status symbols, whereas the perfect baked potato is just a manifestation (and incarnation) of good taste.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.