The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession By Peter L. Bernstein

Here is a history of an element that is almost universally desired. It crosses national, ethnic, and religious cultures--indeed, it might be deemed the thing we all worship. The author covers the history from legends (King Midas) and biblical stories (The Golden Calf) to 2001, when the book was published. It is quite a journey.
Of course gold is worth so much because we all agree it is worth something. If we decided coconuts were as valuable, the world would be changed forever. (ha). The book carries us through the search for gold, trading the gold, killing for gold, etc.
Bernstein spends a good deal of time explaining the gold standard--whereby many countries pegged their currency to the value of gold. I have to admit, he lost me a bit here, but I got the idea. Since the book has been published, gold has quadrupled in value--I would be curious to see what the author would say about that.

9780470091005 An Euro-centric Keynesian History of Gold

Gold is a chemically inert, oxidation malleable and high density metal. This rare metal is paradoxically found across all continents.

Ancient World:

The Ancients(Egyptians, Jews to Romans) adored gold but as a display of wealth not as money. The demand for gold drove the demand of mining. Mining is a labor intensive process and this facilitated slavery.


King Croesus(595BC) was the first to establish gold as coin/medium of exchange via state. He annulled private issuance of electrum and called all outstanding coins and minted gold & silver coins to the old. Bimetallism is seldom stable as changing supply of metal overtime causes the values to change. Croesus maintained a ratio of 10:1.

Persians and the Romans:

Persians expanded the practice of gold coin mintage and influenced gold to be accepted as the popular form of money and collect tax in gold instead of wheat/rice. The expanding roman empire experienced the shortage of gold.Shortage lead to the below.
1. Living with insufficient supply makes demand fall short and downward pressure the price aka Depression.
2. Importing gold via plunder/trade
3. Debasing currency

Constantine (337BC) used new 98 % pure gold coins Solidus as his conquest eastward brought him gold. This was officially the widely accepted form of money. Made gold as the only accepted medium of exchange.


The Arabs dominated and outsmarted their competitors in trade and established monopolies in Africa & this gave them access to West African Gold. Africans traded gold to salt. Salt was their primary money because of its scarcity.

Reconquista and Atahualpa:

Portuguese and Spaniards paved way for discovery of the new world. When the Spaniards arrived to South America, they invited The King of Incas Atahualpa to their quarters. Atahualpa naively accepted & he was taken hostage. Once the ransom for paid & the kingdom fell, the spaniards sentenced him to death for idolatry & adultery. Atahualpa was baptised in the honour of St. John for a quick and painless death. Mining became a serious business. Under the spaniards, the merciless labor was devastating to the natives. The death rate was so high that many africans slaves had to be imported.

Spain & Gold:

With Gold flowing back to Spain, Spain failed to become rich. The Expulsion of Jews & Muslims removed the merchant class & the scientific community. High consumption & no production along with rigid structure of society ultimately led to Price revolution of 16th Century.


Asia is hardly discussed in the book which is a huge drawback. Asians understand gold was too important to be traded as money. So they used copper & brass as medium of exchange in place of gold. The word Cash for ready liquid money is Tamil word. Hien Tsung(821AD), due to severe shortage of copper, used sheet of paper for money.

Magic Mint & New Rulers:

In 1661, Charles II of England issued an order in council mandating manufacturing of coins by machinery in-place of hammer. The new coin, guinea, equal to £1 about 8 grams or 1/4 of an ounce. In 1697, Bank of England was established as the 1st private company to do business as limited liability company in exchange for £1.2 million loan with 8% interest.

New Bank system and First Crisis:

Three forms of money were used in Britain.
1. Government minted gold coins
2. Bank Notes from BoE and other private banks
3. People deposited gold to goldsmith and got receipts.
Fear of French invasion provoked citizens to encase bank notes for gold. This resulted in Bank Restriction Act of 1797 .

Gold Rush:

The 19th Century Gold rush in Australia, California and South Africa made establishment of international gold standard possible & had the opposite effect of Price Revolution from 16th Century.

WW1 & its effects:

According to the writer, Gold standard was a symptom of stability and not the cause. Post WW I ,National debt swelled by multiples of 1914 for all. Each country owed many to many of its citizens. Allies ended up in debt to the US upto $2 Billion. France, Italy, Russia owed $500 Million to UK, The total holding of UK, France and Germany in gold was $2 Billion. Gold Standard was suspended as a result, To bring to Gold standard means higher interest rate. High interest rate means subdued business activity which in turn means higher unemployment. Higher employment keeps wages in check which keeps price in check. The gold standard of 1925 was passed subsequently.
Banking Act of 1933 prohibits hoarding of gold and silver coins and required all public to surrender the gold coins/bars. The currency which broke from gold standard devalued. The price of gold went up & price of goods & services fell down substantially.

WW2 & its effect:

After WW2, many countries were in shambles & currencies debased. In Germany, cigarettes & nylon stocking were preferred payments. USD become the only currency convertible to gold(by central bankers, national treasuries and not private individuals). USD became the preferred mode of payment over gold as it was easy convertible and earned interest. Inflation was the only vulnerability of USD.

Nixon shock:

Vietnam war, budget deficit, unemployment contributed to inflation. Nixon removed the gold standard in 1971. Floating currency system was established. This soared the price of gold & made it a hedge against chaos, inflation & uncertainty.

This is an erudite account on the history of Gold. However, it has few drawbacks. Asia's role, impact & narrative conspicuously missing. The writer takes a Keynesian approach to narrate the history of the gold instead of taking views from all school of thoughts. It is implicit from his writing that he's skeptical of gold as store of value or medium of exchange. However he is very inconclusive in his take on Gold & its role(if any) in 21st century. Highly recommended still! 9780470091005 من الكتب النادرة التي كنت أتمنى ان لا انتهي منها وأنا أقراها.. 9780470091005 Finished the audiobook...which is interesting until the author gets into the history of the deeper economic impacts of gold. It then gets hard to track. When listening to an audiobook in a car one can’t “re-read” a page or paragraph for clarification.

That said, I think the physical book would be much better. This will work better on the page, unless you understand economics well...which I don’t.

Still, the early history of gold was fascinating. 9780470091005 Mostly well written and captivating history of gold. Occasionally bogged down by too much detail, but it gives a new perspective to potential driving forces behind some historical developments. The pictures were unnecessary and seem like page-filler. 9780470091005

Incorporating myth, history and contemporary investigation, Bernstein tells the story of how human beings have become intoxicated, obsessed, enriched, impoverished, humbled and proud for the sake of gold. From the past to the future, Bernstein's portrayal of gold is intimately linked to the character of humankind. The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession

Interesting for a while... then I got bored. However, I bore easily when it comes to non-fiction so potentially not a fair reflection on this book. 9780470091005 This was an interesting book for a while, but I found gold was not interesting enough to hold my interest. Gave up at about one third or the way. I gave it 3 stars as the writer does an OK job, but not well enough to make this captivating for me. 9780470091005 Inoffensive but still managed to piss me off by being unreadable .. thanks 9780470091005 Disappointed. An onslaught of mind-numbingly trivial facts. 9780470091005 A worthwhile read that truly traces the history of mankind's fascination while this rare metal.

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