In the United States, the “old money” is generally about 150 years old, with fortunes dating to the mid-19th century. Families in this category include the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies.
More fortunes were created about 100 years ago including the Fords and Firestones. Some U.S. family fortunes are almost 200 years old (the Astors, Girards and Biddles). Most of the great wealth today is not old at all. It comes from success in the past 30–50 years including Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett.
What about family fortunes that are 300 years old or even older? Fortunes that old are unheard-of in the U.S. but can be found in Europe.
I’ve written often about the Colonna family in Rome, who have preserved their wealth for 800 years. This family fortune has survived the Black Plague, the Thirty Years ‘War, the Wars of Louis XIV, the Napoleonic Wars, World War I, World War II and more.
My interest in the Colonna family began when I was a guest in their palazzo in Rome and learned the secrets of long-term wealth preservation from a member of the extended family. My dinner companion at Palazzo Colonna told me that the secret was “a third, a third and a third.” By this, she meant that wealth should be allocated one-third to land, one-third to gold and one-third to fine art (of course, some cash needed for operating costs and some business investment is fine also).
The latest example of this strategy at work is described in this article about the Torlonia family, also of Rome. The Torlonias followed the same strategy as the Colonnas with allocations to land, fine art and gold. The Villa Torlonia in Rome is so impressive that it was temporarily expropriated by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini as his personal residence during World War II. (One point of an allocation to property is that despite temporary occupation or expropriation, it can usually be reclaimed later if the original title was good.)
This article describes the Torlonia’s vast wealth preserved in their collection of Greek and Roman marble statuary. The family collection is considered to rival the collections in the Louvre and British Museum.
Of course, not everyone can afford to collect 2,300-year-old Greek statues. But museum-quality 20th-century art or valuable numismatics are well within reach for many wealthy families. The “old money” shows that true wealth preservation comes from art, gold and land rather than stocks and bonds.
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