April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

Until recently everyone knew that Nelson Bunker Hunt and his brother, Herbert, were two of the richest men in the world, but no one could say with any assurance precisely what it was that they owned. Now at least people know what they don’t own: namely, nearly a half billion dollars in oil wells and silver that the high-rolling brothers were forced to sell off after the international silver market crashed with them in it. But if the Hunts were upset—not devastated, mind you, just upset—Walter Hoving was downright euphoric. Only the day before silver prices plummeted, the crusty, patrician head of Tiffany & Co. had taken out a newspaper ad to denounce both hoarding of the precious metal and the resulting hyperinflation of prices of articles containing it.

The outspoken Hoving, 82, hadn’t named names, but everybody knew whom he meant. Beginning quietly in 1973, the Hunts and a group of their Saudi Arabian friends had purchased nearly $6 billion in silver. They, and other speculators scenting a windfall, had driven the price of the metal from three dollars an ounce in 1972 to nearly $60 early last winter. Tiffany’s, never to be confused with Krazy Bob’s Discount City, suddenly found itself charging prices that shocked even Hoving, a capitalist to his blueblooded spleen. “We were really ripping off the customers,” he confessed, “but we couldn’t help it. I thought it was unconscionable that people were accumulating such quantities of silver in complete disregard of other people’s welfare,” he said. “I mean, photographic film was so expensive that a doctor called me to say he had to charge patients so much for X-rays he simply wasn’t taking all that he should.”

For Hoving, silver has never been just something to sell. “Our policy,” he declares, “is that we at Tiffany’s are making the antiques of the future.” With posterity in mind, he was appalled when owners anxious to convert their goods into cash began lining up to dispose of their heirlooms. “I think a lot of the sales came from stealing,” he says. “There were even stories of burglars with electric furnaces in their vans who melted down what they stole on the spot. Of course,” he adds, “if people sold their own antiques and they were from Tiffany’s, that too was a crime. I don’t think people should buy silver as an investment. They should buy it because it’s beautiful or because they need an attractive present for their children or grandchildren,” he continues, breaking into a favorite story. “I know of a woman who inherited silver flatware from her grandmother. She in turn gave it to her granddaughter, who promptly went out and sold it. The old lady cut her right out of her will. It served the girl right.”

Though he is a man of starchy convictions, not all of those personally authored Hoving ads are either preachy or pugnacious. Some are cunningly commercial. A week before the panic that sent silver costs plunging, he offered customers an unprecedented 15 percent discount on all silver merchandise, explaining that Tiffany’s had bought the metal when prices were lower and wanted to pass the saving on to its customers. The day after prices tumbled to $10.80 an ounce, Hoving upped the discount to 25 percent and rejoiced in the apparent triumph of virtue. “A little while ago,” he said later, “a nice-looking woman came into the store. She told me that she and her husband had sent their daughter to college and now she was marrying a nice boy. She wanted some presents to come from Tiffany’s, she said, ‘because we know they’ll be right.’ That made me very happy. Finally I asked her what business her husband was in and she told me he was a letter carrier. That made me feel better than if I’d sold a million-dollar ring to someone. That’s what all this was about.” If that sounds un-Tiffany’s, well, in 1978 Hoving, the majority stockholder, sold his family firm for $104 million to Avon Products, Inc.

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