Nelson Bunker Hunt, Texas Tycoon, Dies at 88 – NYTIME
Nelson Bunker Hunt, the down-home Texas oil tycoon who owned a thousand race
horses, drove an old Cadillac and once tried to corner the world’s silver market
only to lose most of his fortune when the price collapsed, died Tuesday. He was
Mr. Hunt died after a long battle with cancer and dementia, according to The
Dallas Morning News .
“A billion dollars ain’t what it used to be,” he said in 1980 after silver
stakes he amassed with two brothers, Herbert and Lamar, fell to $10.80 from
$50.35 an ounce. In barely two months, their holdings and contracts for
purchases — corralling a third to half the world’s deliverable silver — had
plunged from a $7 billion value in January to a $1.7 billion loss in March.
With the Hunts unable to cover enormous margin calls, the debacle endangered
financial markets and brokerage houses, forcing federal regulators and the
nation’s banks to step in with a $1 billion line of credit, a bailout that saved
the system from a stampede and the Hunts from an immediate meltdown.
But for Bunker Hunt, who used his middle name, and his brothers — scions of one
of the world’s richest clans — the boom and bust led to years of lawsuits, civil
charges, fines, damage claims and bankruptcy proceedings that gobbled up vast
holdings in real estate, oil, gas, cattle, coal, thoroughbred stables and other
assets. Still, they managed to salvage millions and were not subjected to
Countless others were affected — speculators who bought bullion and futures
contracts and could not get out in time to avoid heavy losses and ordinary
people who sold silverware, jewelry and candlesticks to cash in on soaring
silver prices. New rules limiting trades had been imposed, and the glut of
silver on the open market intensified the panic that led to the price collapse.
Bunker Hunt was a jovial 275-pound eccentric who looked a bit like the actor
Burl Ives. In the 1960s and ’70s, he was one of the world’s richest men, worth
up to $16 billion by some estimates. With his five siblings, heirs of the oil
billionaire H. L. Hunt, who sired 15 children by three women and died in 1974,
he controlled a staggering family fortune whose value was not publicly
In his heyday, Bunker Hunt owned five million acres of grazing land in
Australia, 1,000 thoroughbreds on farms from Ireland to New Zealand, eight
million acres of oil fields in Libya, offshore wells in the Philippines and
Mexico, and an empire of skyscrapers, cattle ranches, mining interests and other
holdings. Home was a French provincial mansion in a Dallas suburb and his
2,000-acre Circle T Ranch 30 miles out of town.
Often likened to Jett Rink, the antihero of Edna Ferber’s “Giant,” or the
scheming J. R. Ewing of the long-running CBS television drama “Dallas,” he was a
nonsmoking teetotaler who cultivated a devil-may-care Texas mystique by
inhabiting cheap suits, a battered seven-year-old Cadillac, economy-class
airline seats, burger and chili joints, and dusty barnyards in the raucous
company of ranch hands.
He was an evangelical Christian close to the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat
Robertson and supported right-wing politicians and causes, including the John
Birch Society. He loathed the federal government, warned of international
communist conspiracies, spouted anti-Semitic sentiments, did business with the
Saudi royal family and bankrolled expeditions to salvage the Titanic and to find
After being battered by the silver debacle and further losses in oil and real
estate, Mr. Hunt and his brothers took out loans to pay debts, then sold
properties to repay the loans and placed many family holdings into bankruptcy,
including the Placid Oil Company, the crown jewel of the Hunt financial empire.
It was eventually sold, along with the homes, land, stables, art and coin
collections, and other treasures.
In one lawsuit, a federal jury in Manhattan ruled in 1988 that the Hunts had
conspired with others in a racketeering enterprise to monopolize the silver
market and ordered them to pay $130 million in damages to a Peruvian commodities
concern. Bunker and Herbert were found most culpable, while Lamar, the owner of
the Kansas City Chiefs football team, was assigned a lesser role.
As creditors closed in, the Hunts hemorrhaged money and defaulted on $1.5
billion in loans. They agreed to pay $90 million in back taxes over 15 years and
$10 million each in fines levied by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission,
which barred them from trading. In 1989, Bunker emerged from bankruptcy with
assets of $5 million to $10 million and debts that stretched to the Pecos
But through the clever use of courts and trusts to protect assets, and of
counterclaims and settlements to gain time and ease the pain, the Hunts for
years carried on much as usual: Bunker exploring for oil abroad, attending the
races and overseeing smaller thoroughbred stables; Herbert running real estate
operations; and Lamar focusing on his sports enterprises.
Like his siblings, Bunker still had millions in trusts set up by his father, and
Forbes reported in 2001 that, while he had long ago dropped off the list of the
richest Americans, he had recently bought 80 racehorses for $2.5 million, and
that a filly called Hattiesburg, which he picked up for $20,000, had won
“I don’t really know anything,” he said. “I am just trying to win a few races.”
Nelson Bunker Hunt was born in El Dorado, Ark., on Feb. 22, 1926, one of seven
children of Haroldson Lafayette Hunt Jr. and Lyda Bunker Hunt. One girl died in
infancy. H. L. Hunt had already struck oil riches, and by 1935 trust funds had
been set up for Bunker; two sisters, Margaret and Caroline, and three brothers,
William Herbert, Lamar and Haroldson III, who was incapacitated with mental
It was not until years later that they discovered their father had two other
families: four children each with Ruth Ray and Frania Tye. In the ensuing
internecine intrigues, all were given trust funds and some became beneficiaries
of the patriarch’s will.
When Bunker was 12, his family moved to Dallas. He attended the University of
Texas, joined the Navy in World War II and, after being discharged, attended
Southern Methodist University. He worked with his father and brothers in the oil
business for a time, then began his own ventures in cattle, horses and oil. He
made $5 billion in Libya before Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi nationalized the oil
In 1951, he married Caroline Lewis. They had three daughters, Elizabeth Hunt
Curnes, Ellen Hunt Flowers and Mary Hunt Huddleston, and a son, Houston Bunker
As oil prices rose in the 1970s, the family’s wealth skyrocketed — as did
inflation. The Hunts insisted their pursuit of silver was merely a hedge against
inflation. Much of the hoard was bought on margin or financed with borrowed
By mid-January 1980 they owned or controlled such vast quantities of silver that
they were reaping $100 million in paper profit with every $1 increase in the
Then the bubble burst.
After the market had collapsed and the family had been forced to put up billions
in collateral, the oldest sister, Margaret, a dominant voice in family councils,
confronted Bunker, demanding to know what he had intended to accomplish.
“I was just trying to make some money,” he replied.