Nelson Bunker Hunt, Texas Tycoon, Dies at 88 – NYTIME 10/22/2014

Nelson Bunker Hunt, Texas Tycoon, Dies at 88 – NYTIME

 

22-Oct-2014 04:19

 

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

88.

 

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

criminal charges.

 

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

reported.

 

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

Noah’s Ark.

 

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

horizon.

 

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

$357,000.

 

“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

illness.

 

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

fields.

 

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

Hunt.

 

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

money.

 

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

price.

 

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.

 

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