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26 May 2015

Shaken not Stirred, Mr Engelhard



“Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?”

“Talk, Mr Bond? No, I expect you to die.”

Ever since I first discovered them in my early teens, I’ve loved the James Bond books (and the books are far superior to the films, even though that quote, probably the most  well-known of all, is actually from the film). I know all the reasons why we’re not supposed to like them - Bond was misogynistic, sadistic, violent, alcohol- and amphetamine-fuelled, - but hey, autres temps, autres moeurs, they’re great escapism. 

So what have Goldfinger and Mr Bond got to do with metals? I was reminded of this story recently, chatting with a couple of old friends.

Avoiding export regulations...

Charlie Engelhard, son of German-American Charles Engelhard, was a big deal in the precious metals industry by the post-second world war era, running the company his father had founded. But Charlie wanted to do something different, something extra, above what his father had done, and he saw expansion into Europe, and particularly into Africa as being that added dimension. At the time, South African government regulations imposed fairly strict constraints on the export of gold - but not on the export of gold art objects. Charlie was resourceful, and realised that by casting gold into pieces of art, he could therefore export it and re-melt it into bullion in his refineries. To help finance the expansion of that business, he used the UK merchant banking house of Robert Fleming. Part of that family was Ian Fleming, begetter of Bond. The two met, through the banking connection, and by all accounts became good friends. 

Find a villain

Fleming wrote his books quickly - three or four weeks, typically, at Goldeneye, his house outside Oracabessa, on the north coast of Jamaica. So when hunting around for a villain for his Goldfinger, published in 1959, he drew on the exotic, globetrotting, dealmaking life of his multi, multi millionaire friend, to create Auric Goldfinger, one of his most memorable characters. Not that Charlie was a villain, but where he turned gold into statuettes et al in Africa to export and re-refine them in Hong Kong or Europe, Goldfinger cast gold into panels for his vintage Rolls-Royce which he could then drive across Europe (avoiding in his turn UK export restrictions) to re-melt back into bullion at his (fictitious) headquarters in Switzerland for onward shipment to India (re-cast into aircraft seats - I’ve always had my suspicions about how that could work out, given the weight involved…). Of course, where Charlie used the proceeds to do no more than expand his business into (one of) the most significant players in the precious metals business and was a stalwart of the US political scene, Goldfinger got carried away and tried to rob Fort Knox. (Memo to those readers who love the missing gold conspiracy theory: was it really there, even then?).

In awe of the lifestyle

If that sounds as if Fleming were criticising Engelhard, it couldn’t be further from the truth; he was simply in awe of the lifestyle. And Engelhard relished the link; there are slightly conflicting stories of which cabin it actually was, but one of them on one of his private aircraft was certainly called “Pussy Galore”, another reference to the book. And doesn’t this have the whiff of a Bond villain about it? Engelhard, like Goldfinger, was a horse and racing fanatic and the location of the his precious metal refineries (Chessington and Cinderford in the UK and Rome and Paris) were chosen because of their proximity to tracks. One board meeting was interrupted while the boss got on the phone to his bookie; then, after a second interruption when he got the confirmation that his bet was a winner, he turned to his fellow directors and observed, “That, gentlemen, is how the rich get richer.”

Towering figures

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced some towering figures in the metals and mining fields, and Charlie Engelhard is right up there with the best of them. The company his father founded, and which bore their name, is no more; it’s been swept into BASF, the Badische Anilin- und Soda- Fabrik, which of course has it’s own history, some of it encompassing the murky IG-Farben era. 

But it's Charlie Engelhard's name we remember, immortalised as Goldfinger. That's not a bad way to end.




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