(Reuters) - Nelson Bunker Hunt, the Texas oilman once considered the world’s richest man before his fortunes were undone by Muammar Gaddafi and his own epic overreaching in the silver market, died on Tuesday at age 88.
The Dallas Morning News reported that Hunt died at an assisted-living center in Dallas suffering from dementia and cancer. Hunt’s sister-in-law, Nancy Hunt, confirmed the death on Tuesday night.
Hunt, born in El Dorado, Arkansas, on Feb. 22, 1926, was one of seven children in the “first family” of H.L. Hunt, one of the pioneers of the first Texas oil boom, who also had relationships with two women who gave him eight other children.
At his peak, Hunt owned cattle, hundreds of race horses, ranches, real estate, sugar companies, banks, valuable art and the Shakey’s pizza restaurant chain, in addition to the family’s vast oil holdings. He had a reputation for buying many of those assets based on a hunch, rather than research.
Bunker, a college dropout and Navy veteran, moved to the forefront of the Hunt family’s Dallas-based empire, usually working in concert with brother Herbert, who shared his losses in the silver market slide in 1980. Herbert was considered the detail man while Bunker was the visionary who had his father’s knack for fashioning a deal.
Bunker also inherited his father’s far-right political views, seeing government regulations as onerous stumbling blocks in the way of capitalism, and was a national figure in the John Birch Society. Biographers said Hunt’s silver strategy was fueled by the fear of an imminent economic apocalypse brought on by communists and U.S. liberal establishment.
Hunt was nothing like the stereotype of a swaggering, hard-living Texas oilman in a cowboy hat - just a portly, nondescript bespectacled man in an inexpensive rumpled suit. He didn’t smoke or drink, and while he spent big on investments and passions such as horses and ancient coins, Hunt did not drive fancy cars, never flew first class and was known to take the subway when in New York while working on multi-million dollar deals.
When asked about his total wealth at a congressional hearing after the silver market collapse, Hunt said: “I don’t have the figures in my head. People who know how much they’re worth aren’t usually worth that much.”
Another time, as his financial empire was collapsing, Hunt sighed and said, “A billion dollars isn’t what it used to be.”
His father had gotten rich in Texas but Hunt went abroad to make his mark in the oil business in the 1950s. He found little or no success in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia but then tried Libya, where he scored big.
Hunt eventually controlled 8 million acres in a field there estimated to have been three times the size of the East Texas field that gave birth to the Texas oil boom. He was said to be worth between $8 billion and $16 billion, and was considered to be the richest man in the world.
Then Muammar Gaddafi came along. He overthrew Libya’s king in 1969, and by 1973 had nationalized Hunt Oil Co’s Libyan operations.
After the losses in Libya, Bunker wanted something safe, particularly as he feared a worldwide financial collapse. His solution was silver.
Bunker and Herbert, along with brother Lamar, had slowly started buying up silver in 1970, when it was $1.94 an ounce. After the Libya fiasco, they kept buying quietly, often through family members or family companies, and by 1974, had rights to 55 million ounces.
Hunt was disappointed that the price of silver was not rising fast enough and his frustration was compounded when commodities exchanges, fearful that the brothers were out to corner the market, imposed limits on buying it.
Hunt eventually solved both problems by working with Saudi buyers to get the price soaring in late 1979, topping out at $50 an ounce in January 1980. Hunt said later that he and his partners had controlled 200 million ounces of silver – but it was a holding so vast that they could not sell off for fear of driving down the price themselves.
The Hunts’ downfall came on March 27, 1980, later known as Silver Thursday. With the price falling, the brothers faced a margin call that they could not meet and that threatened them with a loss of more than $1 billion.
Silver Thursday brought havoc to various markets, and there was concern that the Hunts’ fall also would bring down the banks that had been financing them. But a bank bailout, with the Hunt-owned Placid Oil Co as collateral, propped them back up.
The silver debacle was just the start of a rash of trouble for the Hunts. Oil prices were falling and their real estate and sugar businesses were hurting badly. Lawsuits, bankruptcy proceedings, massive loan payments, tax bills and regulatory fines also ate away at the Hunt brothers’ fortune, which reportedly dwindled from $8 billion in 1980 to $1 billion in 1988.
Bunker and Herbert eventually were charged with manipulating the price of silver futures, and in 1989 were fined $10 million each and barred from commodity trading.
Asked about Silver Thursday 29 years later, Hunt answered with an understatement when he told the Dallas Morning News: “It was unfortunate. Let’s put it that way.”
Hunt also faced a personal bankruptcy that required him to liquidate assets - a process that took seven years but by no means left him destitute. He and Herbert continued in the oil and real estate business.
In 1975, Bunker and Herbert were acquitted of federal wire-tapping charges after they had put private detectives on the trails of Hunt employees they suspected of embezzlement. Their defense was based on the claim that they did not know wire-tapping was illegal.
Hunt and his wife, Caroline, with whom he had four children, lived their later years in a relatively modest house in Dallas.
Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Steve Gorman and Ryan Woo