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Object lesson No 51

So what's so special about gold? Let's run through its properties. Yellow, for one. Heavy. One of the softest and stretchiest metals around, hence its appeal to jewellers; you could pull 30g of the stuff out to a length of 100km. It's also a good conductor of heat and electricity (as are many metals) and the 75th rarest element in the Earth's crust (which means there are 74 rarer ones). And it is virtually inert, but never - as can be the case with people - dull. In fact, it never loses its lustre and never needs polishing. Perhaps this explains its popularity for wedding rings - promising to impart its eternal sparkle to marital relationships long after the fire of passionate young love has dimmed.

What else? There are the myths about fleeces and apples and dwarves with strange names. And practical uses, such as the gold standard, when countries used the metal to back up their currency, and, of course, gold fillings and medallions.

None of the above can account for a 7,000-year history littered with examples of totally terrible behaviour (except maybe the medallion).

In 100ad, for example, 40,000 slaves were forced to scrabble for the stuff in the soil of Spain. Gold-bearing rock with as little as one part glitter to 300,000 parts wortless material can yield a profit.

European behaviour in 16th-century South America was no better. When gold was discovered, palaces, temples and graves were looted, and slaves dug mines that often became their graves. Such greed destabilised Europe's economy.

In 1849, the year of the first gold rush, 25,000 prospectors and their families bumped across America in covered wagons. Fifty years later several thousands more departed for Alaska and the Klondyke. The population of Australia doubled in eight years during the 1860s, when gold was discovered there. One lucky wagon driver rolled over the world's biggest gold nugget. Weighing in at 70kg, it was called the Welcome Stranger.

Nowadays most of the world's gold comes from Witwatersrand in South Africa, where, since 1921, 40,000 tonnes have been excavated from huge mines, some of which are 3,500m deep. That is a third of the gold ever dug up.

About 45 per cent of the world's gold is held by governments and banks. In 1999 Chancellor Gordon Brown caused a storm by selling 25 of the UK's 715 tonnes. It is rumoured that he wants eventually to sell another 300 tonnes. Perhaps he'll spend the money on us - if we're good. A case of carat and stick, I guess.

Stephanie Northen

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