originally published March 29, 2013
The beauty of what some call ‘useless trivia’ is in its ephemeral nature. The facts and statistics under this heading are fleeting and transitory, often surpassed or rendered obsolete before they’ve made their way through the populace. Yet the good ones will merit a raised eyebrow, a muttered “huh”, or – at best – a thousand words of prose from a guy with a deadline. In that sense, such “useless” trivia belies its name. Yesterday’s mention of the Marina Bay Sands resort in Singapore topping the list of most expensive buildings held my attention for a period of time greater than a shoe-tie and less than a pint of beer – moderate, yes. But useless? Hardly.
With this feeble sense of purpose I return once again to this exercise in curiosity-poking. What other chart-toppers represent the most expensive in their field? So far the ‘why’ remains mostly elusive (though the massive rooftop infinity pool on the Marina Bay Sands is a pretty solid ‘why’), but I’m not one to speculate on such matters.
I just report the facts; figuring ‘em out ain’t my gig.
The highest-priced books read like a logical list of what the highest-priced books should be: Shakespeare’s First Folio, an original Gutenberg Bible, an original exemplar of the Magna Carta… all rare tomes, all worthy of the prestige of costing as much as it would take to feed a starving African nation for a month. But none are worth more than this baby.
This is the Codex Leicester, the most famous of Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific notebooks. This is the book where da Vinci predicted the science of plate tectonics, analyzed the flow of water around obstacles in rivers, and asserted that the luminosity of the moon comes from its reflection of the sun. Because the moon is totally covered in water. Alright, he wasn’t 100% accurate, but it’s still pretty damn impressive. Bill Gates bought this book in 1994 for a whopping $30 million.
If you’re a big fan of sprawling infrastructure (and who isn’t?), you might want to hazard a guess as to the most expensive infrastructure project of all time. If you guessed the Chunnel that links England and France under the English Channel, you’d be wrong. The 2nd Avenue subway line in New York is going to cost more by the time they wrap it up. Same with the rapid transit systems in China and Japan and the Hong Kong International Airport.
The top of the heap belongs to none other than the US Interstate Highway system, which clocks in at about $425 billion in today’s money, followed by China’s equivalent at about $240 billion. For a project that’s actually completed and isn’t something that evolved over decades, the Honshu-Shikoku network of 17 bridges connecting the two islands cost the Japanese people $48 billion by the time it wrapped up in 1999.
Remember in 1995 when Kevin Costner’s Waterworld made headlines for simultaneously shattering records for costing and sucking so damn much? Well, that phenomenon of nonsensical crap (seriously, there’s water everywhere; why is everyone so dirty all the time?) is now #39 on the list of priciest movies. Since the turn of the century, Hollywood has fuelled its blockbusters with rivers of cash, focusing more on snagging big-money stars, CGI effects and bankable franchises than on producing ‘great films’.
That’s not to say all the movies on this list are horrible. The Avengers (#10 – $220 million), Harry Potter VI (tied at #4 – $250 million) and Toy Story 3 (tied at #16 – $200 million) were all a lot of fun. But look at the rest of the top five: John Carter? Tangled? (honestly, I have no idea how a cartoon can cost $260 million to make) and Spider-Man 3 – the dancing/emo Spider-Man wreck? Money doesn’t buy quality. The top of the list goes to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($300 million). A fine entry into the series, but I don’t think it’s topping anyone’s list of favorites.
When I hit upon the list of most expensive divorces in history, I immediately wondered if I could find one of those partially-torn snapshot images to go along with it. The internet, as always, doesn’t disappoint. Some lucky lawyers’ kids got their ivy-league education paid for with this settlement – they may have even bought the school. When media mogul Rupert Murdoch split with his wife Anna in 1999, she ended up with a $1.2 billion settlement. That’s billion. With a ‘b’.
On an interesting and totally unrelated side-note, Rupert and Anna’s daughter, Elisabeth, married Sigmund Freud’s grandson. Hey, when you wade into the trivia pool, you never know what’s going to get stuck between your toes.
Yesterday I showed a photo of Brad & Angelina’s twins which sold for $15 million to a pair of tabloid rags. Above you can see the most expensive photo ever sold that didn’t have someone famous or the eventual end-result of their coitus in it. This is Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II, which sold for about $4.3 million at Christie’s Auction House in New York in 2011.
That’s the Rhine river. A factory and some dog-walkers were digitally removed by Gursky, leaving… just that. Gursky claimed that one can’t simply see the Rhine like this in real life, so he felt it was important to remove the extras. I think it’s lovely. Not $4.3 million lovely, but still lovely.
Number one on the list of most expensive public works projects in US history, costing $14.6 billion (more than double #2 on the list) is the ‘Big Dig’ in Boston, which re-routed I-93 through a brand new tunnel, and completely changed the infrastructure of the city. It’s a fantastic feat of civil engineering, despite a few minor glitches.
Like the thousands of leaks in the tunnel, and the substandard materials used by the concrete supplier. Also, that time in 2006 when a pesky 3-ton chunk of ceiling collapsed and killed a woman. Oh, and the handrails along the walkways in the tunnel are squared off and sharp, and have been linked to eight deaths. Yes, and the lighting fixtures – looks like all 25,000 of them will have to be replaced. The whole thing wound up costing the city of Boston about 190% of its original estimated budget. $14.6 billion doesn’t buy what it used to.
One last entry: the most valuable records. While I figured they’d be near the top, I hadn’t counted on the Beatles being involved with the top three:
#3: A tape of the Quarrymen (the band John Lennon started, which would eventually become the Beatles) performing live fetched £78,500 in 2003.
#2: The copy of Double Fantasy that Lennon signed for Mark David Chapman just hours before Chapman murdered him sold to some macabre collector for $150,000 in 1999.
#1: Another Quarrymen record – the acetate recording of their first time in a (makeshift) studio, performing Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” and the original composition, “In Spite Of All The Danger.” You can hear both those tracks on the Anthology set issued in 1995, but the original record? Well, only one was made in 1958 and I doubt Paul McCartney is selling it anytime soon. If he does, it’s estimated to be worth at least £200,000.
Better start saving.