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Time Travel for Financial Gain

Tyler Cowen was recently asked how he’d best use a time machine for financial gain. Here was the specific query:

Suppose you had a time machine you that you solely wanted to use for financial gain. You can bring one item from the present back to any point in the past to exchange for another item that people of that time would consider of equal value, then bring that new item back to the present. To what time period would you go, and what items would you choose to maximize your time-travel arbitrage?

Cowen notes some difficulty with an obvious approach:

The obvious answer encounters some difficulties upon reflection. Let’s say I brought gold back in time and walked into the studio of Velazquez, or some other famous painter, and tried to buy a picture for later resale in the present. At least some painters would recognize and accept the gold, and gold is highly valuable and easy enough to carry around. Some painters might want the gold weighed and assayed, but even there the deal would go fine.

The problem is establishing clear title to the painting, once you got back home. It wouldn’t turn up on any register as stolen, but still you would spend a lot of time talking to the FBI and Interpol. The IRS would want to know whether this was a long-term or short-term capital gain, and you couldn’t just cite Einstein back to them. They also would think you must have had a lot of unreported back income.

So establishing present ownership of a past item is an issue…as is authentication via carbon dating. I don’t have a specific scheme in mind, but I would think any general approach would also need to minimize the butterfly effect of your trade so that, for example, your existence in the present is not disrupted. So you can’t trade Leonardo an iPhone 6 for the Mona Lisa. But maybe you could trade $1 for a winning ticket for last week’s $300 million lottery jackpot…or would the numbers change somehow because of your visit? What if you bought 100,000 shares of Apple stock in 2003? How would that action effect the present? What is a large enough action to make you rich but with a small enough effect to keep the present otherwise unchanged? Since I didn’t see any super-compelling solutions in the comments at MR, I’m gonna open the comments here…I know someone has been thinking about this extensively or has a link to a good discussion elsewhere. Please stay on topic, mmm’kay?

Reader comments

jkottkeJun 03, 2015 at 10:47AM

Please note that I don't think Biff's plan in Back to the Future 2 and the boys' plan in Primer won't work for Butterfly Effect reasons.

KevinJun 03, 2015 at 10:58AM

I think the best plan is definitely the most recent large lottery payout. A short enough time ago that your actions won't mess up your present too much if you stick to buying the ticket and storing it someplace safe for when you get back and pretty reliable since your activities in buying and storing the ticket shouldn't have an impact on the drawing - especially if you time it so that you buy it just before it happens so you can't interact with the people doing the drawing. Plus it is a legal activity with a guaranteed large payout. Less variability than messing with stocks, artwork, inventions, etc. farther back in time.

FrançoisJun 03, 2015 at 10:58AM

Well you could go back in time to buy then-old Apple I computers for spare change and resell them now for 200k a pop.

andknfJun 03, 2015 at 11:00AM

I'd take a distributed approach. Get the end-of-day prices of every Fortune 500 company for the previous ten years, and instead of making a single huge trade whenever there's a lot of movement, just call the market right on all of them, every day, and do so with a small amount of shares per company. This way you're mostly moving with market forces, you're doing so at a small enough scale that it wouldn't tip anyone else's hand, and if your trades get big enough, you can just cap the transactions, as you know that you'll be set for the next ten years.

Even better, you don't need to stay back in time to do this - just set up a computer to do it for you, and to deposit it in a bank account that you'll check in the future.

OmegarJun 03, 2015 at 11:02AM

How about you don't bring something back but mark the place where you buried it a long time ago? I am thinking the real treasures of Troy or Moctezuma here. You could just say you found them while digging for a basement. Just dumb luck, no explanation needed.

John ConnersJun 03, 2015 at 11:03AM

I've always favoured the following approach: go back in time, buy something of minimal local value but great future value (consult an antique dealer in the present), bury it safely where nobody will find it (check present day location) and it won't degrade, then just happen to dig it up in the present day while out walking the dog. You can't really do the same with a chest full of stolen gold as its disappearance in the past could cause ripples. But some trinket that, unknown to locals, will be worth a fortune in the future disappears? No worries!

Alex HernJun 03, 2015 at 11:04AM

The issue is that I think the boringest answer is the right one: bring £1 back from the present to last week, and exchange it, in a shop, for a lottery ticket with the winning numbers.

The butterfly effect is practically non-existent, because the event you're changing is so close to the present that it hasn't had a chance to radiate out into the wider world. You'll change the future, sure. But you're changing the future all the time.

Tim CarmodyJun 03, 2015 at 11:04AM

The most straightforward way to do it, I think, is to trade commodities for commodities. Forget gold -- let's say you go back in time to Early Modern Europe with a bunch of cheap-in-2015 but exotic-in-1515 spices. Now, let's assume you don't bring enough to flood the market/accidentally stop colonialization/get murdered by Turkish merchants -- just enough to make yourself wealthy. (Let's also assume you can travel through space trivially, so you can leave from New York but arrive in, say, Amsterdam.)

Now -- what do you buy that's cheap in 1515 but expensive as hell in 2015? Nothing famous or unique -- something that you can sell at a markup on your return?

I'm guessing something handmade: clothing? maybe furniture? Petroleum? (That would be hard to get, and the real value is in a steady supply.) I'm at a loss. But I do think you need to go straight-up-mercantile on this. No fancy stuff. No historical transformations. Just buying goods cheap and selling them dear.

MikeJun 03, 2015 at 11:07AM

Something like a T206 Honus Wagner card could be good for this - easy to explain how it just "turned up in your attic" or something and immediately sellable for seven figures.

John OverholtJun 03, 2015 at 11:08AM

I haven't thought through the logistical hurdles raised above, but my favorite fictional plan along these lines (co-authored by Douglas Adams) is that of the Jagaroth in the Dr. Who episode City of Death. An alien stranded on Earth and fragmented in time by a crash landing hires Leonardo to paint six copies of the Mona Lisa, so that he can steal the real one in the 20th century and secretly sell each copy to unscrupulous collectors as the original.

EricJun 03, 2015 at 11:10AM

Why are limiting our concern about the butterfly effects to the time you return to the present? For example, going back to win last week's lottery won't change much about this week, but the effects will be ongoing. Biff didn't change much about the 1950s, but the 1980s were another story.

SamJun 03, 2015 at 11:11AM

Can we do the opposite of minimizing the butterfly effect with the goal of increasing financial gain for everyone by destroying income inequality? Would it be okay to bring back histories and strategic resources for the Soviet bloc, Vietnam, Salvador Allende's Chile, and Cuba? Che doesn't die in Bolivia, Allende doesn't promote Pinochet, etc? Global revolution takes hold, but doesn't succumb to the state capitalism and paranoia of the soviet union, and ultimately brings down capitalism, this creating a socialist utopia for all.
Barring that, can we bring back vaccines to 1900, license them to the government in perpetuity (a hundred grand to solve polio?), then invest heavily in gulf+western just before Spindletop?

Tim CarmodyJun 03, 2015 at 11:19AM

Re: Sam's note above -- one thought I had writing my suggestion was, "or you could TOTALLY bring colonialism to an end, that'd be awesome!" You're risking your own future existence, but it might be worth it at twice the price.

Tim DierksJun 03, 2015 at 11:21AM

If you're going to go back in time to play the winning lottery numbers, you have to time it right to avoid a causality problem: if you wait to travel back too long after the numbers are drawn, then the world will know that there's no winner, and that creates sticky problems in terms of changing the worldline when you buy the ticket and thus change the past.

The problem is a little underspecified because the obvious strategy is just to sell the time machine; the ability to travel in time is more valuable than any single thing you could bring forward. But if you alter the problem to a genie who will grant you a short trip to the past, and you want to avoid butterfly effect / causality problems, and you're not going to be allowed or able to somehow convince people that you traveled backwards in time (thus requiring defensible provenance for your acquisitions), then I like acquiring the artifacts of lost civilizations and concealing them someplace they can be recovered in present-day. But watch your landmarks and make a good map, the world changes more than you might think.

Alexandru BrieJun 03, 2015 at 11:33AM

Coincidentally I was pondering this question like 3 days ago, and the best answer I could find was to travel back in time to 2010 in order to buy bitcoins for around 6 cents a piece, which even now in spite of the big drop in bitcoin price still worth over 200$ a piece - so multiplying the investment over 3333 times - definitely better than a Velazquez or even the Mona Lisa.

The best thing about it is that the butterfly effect would be minimal - if the right memories were erased/forgotten, there might already be some envelope somewhere, with a usb drive and instructions inside, patiently waiting for its owner to open it when the time comes.

jkottkeJun 03, 2015 at 11:45AM

How do you ensure an artifact from the past stays buried undisturbed until you can dig it up in 2015? That seems like a difficult problem, particularly if you've only got one shot at it.

JasonJun 03, 2015 at 11:49AM

What if you traded in a way that controls geographic concerns? For example, you purchase a great amount of land today and go back in time to plant trees that you know would be valuable now. Or you purchase a historic home today and go back in time to hide things of value in the walls so that they are there today?

Stijn VogelsJun 03, 2015 at 11:58AM

Carbon dating wouldn't work because you would take those partitions out of time, thus preventing the carbon decay. If your chosen item had to acquire value over time, taking those items out of their time would negate their value-creating-captivity.

Better would be to bring something that is rare today but abundant in the past. Stamps. Books. Cars. Etc.

JohnJun 03, 2015 at 11:59AM

I just read a pretty good novel in which this is done: Rewind.

Sam ArbesmanJun 03, 2015 at 12:02PM

I like Tim's idea of straightforward mercantilism. Spices, as well as dyes or even aluminum, could work well for being brought from 2015 into the past. The major concern on the other end is carbon dating, because a lot of things that are rare now but common in the past are things that have organic material, such as clothing. If they are handmade, then this could be an issue. If something is much more of a commodity, like ivory, this issue might be avoidable.

MattJun 03, 2015 at 12:06PM

Even if you could travel backwards in time, you still have to solve the problem of where to travel relative to space.

For example, here is vastly different to here years ago (due to differences in the orbit of Earth relative to our Sun, our solar system's orbit relative to our galaxy, our galaxy's rotation, etc).

Steve MJun 03, 2015 at 12:11PM

Knowledge. Go back in time and learn how to make Damascus steel, or Roman cement. Come back, start up a company and make this wondrous stuff long thought lost.

TobyJun 03, 2015 at 12:14PM

Strategy depends on whether you can time travel within your own timeline or not, and whether you can actually change time or not (i.e., there is no butterfly effect because whatever you do in the past has already happened). If you can travel within your own timeline, lottery ticket is probably the quickest. If you can't, I'm onboard with the earlier suggestions to gain possession of something valuable in the past and bury it for later recovery in the present. The best way to pick the place to bury it is to go there before you go back in time and see if anything is there (again, what you do in the past has already happened). If nothing is there, you need to find a better place.

TulseJun 03, 2015 at 12:15PM

here is vastly different to here years ago
Well, this is always the problem with time travel, in that it seems to blithely assume travelling in space as well. But if position as well as time can be controlled, one could actually turn that problem into an advantage, as it brings up another possible way to make money -- using the "time machine" to get yourself physically into past places that would have otherwise been unaccessible. Like, say, Fort Knox, or Tut's tomb prior to Carter.

Ted LoganJun 03, 2015 at 12:15PM

Depending on your personality...why return to the future at all? If you're older especially, pick an age you'd like to go back to, win the lottery... enjoy a second life making better decisions.

SeanJun 03, 2015 at 12:17PM

The oldest bank still in existence has been operating since 1472 ( If you can go back to then, trade some goods for local currency and sweet-talk yourself into a savings account with a few percent interest that'll survive 543 years, the compound interest does all the work for you. A $100 investment that grows 2% per year for 543 years ends up at just over $4.6 million. (

My choice for commodity to bring back in time to sell is probably salt, but it doesn't particularly matter as long as you can trade it easily. We aren't looking to make a ton of cash off selling the salt itself, just enough to get started.

The real sticking point is whether you can convince some Italian bankers to set you up with an account that grows more or less forever, and not to ever talk to you about it again. You'd also need a way to authenticate that you were the current owner of the account in the present, but those all seem like problems that a banker would be pretty happy to solve for you if you walked in with enough money, and maybe a lawyer.

John ConnersJun 03, 2015 at 12:31PM

In terms of digging up a buried artefacts decades or centuries later my time travelling rule of thumb is to bury it in peat - an excellent preservative and plentiful in the UK, particularly on desolate moors where few people do any digging and only occasionally walk their dogs. Some web based research ensuring nobody else has dug up any treasure in the area (lest they find the haul) is worth doing too.

CraigJun 03, 2015 at 12:34PM

Buy a bottle of wine/champagne/liquor in its vintage year, straight from the dealer. For example, a Dom Perignon from decades ago. You can easily explain it away as a gift from an old friend that you've left in the cabinet until now.

JamesJun 03, 2015 at 12:41PM

Lottery ticket is the way to go, but why even go back a week? Wait till the powerball is $400M, write down the winning numbers as soon as they are drawn, and then just go back a few hours and buy the winning ticket. No need to risk butterfly effect, or exposure to smallpox, etc.

JamesJun 03, 2015 at 12:42PM

...and be sure to buy your ticket in a state that allows you to remain anonymous when you claim your winnings.

TulseJun 03, 2015 at 12:43PM

The problem with burying items is that in many jurisdictions, a buried object belongs to whoever owns the land. So at best you'd have to bury your item in some desolate area that no one will own in the future, and that you can access without being seen.

Peter HentgesJun 03, 2015 at 12:57PM

To minimize butterfly effects of the lottery winning option, choose a lottery for which there is at least one winner of the jackpot. Then purchase a ticket with the identical number. The winnings won't be as large, but you are not introducing a winner where one was not present and are not removing a winner that previously existed.

Clem DoyleJun 03, 2015 at 12:59PM

How about take a Big Gulp plastic cup back to trade it for the Holy Grail, and maybe aim for a little salvation to go with the money.

ChaseJun 03, 2015 at 1:05PM

The problem with buying the Mona Lisa is that its existence in Leonardo Da Vinci's body of work would no longer be. Therefore, I don't think our society would come close to valuing it at the same amount as Leonardo would not be as famous. The valuation of art is highly dependent on society's perception of the artist (say a line drawing from Picasso vs. the of a random person). People would not look at this painting as The Mona Lisa, but as some woman that is having trouble smiling.

Similarly, it would be easy to tell that the painting hasn't decayed and that it isn't 500 years old (as you might snag it months after it was actually painted), so no one would believe you that it is a Da Vinci.

Scott SmithJun 03, 2015 at 1:12PM

You could ensure that Velasquez (or Da Vinci, or Van Gogh) somehow documents that he painted this particular masterpiece, then take it back to the future with you. The legend would grow -- where was this painting? (There are precedents I can't think of at the moment.)

Then you discover it in some dusty closet somewhere, boarded over. The world hails you, you sell it at auction, and move on.

Mark HopperJun 03, 2015 at 1:21PM

I prefer the lottery ticket approach, mainly because it's more recent-period and has the least likely problems while having a huge financial upside. One thing nobody's mentioned(unless I missed it) is the quarantine issue. You're bringing back diseases people might not have antibodies for. So if you go back beyond a certain point, you might be dooming humanity(or at least humanity in the region you visit).

Also the Back to the Future issue. Look at how much changed between 1985 and 1955. It's all very well and good to say you'd go back to 1550 or whenever, but good luck getting along without seeming like a lunatic. You'd barely understand the people, and vice versa. Also prior to the twentieth century, people smelled, ate undercooked food, there was feces in the street from all the horses and livestock. You'd be an incomprehensible neat freak with a lot of gold to throw around and no real idea of the social mores of the time. You'd be lucky not to be knifed in the street.

AndrewJun 03, 2015 at 1:28PM

Very recent art: pick an artist who gained fame in the last 20 years, go back to just before they were famous, get an original commissioned, return to the present. The artist themself can verify the authenticity. For example, visit JK Rowling 20 years ago, get her to write you a short story about Harry Potter in exchange for cash (when she needed it).

Patrick MintonJun 03, 2015 at 1:39PM

It seems like sporting events are the obvious exploit. You only need to travel back a few hours, you get a paper ticket that you can easily place for your future self somewhere, and the butterfly effect seems small, because (in theory) Vegas bets on the event won't impact team/player performance, and because (further in theory), you don't cash in the paper until you return.

MarcJun 03, 2015 at 2:04PM

I would go back to October 2011 and "invest" a few thousand dollars in Bitcoin - making a note to myself to sell them all in December 2013 and NEVER touch those turkeys again.

JesseJun 03, 2015 at 2:38PM

Assuming there's no restriction on making others aware of our time traveling power -- what about extortion? Plenty of profitable scenarios:

Take back an iPhone to 1986 Chernobyl containing detailed video footage of the reactor leak and subsequent fallout, as well as specific information explaining the exact cause and prevention methods. For a price. (Estimated $265bn disaster -- bring back 10%?).

Or if you don't trust Soviet Russia, consider the same approach with NASA, before either 2003's Columbia disaster ($13bn) or 1986's Challenger disaster ($5.5bn). Faulty O-rings and foam insulation could be easily verified in advance of the catastrophic flights based on evidence brought back.

Or perhaps you could predict one of the worst recent natural disasters (Indonesian Tsunami, Haiti quake, etc). How much would a sovereign state be willing to pay for the guaranteed preservation of hundreds of thousands of lives?

The only challenge would be how to transport such a large bounty back to the present. But all these events are in the banking age. You could simply open a bank account and have the cash deposited to be accessed in the present. Or bury/relocate/secure the physical currency in the past for future retrieval.

PhilJun 03, 2015 at 2:42PM

There is no butterfly effect problem here. Causal consistency requires that anything you do when you go back in time has already happened, and you can't change anything about the subsequent past/present. Note that this doesn't mean the scheme is theoretically impossible, just that if you, for example, go back in time and steal the Mona Lisa, that actually already happened, and Leonardo must have painted another one after you left.

BradJun 03, 2015 at 3:05PM

It has to be knowledge. The location of Atlantis, the location that the Atocha was discovered, the whereabouts of one of the missing Fabrege eggs or the Irish crown jewels. The knowledge of where to find them in the future and their discovery would bring you more money than anything you could bring back with you and you wouldn't have to worry about burying or provenance.

Since you need an object I think you could trade a commodity for a written document or map.

IsaacJun 03, 2015 at 3:16PM

Go back in time and make sure the treadmill plane doesn't take off. I'm sure there were a lot of bets flying around.

Claude SchraderJun 03, 2015 at 3:24PM

What about stock certificates? You could travel back and buy IBM stock in 1924, or Apple stock in 1980. In present day, you just claim that you were renovating your kitchen and found them in the wall.

The catch with this approach would be to travel back far enough to maximize the return, but not so far that people would remember individual investors. If you wanted to invest in Apple in 1976, there would be a bunch of people who remembered you, and wondered where you disappeared to. At the IPO in 1980, you have a much better chance of disappearing.

Claude SchraderJun 03, 2015 at 3:29PM

I could also go back in time and get a few Button GwinettSignatures, and bury them under where my house would end up being built.

There's certainly more risk to this one, and less return than a powerball ticket, but finding old stuff buried under the streets of Philadelphia isn't completely out of the question.

Claude SchraderJun 03, 2015 at 3:45PM

For burying something, you could bury it under a building that you know hasn't been disturbed for a rather long time. My house was built around 1870, so one option would be to go back in time and get something from that era. I would hang around until they start excavating my basement, and sneak in at night and bury it there.

Back to modern day: I'm digging in my basement to solve a flooding problem, and OH GOD LOOK WHAT I FOUND.

terryJun 03, 2015 at 3:49PM

I keep thinking that the lottery trick can't work - the best you can hope for is to try to find some sort of draw/lottery/contest that doesn't rely on chance at all. I also think there are some paradoxes created if you get yourself obscenely wealthy before the date you actually depart on your time travel. Ownership is also important - so you can't bring something from the past into the present without having it exist in the intervening time. So the issues to deal with are: nothing that relies on chance, it should be "yours", and to avoid any paradoxes it should kick in after your time travel is complete and you're back in the present.

To remove the element of ownership coming into question, I think you end up being limited to your own lifetime - so you go back to when you were just born, and invest in the best-performing stocks that are still around today (Apple, for example) - investing, say, $1,000 in each so as to not create too much of a butterfly effect. Or, buy property - figure out what key properties sold for (and when) and get there a day or two ahead of time and put in a bully offer. Put the stocks/titles into a trust or account and gift it to yourself (via your parents) that allows you to access it the day after you get back from your time travel. Then wake up the next day and liquidate your property and stocks!

TimJun 03, 2015 at 4:01PM

My first guess has always been investing in index funds. I'd go back, build a portfolio, and find a stable entity to manage it.

NickJun 03, 2015 at 4:03PM

You could go back in time and spend $2.00 to purchase ten copies of Action Comics #1 and ten copies of Detective Comics #27.

Do we even want to discuss baseball cards?

ZacJun 03, 2015 at 4:40PM

Another Back to the Future-ish twist to the question I've discussed with friends:

You are transported to October 26, 1985, with no warning and no money. You can't take anything with you but your memories and your nicest suit. How long would it take for you to make a million dollars and how would you do it?

(The question is about using your vague knowledge of the past to profit, so you can't contact friends or family. You can try to persuade people you came from the future as long as you don't use as evidence anything from your day-to-day life. You can't sell the suit.)

TulseJun 03, 2015 at 4:50PM

I keep thinking that the lottery trick can't work - the best you can hope for is to try to find some sort of draw/lottery/contest that doesn't rely on chance at all.
Presumably a lot of the past involves chance, so I don't think that should be an issue (or if it is, you've got a major Butterfly Effect problem well beyond whether the lottery comes up the same).

JesseJun 03, 2015 at 5:05PM

@Zac with those restrictions it would be tough to get the ball rolling at all. Nothing but the suit? Where would I get money to eat, sleep and travel, starting on day 1? Assuming I landed a quick job at McDonald's or somewhere to get some scratch, it would be tough to settle into 1985 society with no valid ID (no bank account, CCs, rental housing, etc). Not to mention I would look completely out of place with a modern suit and haircut.

Of course, if this actually did happen to me, say right this instant, I would have to figure *something* out due to survival instincts, etc. But I suspect your question is more about the bigger picture goal of making a million using historical knowledge than it is about the minutia of getting the ball rolling?

EricJun 03, 2015 at 6:01PM

@Zac: I'd get any job I could for money and use my sports knowledge to Biff it up. I'd also short the entire market on Black Monday. I wouldn't remember the exact date but I'd remember enough about it, and the downside of getting any particular Monday would be low enough, to get it right. I don't think anyone would have the capacity to detect my "insider knowledge" in the '80s.

RichardJun 03, 2015 at 7:55PM

What about bringing back an extinct animal (or two)? I would think a living mammoth would be worth a lot. If secrecy is paramount, you could claim to have cloned it.

RenukaJun 03, 2015 at 8:31PM

Exchange Twitter stock for Google's (staying within the same financial exchange and hopeful of not changing too much history) ....

MosesJun 03, 2015 at 9:29PM

I suggest extortion: demonstrate your time machine for the US government by and then tell them that if they don't give you $1 trillion that you will go back in time and kill your younger self thereby causing a paradox that will destroy spacetime. A trillion bucks is big money for you but not for the US taxpayer.

samJun 04, 2015 at 4:38AM

Pay some painter, like da Vinci to sign a contract that you own the Mona Lisa, starting from today - no matter what will happens in the future. No butterfly effect, no tax problems, ... mmm, maybe some butterfly problems because the painter will have more money than it was supposed to be.

In that case, find knowledge, secrets that people are willing to pay for today.

samJun 04, 2015 at 4:41AM

Go back to your grandfather, explain him how to start a billion dollar company with todays knowledge. Inherit the company today. It is a bit tricky, but it might work.

maharbbalJun 04, 2015 at 4:56AM just requires a biggish time-travel machine. I'd go back to August 22, 1485, Ambion Hill, England, I'd give that dude a horse and get his kingdom in exchange. So for an animal whose price would probably be around $3000, I'd get a net worth of $500 m.
Alternatively, purchasing the "undying debt" issued in 1738 by the French Government could also be an option (see François Velde's paper). 277 years of back payment seems like a plan

GavinJun 04, 2015 at 7:28AM

@Nick - this is exactly what I came in to say. As long as you had some sort of apparatus to keep them well preserved during the time travel process (assuming they would age through existence) this would be the easiest thing to pull off. The only trouble might be getting currency printed/minted before 1938 to buy them with.

It's similar to the 'great art' approach, but it's much more believable that you could just stumble across a cache of copies of these rare comics (it's happened a couple of times in real life, though usually just one copy at a time).

FJun 04, 2015 at 10:31AM

Be ambitious! Go back a few million years into the past instead of a few hundreds, bring back some dinosaur eggs and open your own Jurassic Park.

ChrisJun 04, 2015 at 11:15AM

It seems like it would be reasonable to assume that if one were to go back to the time of Vincent van Gogh, pay him a fair commission for a painting he might not have otherwise painted, take the painting to a bank in a nation that wasn't ravaged by war, and have it placed in a secure vault with directions allowing yourself (in present time) explicit ownership of the item you could avoid several of the difficulties mentioned. You could, potentially do this with several items. You get the benefit of gradual aging and proof of ownership.

All you have to do is craft an explanation for how the items came to be designated for you. "The contents of this box are to be given to the first person with the last name *insert last name* who opens an account with this bank on or after *insert date and time*."

Michael KatzJun 04, 2015 at 1:44PM

First off, do not take a gun and go back in time to kill Hitler. No profit, and you'll just look like a n00b:

So what to do...

Find a relative from a few generations prior to whom you can prove a familial tie (there is, by law, a sort of maximum duration for the will -- check on this first).

Your item? Legal documents. Specifically, forged citizenship documents showing that you are a secret relative of your identified ancestor, a bank note that is just large enough so that it provides you with some seed money while still not being large enough to raise attention, and two copies of a will.

Do your homework before you leave and figure out what skills will be marketable at whatever time and place you're visiting. Practice before you leave. Go back in time and get a job, you lazy bum.

Work for just long enough to (1) buy a few shares of a stock that you know has increased by an absurd amount, (2) use your citizenship papers to open an account at your bank of choice, (3) purchase a safe deposit box, (4) hire a reputable lawyer at a firm that still exists in your present, (5) and make sure you have enough left over to maintain a trust for a few years.

Put the stock, seed cash, and the second will into the safe deposit box.

You've now created Plan B, your safety net. Not too shabby for what will hopefully be only a few weeks' work.

It's time to go for the big payola. Work. Focus. Save. Each week, put whatever cash you've been able to earn into the safe deposit box. Remember that you don't waste too much time in the past, or you won't be able to enjoy your life in the future.

Hire the lawyer. Hand him your will, which instructs that upon your death he -- and the lawyer will always be a he -- use whatever he finds in the box to purchase as many shares of your chosen stock(s) as possible while still leaving enough cash to maintain the trust for as long as you need, deposited into your account.

Instruct the lawyer to use any gains to continue buying stock each year for 10 years. Too long and your will begins to look more fishy than it already does. A strict ratio is to be maintained in order to allow for purchase of stock while extending the trust to your goal date.

Leftover money, which he'll find in the safe deposit box, (along with the copy of will number two), is to be deposited at the bank in your account and with a provision ensuring that you always have enough money in the account to maintain your trust in perpetuity. The will is to be kept in the safe deposit box, as a backup and secondary verification. This will naturally identifies you as beneficiary, and does so by generation... to be paid out when you are one year older than you were when you left for the past.

Include a provision requiring that the trust be paid out in full should the trust ever be set to expire within two years.

This is very important: Return to the present instead of dying.

Why do I mention such a silly thing? Because depending on your chosen time and place, surviving might not be the easiest thing in the world. If you get sick or injured, you MUST choose returning to the present over increasing your profit. Make sure you've set a limit on how long you'll stay. Be conservative, don't be greedy.

Assuming you survive, go do something dangerous and fake your death in a way that won't allow the science at that time to ID you. Die in a fire or something. Return to the present instead.

Upon your death, your lawyer will then deposit any additional money and buy X number of shares, etc.

Sit back and let the combination of share gains and the miracle of compound interest do the rest of the work for you.

Upon your return, you'll find that the world hasn't really changed. Maybe you took someone's job in the past, and that may have repercussions... but hopefully they'll be minimal. The numbers are in your favor.

You'll now have until your next birthday to practice your acting skills -- you don't want to appear cavalier upon hearing the news -- and mentally prepare yourself to be one of the wealthiest people on the planet.

Brandon MinichJun 04, 2015 at 11:13PM

How's about this: go back in time to save a document of great importance. Some book from Alexandria is obvious, but which ones? I'd go with historical sources we know exist. Some of the missing books of Livy's History, or Polybius. The advantage of completing a collection is that we already know something is missing, and can compare it with what exists. Though I may also try to go back before the first sack of Rome that destroyed our firm knowledge of what happened before, but that's if I don't want to try to sell it. Completing a known history would give me something of value to modern scholars.

Another option is to pick up the sources our big historians were using. An example is Livy's use of Quintus Fabius Pictor. Getting his history may be of value as well, though harder to prove.

the8ballJun 05, 2015 at 9:03AM

Why not go back millions of years and grab a sample of dinosaur blood from a recent kill (versus an egg, which could have a greater butterfly effect)? I bet you could sell bonafide dino blood for a LOT of money, and the equivalent value from present time is negligible.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.