The £50 challenge that opened up the world

I was challenged by Alex, a St Andrews philosophy lecturer, to put my intelligence to good effect.  I was puzzled by the challenge until he explained that he meant I should use it to make money.  Could I turn £50 into £250 within 3 months, he asked.  I said I thought I could.  Next day he turned up, handed me £50 and told me the clock was running.  This was over 50 years ago, and in modern values that might represent about £1,000 to be made into £5,000.

I thought I might do it by exploiting differential markets.  Scottish antique shops often had antique pistols and swords, and I thought they might fetch higher prices in London.  We looked round some antique shops, but it quickly became apparent that £50 would not buy very much, and that if one factored in the cost of actually getting to London, it would not be worth it.  Furthermore, there were signs that there were people already doing this on a professional scale. 

However, in touring antique shops I had noticed several of them had old engravings of St Andrews.  I thought these might sell for more in St Andrews itself, so I bought as many as I could.  Some had brown stains called foxing, so I taught myself to bleach them.  Some were untinted, so I taught myself how to tint them with a pale watercolour wash.  Alex himself was roped in to make cardboard mounts, while my friend Douglas Mason learned how to make picture frames.

I persuaded the local bookshop to mount an exhibition of them, and advertised a sale.  All of the prints sold within a day at a fairly good profit on the purchase price.  I visited more antique shops and bought more St Andrews prints and did it again.  I was still inside the 3 months when I reached £250. 

I realized that prints of Edinburgh would sell for more there than elsewhere, and similarly for Perth, Glasgow and other Scottish towns and cities.  This became my livelihood for several years and enabled me to finance an undergraduate degree, then a PhD.  And all because of that £50 challenge.