Traveling back into the past to trade for present gain

Does that blog post header meet the standards of Buzzfeed?  Not long ago I was asked this question in connection with a talk, but I didn’t have time to answer it:

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?

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 here are a few options:

1. Find an artwork which can be marketed through the right private dealer, who will not ask too many questions.  Of course that means it will sell for much less, without reliable provenance, even if it appears to be fully real and indeed is fully real.  Furthermore depositing the check still will raise a lot of questions and invite a lot of scrutiny.

2. Find an artwork you might have some plausible path for owning, yet without paper record.  Would that mean visiting de Kooning and, upon your return to the present, claiming that Papa gave it to you right before he passed on?  That is still inviting lots of scrutiny and perhaps a polygraph as well.  Plus other people, still alive, knew Papa and know he didn’t have contact with de Kooning, and wasn’t holding “Excavation” up in the attic.

3. Search out a class of artworks for which provenance is a more or less meaningless concept.  But even then, you still need some story for how you came upon the work and how you could afford it.

OK, given all of this, what should you do?  I do not, of course, recommend hiring someone to forge the provenance papers.


Pair of male and female dodo birds. Or passenger pigeons.

I was going to suggest the same thing actually.

The big problem here is that any object brought forward to the present will not experience the passage of time (at least the time-traveler had better hope not) and so will fail standard dating tests. Precolumbian artifacts will be quickly "exposed" as recently-made copies even if they are real. But a dodo is a dodo.

About the only way to bring forward ancient valuables (such as a signed original edition of Plato's Republic) and have them accepted as real would require demonstration of the ability to travel through time. If you could sell that as a service it might make some extra change though.

And of course there's the obvious answer that you can bring forward any commodity that appreciated faster than gold. It must be a commodity in order to dodge the provenance requirement though.


Presumably you'd want to be trading in something valuable enough that you could carry a relatively significant quantity of it around.

At one time, europium was the most valuable metal. It was used to make the red phosphor in color picture tubes. I don't know what europium pricing has been like recently, but it might make sense to send some of that back in time. Assuming nobody in the future discovers something else you can do with it.

There might be other examples of things that change in value due to technology. For a long time, cottonseed was a waste product of the cotton industry. Many southern cities had laws against dumping waste cottonseed. It wasn't worth pressing for the oil because the oil is toxic. It didn't become valuable until David Wesson invented the process for using fuller's earth to remove the toxin from the oil.

You can take spices back in time and exchange them in Europe for gold. That should be a lucrative exchange since they are quite cheap now.

But the dodo idea is probably the best. Or even better if you can bring a T-Rex.

In which time period and location would you see the greatest value for a 10 kg bag of MSG?

Or bolts of fabric, preindustrial.

To get around the ageing problem, you don't bring the artifact back with you in the time machine - you 'bring it back with you' by burying it somewhere that you can find later - in a suitably protected box in a cool dry place. Then it will age just fine.

I wonder what you could find at the Great Library in Alexandria? An original manuscript from an important thinker in the ancient world might be worth a few bucks, and you could come up with a plausible explanation for finding it - just pretend to 'find' it while exploring a cave somewhere.

I think the oldest manuscript for Exodus would be the most valuable of book works. The Ark of the Covenant might be the the most valuable artifact.


Good call. A pocketful of viable seeds and no concerns about provenance.

Wouldn't the time machine tech be worth more than any single thing you could bring back (ie - the discounted value of a basket of profitable uses)?

Pair of aurochs might be nice, but good luck getting them into the time machine.

Buying a picture from the artist would remove it from history. Thus it becomes an unknown work. So then all you have to do is get someone to authenticate it, rather than prove a chain of provenance. No one else can claim ownership of the artwork.

However, depending on how time-travel works, the work would not be "aged" enough, so it would most likely be deemed a fake.

I would go for knowledge instead. I would go back in time and get a key to one of the dead languages (a la the Rosetta Stone) or a similar mystery. Then in the present time, I would "solve" that mystery and live off the fame.

Missing volumes of Ab Urbe Condita Libri or maybe some ancient Greek plays only known by title. And then there's that chunk of the Book or Mormon that was lost.

The half of Aristotle's Poetics on Comedy.

If 'item' refers to the singular..

then the Library of Alexandria

Radioactivity is on your side for proving a painting's age. Any painting made since the mid 1940's has traces of radiation in the paint (and possibly canvas), so you could quickly show the painting was at least that old.

(Source: )

Only a knucklehead wants an early Jackson Pollack.

Linear A. But where would you find the key?

Well, Linear B has been deciphered. So pay a scribe from the correct time period to write out a corpus in both Linear A and Linear B (or ancient Greek), then take that back to use as the key to decipher Linear A.

I don't really know how ownership of art works, but couldn't you trade for the provenance papers instead of the actual piece of art? Then you come back to future (while letting the actual art take the long way), and then in the present you can claim ownership of the painting with the provenance papers.

no because you're going to go back a longish period in time and that ruins your claim. i dont have a claim on the dying gaul because it was stolen from my ancestors 300 years ago

Autographed Polaroids of Jesus, duh. Leave the camera in exchange.

p.s. Teach him to surf first. You guys knew that.

Better yet, Mohammad. Just as valuable as the one of Jesus, plus you could show that he didn't really care about representations of his image.

Oh come on. It would be so much better to sneak a speaker into his cave and wait until he is seated comfortably, just say "And, Dude, remember no killing people".

Could do the same do most of the popes throughout history too, quite plausibly with greater effect for peace.

What does the Second Person of the Trinity need with a camera (and why would he allow you to photograph him)?

Offer him a fiber glass handled hammer and a nice set of chisels. A carpenter would appreciate those and they would still be useful in 0 AD. Bonus points if they're Sears Craftsman, because they can be turned in again for new ones after being used for 2,000 years.

Only of any use to him if you catch him before the wedding at Cana. In any case, he worked well enough without them. Now, why would he allow you to photograph him?

Why would he not? Would he punch me to stop it?

I'd think as far as his parlor tricks, photography would fit in nicely.

What does the Second Person of the Trinity need with parlor tricks?

You need something that doesn't require provenance... something that could plausibly be found in modern times. For example, buy some Etruscan pottery or an early Roman or Greek bust, or something durable. Bury it in mud inside of a contemporary jar of some kind. Bring it home then "discover" it in the Mediterranean. It would be remarkably well preserved but authentic, so it should be worth quite a bit. Coins and metal from ancient empires would work nicely also if they were "discovered" in an non-oxygenated environment, like that deep lake in South America discovered be full of golden Mayan artifacts.

If it's gold, it doesn't need to be in a non-oxygenated environment.

There are much better solutions than finding artworks. One could easily acquire tens of millions dollars of collectibles for almost nothing. For example, Action Comics #1 in mint sold for $3.2 million recently. Original cost was 10 cents (bring an old dime back to the past). It's much easier explaining having a box of comic books than a Van Gogh.

This is genius! Is there a specific comic that is worth the most? Or is there a way to cheat and, say, get a complete set after 2 years of a comic? Something common with multiple comics?

Honus Wagner baseball card. Inverted Jenny, Gutenberg Bible. But don't bring back so many that the transaction prices fall too far.

It would be dismissed as a well done modern fake - no aging.

Leave it in your attic for 5 years and then "discover it" and say it must have been bought by your grandfather.

Action Comics #1 is indeed valuable, but how hard is it to print plausible reproductions? The authentication problem remains.

One could do arbitrage on valuable commodities, if one had trade goods with which to buy them. Crank flashlights and cigarette lighters would have been valuable in pre-industrial times, as would telescopes and binoculars in pre-modern times.

No doubt firearms (and ammo for them) would be valuable as well, although you'd put the risk of having the weapon pointed at you after you'd sold it. And that could really mess up the timeline leading to the future to which you intended to return.

A copy of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Probably a decent amount of flattery and a very small amount of money could have gotten a copy (a few kg of spices?), and if you could prove authenticity I can imagine somewhere in the billions of dollars that some Christian philanthropist groups might pay to get their hands on them. But then, if it didn't quite conform to expectations then people might just say that you paid them to write it up differently and place you at the right hand of Satan, so this could be a risky one.

Same might go for the original charcoal and leaf versions of the Qur'an, which might be an easier sell given all the Saudi princes with access to scads of cash without really having to explain themselves to anyone. But I imagine they would have been quite highly valued at the time, so you'd have to bring a lot more gold with you for that than a copy of the scrolls.

Why would 'Christian philanthropists' pay a 10 figure sum of money for a 'copy' of an ancient text already accessible to scholars and concerning an Essene community?

Aren't there some missing bits?

A caveat for some options .. .carbon dating wouldn't work because there wouldn't be time for the radioactive decay to occur because you would have just skipped back through time, and therefore it would be "proven" fake.

Biff in "Back to the Future 2" had it worked out: Make bets on sporting events and buy stocks. Become the Luckiest Man in the World.

Seriously. Nothing beats sporting events. A few good accumulators would make you very, very rich very quick (if the bookies don't stop taking your bets).

You would get pretty rich before they stop taking your bets. But it would probably be hard to pull off more than a few multi-million dollar bets before you were cut off.

Your operation just gets bigger. This is why Billy Walters still has stooges running all over town with sacks of cash.

No no no.

You trade something from the future for gold. To get around the "one piece" rule, you trade for one huge piece of gold.

So, for example, you take whatever US Civil War ironside is left. Take that thing to a 16th Century Spanish Monarch, and trade it for a lot of gold. He/she can still use the ironside just fine - it runs on wood. Gunpowder is around, canons are around. They'll love steaming it up the Thames or through the locks of Amsterdam.

How about one of the wealthier Viking kings. They'd love an ironside I bet.

Or better yet one of the Abassids. I think that's it right there - an Abassid or a Spanish/French/Brit monarch.

They wouldn't know how to use a steamship. On the other hand, a telescope is pretty straightforward. A Chinese emporer probably would have a jade object worth swapping for.

I do not condone this, but would smallpox be valuable on the black market?

It's an odd mystery, but the Vaccinia virus used in the smallpox vaccine has an unknown origin. Jenner thought it was cowpox, but it's definitely not. It's not a mutant form of smallpox either, though it is closely related to both smallpox and cowpox. It has never been found in the wild since the time of Jenner. It might be out there in an undiscovered host, like a rodent or something. It might be extinct in the wild. Its closest relative appears to be horsepox.

Solving this mystery would be valuable, though not so much now that smallpox has been wiped out. Getting an original sample from Jenner might be useful, but if it turns out to be identical to modern strains you haven't learned anything. Jenner said he got the strain from a milkmaid. Can we bring that milkmaid into the present?

With respect to the smallpox vaccine, you have it backwards. This isn't a trade you could make in order to get rich now, it's a trade some future time-traveler already made to get rich in the future.

Sometime in the 22nd century, geneticists and physicists will have been engineering the get-rich time machine and the simplified, reproducible smallpox vaccine strain. They are going to travel back in time to the eighteenth century and have traded the government of the British Empire the vaccinia sample for a huge lump of gold.*

Since gold is headed up, up, up in value with exploding population and rampant hyperinflation, the future scientists will have gotten rich.

*Tense problems? Consult Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's manual.

No. The genome of smallpox is available for the cost of a google search. The necessary lab to recreate it from that (DNA synthesizer, PCR, culturing equipment) could probably be kitted out for less than 5 figures (although it may attract attention from Homeland Security if you purchased it as an individual). The only reason smallpox isn't already on the black market is that it's really all that useful, even to a terrorist

There's a big difference between having a DNA strand in the right order and having it in a live cell with everything curled up around the chromatin, etc., in the right ways so it works as expected. To the best of my knowledge this feat has not yet even been managed with any single celled created.

For many viruses, introducing naked DNA is all that is necessary to infect a cell. Do that a few times, culture the results, and harvest. I don't know if this is true about smallpox.

I'd dig up Sue, the nearly complete T. rex skeleton in South Dakota.

I would bring my working climate change model to the Mayans.

Seriously, mythical objects aside I would find the guy who built the cross for Jesus. Imagine what it would go for on Ebay!

Oh, but wait, then he isn't crucified on it, is he? Or is he? Is this an MWI time machine? But then there could be lots of True Crosses on Ebay and now it's a buyers market.

Anyways it's just nice to know no one will shoot me for comments like this.

With the divine status of Jesus possibly eliminated, Judaism becomes the dominant world religion until the time of Mohamed, whose conquest of Europe in 732 is complete because Judaism, with no central authority and having split into dozens of warring sects during the Dark Ages, is unable to defend itself. Hence, you will be shot for what you just said. Bang. Sorry.

Why stop there? Have your machine take you into Jesus' crypt, and steal the body. Not only would it be worth a lot, but when they find the crypt empty you have just created a world religion!

Then, 2,000 years later, you show the body, and everyone realizes they were wrong.

The greatest, most extended practical joke ever! That's gotta be worth something.

Bill and Ted had this worked out.

You get around the problem of the Velasquez painting not being old enough to be real by not taking it back in your time machine, but by having Velasquez wrap it up and bury it in an agreed upon location. You dig it up -- have Geraldo televise the moment -- and you have a genuinely 400 year old painting.

I'm pretty sure anything of historical value that you dig up regardless of the property it's on belongs to the state. At least in Europe it does. You could try your luck with the time travel story in court. I don't know if there's a legal precedent for that. Having Velasquez issue a receipt might help your case.

Not a receipt, but in Tyler's example, have the artist write 'To Cowen' on the back.
Everyone would assume it would be to an ancestor.

I imagine a lot of people could find a "Cowen" in theri acestry.

Knowledge of the future is far more valuable than any amount of gold you could carry back. Knowledge of lottery numbers, sports scores, stock prices and political events could make you one of the most powerful and wealthy people on Earth.

It would be very difficult to bring equal value back to the present. The most expensive art piece ever sold, sold for $300m.

The only thing I can think of that would be of equal value would be some sort of lost knowledge, or a view of something that would resolve some unanswered question. You could record some religious figure like Jesus, Mohammed or Moses and then try to sell that to someone very devout.

Video recording of the Sermon on the Mount ... if anyone would believe it? But probably you'd find that what really happened was that the community came together and some wealthier folks stumped up for lunch for everyone.

European Civilization ran this experiment--with much self-perpetuating success--when they landed in the Western Hemisphere.

Silver has been essentially demonetized and is no longer in widespread use in industry (now Kodak has collapsed, probably not much outside the Iranian bomb program). So the gold:silver ratio is probably quite heavy on the silver-side.

Take a lot of silver back into the past, swap it for gold. Bring the gold back. No questions asked.

Better yet, before the US gets relations with Iran back on track, swap it for pieces of ancient Persian gold work. They are beautiful in themselves. But if the IRS asks, you can say you are acting for refugees from a certain country who prefer not to be named. What are they going to do? Ask Tehran?

Why bother with heavy silver? Why not take loads of spices instead? Silk? Medications? Drugs?

Why bother with any form of matter?

Take the idea, the concept of 'zero' [jump start the Hindu -> Islam -> European transfer], pre 9th C

Or take images of the Industrial Revolution's applications of the steam engine [The Aeolipile (hero of Alexandria) is considered to be the first recorded steam engine which produced torque by steam jets exiting the turbine]

I thought the point was to enrich oneself not to rewrite history.

The problem with grabbing ancient artefacts (3) is that their origin is verified by carbon-dating. But they wouldn't be "old" enough when you got back to the future, having in fact just been made.

Why not do the reverse to your original suggestion? Sell some framed photographs, strong magnets, and a hand-powered electric light (essentially magic) to a gold-rich warlord and bring the gold back. Melt it into plain ingots, stick it in the ground for a year, then "find" it on your land with a metal detector.

In the UK, this would qualify as treasure trove. You'd have to pay some fees etc. I'm not clear on this part exactly, but you would keep the bulk of it.

I've been thinking a good way to launder a so-called "blood diamond" is to "discover" it here:

Bring a fully charged iPhone with videos downloaded onto it of talking dogs and such. Bring back the first pizza.

Carry gold that is more than equal in value to 30 pieces of silver and give it to Judas in exchange, specifically, for the 30 pieces that he got from the Chief Priest. Of course, you would have to time it well and get the exchange done before he hands them back to the Chief Priest.
Come back with those 30 pieces of silver and . . . and you know what you can do with those, don't you?

Go to the recent past. Take gold and bring back Apple shares.

I was going to say something similar; there's no need to go back centuries to get something really valuable. Just go back a few years and short BofA or something.

Absolutely. This plan has much to recommend it; low personal risk, low upfront cost, highly liquid yet anonymous and secure trade goods at vast return.

Though information has the highest value/mass ratio for travel to the recent past. You don't even need to pay teenage Steve Jobs or Bill Gates; just give them a 2015 Maplin's brochure or market report in exchange for shares.

This is the best idea if you can't seriously change the past and must bring something back. But better than Apple is Berkshire Hathaway A. They issued no dividends so there would be no tricky IRS problems with having to pay taxes on them during the intervening years. 10 shares in 1980 at about $260 per share would be worth well over 2.1M dollars today. And a lot easier to claim that you or a relative bought a few shares of BRkA and put them away somewhere and forgot about them then most of the other things you could buy. On most stocks you would owe taxes and penalties on any dividends issued in between on which you hadn't paid tax.

How in the world do you bring back a fractional part of IP? Shares of Apple are registered, not bearer instruments.

How about a venison hide or whatever for a single Neanderthal slave? The genetic and scientific knowledge would be priceless?

Works without provenance are rediscovered all the time. Just say your grandma bought it at a flea market, or it came from a 'Swiss private collection'. I'd go for Vermeer. Very highly rated today, cheap in his day, small enough not to have been noticed, and he would always have had some in stock. Recent artists like Picasso are less credible as 'discoveries'. Artists like Leonardo wouldn't have had stock on hand, and were expensive in their own time. Botticelli would have fobbed you off with something from his studio.

Another idea would be collectibles - postage stamps also readily available and v high relative appreciation if you buy the right ones.

Go back to 1850s Europe and trade aluminum silverware for the equivalent sets in gold (or, heck, just spoons). Every rich person on the Continent will eagerly make that trade while laughing in their sleeves at how they're robbing you blind.

I was just going to say, aluminum anything would be HUGE. I was definitely thinking an aluminum-for-silphium trade would be a winner. Anything extinct you could farm. Could you bring back some mammoths?

Can you buy, donate to a museum you know will survive and bring back the donation slip? Now you have provenance, aging, and can sell it in the fiture.

What's wrong with trading an iPad to Pharoah or Louis XVI? Payment in gold, please.

Seriously, there needs to be a mass/size limit on this question, otherwise the answer is just "bring back enough gold or diamonds". It's true that some things are worth more than their weight in gold (the paintings) but not _many_ times their weight in gold, and are fair less liquid.... with a mass/size limit here are some simple ideas:

1. IPad or similar to the Mughal Emperor Akbars's diamond (The best part of this idea is the diamond is "missing" and could turn up anywhere. Perhaps a time traveller has already acquired it?)

Or more recent history?

2. 2015 market data in exchange for Apple or Google shares or early Bitcoin.

gonna have a bitch of a time charging that thing.

Alistair May 31, 2015 at 7:52 am

What’s wrong with trading an iPad to Pharoah or Louis XVI? Payment in gold, please.

There is only so much demand for pictures of LolCats. An iPad is literally worthless to most people without anyone to read your tweets, comment on your status and like your status-whoring photos.

Worse than that, any modert tech will look like witchcraft and put your life in danger.

"There is only so much demand for pictures of LolCats"

Someone should tell that to the people on my facebook feed.

Besides, you don't load it with pictures of lolcats - you load it with porn. There's endless demand for that.

Charging is a problem. You'd have to take back a solar charging system for it.

Usually Tyler has a sideways interpretation, seems to be lacking up front.

Is this a % gain? Then something like the comic book idea above or trading a common penny or nickel for a rare historical coin.

Do you judge gains in relative terms (do you have no soul)? Germans in the 40's had a huge swath of art and other goods and would definitely fill up a swiss deposit box for a book or wikipedia article on atomic fission. The Russians also could hold most of the world in communism with a similar gain, thus elevating your relative status.
Can also consider pacifying those pushing for the Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta, or Code of Hammurabi

You can do this today.

Emerging economies historical art become more valuable as the economy develops a middle class and can afford to repatriate art.

Not necessarily. American art never became enormously valuable. European remained gold standard. And even today, Chinese interest is highly selective. Mostly buying contemporary. Another thesis is that globalisation means that the cosmopolitan rich will develop same universal taste, which better reflects current position. I'd also say that expected future appreciation is priced in. Bear in mind cost of carry is high.

Disagree. Here is a Bloomberg article supporting my point.

That's a marketing piece from an auction house that confuses different things. Market for Chinese bronzes is probably below long term average. They've always been popular with western collectors. Chinese are not driving them up especially, partly because there are few great ones still in private hands. The Russian market is different - oligarchs have pushed up prices and led to justified re-evaluation of historic Russian art. But most of the article is about contemporary, which is more 'bubbly' and driven by western perception of future demand as much as local market. It's expensive because people think like you, at the moment - ie pricing in perceived future demand.

Ach. Just buy an original ver Meer, hang it in your home and enjoy it as is.

Instead of comic books, I'd go with first printing Magic cards. There is a small set of them that into the 5 figures in the right condition. If they are in the right condition, and signed by the original artist, the prices can go well higher than that. SO you can be well ahead of comic books, by weight, and you don't even have to go that far in the past.

I mean, just look at this price:

Many of Bach's cantatas are lost. They ripped them up to wrap tree bark with. You could buy them for almost nothing and release a few every year. You'd never need to expose what you bought for atomic dating. Experts would think you either discovered copies or were a genius.

I would bring back today's wall street journal. It would have near infinite value in the right hands. Information is light and easy to carry and the most valuable thing in a modern economy. Charles Stross dealt with this problem years ago in his Merchant Princes series

And if you took that to your father for his investment use no need to worry about paper trails or even bringing anything back -- other than perhaps an agreed upon will.

But then maybe Dad arranges to have a better class of child. :(

Selfie with Van Gogh?

Go back to 1866 with some gold and buy Alaska from the Russians.

but then, in the present, you'd be a private citizen who owns Alaska?

Aren't we just re-inventing Paul Krugman's infamous article on inter-stellar trade, just through time and not through vast distances?

Buy a secret:

1. The process for making Damascus/Wootz steel.
2. A commissioned memoir/autobiography from Shakespeare.
3. Murasaki Shikibu's real name.
4. DNA samples from Jesus.
5. Identity of Jack the Ripper.
6. Black box from Malaysia Air Flight 370.
7. And etc: solve historical mysteries in a persuasive way. Information is light, cheap in the right context, and often very valuable. The Internet and a little scholarly investigation will help you establish which mysteries might be worth the most to solve.

How can you monetize any of these? I could write an autobiography of William Shakespeare. How would you tell it from the real thing?

Murasaki Shikibu was actually a girl called Keiko. Prove me wrong.

God knows enough people have "revealed" the identity of Jack the Ripper. You need photos. But then the obvious question is why don't you save some lives by stopping him - careful not to kill your grandfather of course.

Information is worthless if it does not carry its own value in itself. An operating system has value because of what it does. Jesus Christ's DNA is not in itself interesting. Not unless you can prove where and when you got it from.

Assuming that I don't have to hide the fact that I'm a time traveler, I could make a ridiculous amount of money out of videotaping the Elizabethan theater scene and selling the video to Harvard University (or any other school with tens of billions in assets). Not only Shakespeare: there are people who would happily pay for a 'true' version of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus. Mind you, if I did this then I would also be igniting an academic feud that might end with buildings being burnt down, but as long as the check clears, right?

Direct monetization is overrated: if you have enough money you'll happily spend some of it to satisfy your curiosity. Thus if you *must* cash out some of your secrets you can likely reveal them for money in various ways. (Also promising: historical blackmail, where you decline to reveal secrets for money.)

In many cases, knowing the truth is enough to dig up enough evidence to corroborate the truth. Certainly this would be true of Murasaki or Jack the Ripper. I want Jesus's DNA so I can authenticate the shroud of Turin and do Genghis Khan-style analyses of lineage.

What's more, the location of Flight 370 or Amelia Earheart's plane or how to make Wootz steel are all self-corroborating. Think of these as treasures that history has cached for us.

The late SF writer Kage Baker wrote a whole series of books and stories about "Dr. Zeus, Incorporated," a company which invents time travel circa A.D. 2300. Their main business model consists of caching valuable items (including frozen samples of extinct species) in locations which won't be disturbed until the company can recover them in their "present."

The company also makes enormous use of what space industry types call "in-situ resource utilization." Instead of shipping people back in time, they sent one group way, way back, which subsequently created and trained agents, built up infrastructure, et cetera, during pre-civilization or even pre-human periods. Most of their operation during recorded history consists of shutting down and concealing things. The immortal past-born agents are understandably nervous about what's going to happen when they reach the Company's "now" and are surplus to requirements . . .

Why art?

Take a large vat of smallpox vaccine back to Incan empire in early 1500s, demonstrate to a leader its ability to cure the disease decimating his population. Sweeten the deal by teaching them war tactics and technologies to combat guns and cannons.

Bring back a building-sized piece of gold.

Have him cut your heart out with a stone knife once you make it clear to him that he has gotten everything from you that he can.

Return with a lost literary work. Eg., the Collected Poems of Sappho. First, obtaining it on the local market would be relatively cheap. Second, you wouldn't have to worry about establishing provenance as you would with a painting (it's basically impossible to forge a convincing lost full-length play by Shakespeare). Third, in today's world such a item would be priceless. The only difficulty I can see is that you would have to provide some sort of origin story.

Not sure you have the problem you suggest in terms of proving acquisition. Since you've removed it from history there will be no historical record of the painting. It then becomes one of those unknown works that surfaces suddenly. You simply claim you bought it at some yard sale some years earlier and have no recollection of who the seller was. Now, that's going to be near 100% gain for taxes but the cost would be low and it's up to experts to verify it's authenticity.

In terms of what to take back, why gold? it's expensive now and I would think taking some modern trinket or some clothing from a modern material that's watter-proof, light but warm or a good, comfortable pair of shoes. Gold they can get, something like those would be something only you could provide so highly valuable, very useful and so should be easily traded.

Hmm, my approach would actually be to go to pre-Columbian Peru and trade a bicycle for all the gold I could carry. In a place without horses faster communication would be very valuable. Of course gold is rather heavy and I wouldn't be able to carry more than a couple of million dollars but this scheme should be good in percentage if not absolute terms.

Offer the slave Spartacus his freedom and safety if he comes to the future and gives talks. Authenticating his identity might be a problem but you could still sell tickets. (See generally the Wikipedia entry for "List of people who disappeared mysteriously.") (Earlier in the comments 'bob' suggested acquiring a Neanderthal slave. Got me thinking.)

Buy a ticket to the Globe in Elizabethan London and record Shakespeare on stage, preferably either Cardenio (lost adaptation of part of Don Quixote) or Love's Labour Won (only the title is known, possibly an alternative title for a known play). It makes things easier if your ability to time travel isn't secret.

You should take something from the present that would be enormously valuable in the past and bring back gold (or diamonds, platinum, etc). How about a computer along with a solar generator... Or even better bring back a history book, alowing the owner to perfectly predict the future from his standpoint.

When you visit the painter, get a bill of sale and use an ancestor's name. Then explain, "Nobody really cared for it and it's been in the attic all these years...."

Who knows his ancestors from that far into the past? Most countries only started giving out family names and recording births, parentage etc in the XIXth century, so it would be very hard to identify ancestors of someone derived from the peasant class.

What's more, the number of ancestors you have increases exponentially with each generation. All people alive today who have any European ancestors are descendants of all Europeans who lived 1000 years whose lines didn't die out. That is to say, if anyone is a descendant of Charlemagne, everyone is-- so long as they have European blood.

I thought this was done in back to the future, go back in time with an almanac or with a textbook of some modern technology like lithography. Such knowledge would be invaluable in the near past. In return take home an enormous amount of bearer bonds. You don't need to go back very far, even 10-20 years will be sufficient.

To expand upon the last point, going further back in time is problematic as there really is very little of value as the clock is rolled back further. Generalizing even further, the total stock of items value declines quite quickly as time rolls back, so the likelihood that any item from the far past would be worth substantial value decreases to nearly zero. The only exception are some random curiosities which may hold some value to random collectors, but even then the pickings are slim.

Is this MR time machine just another one of those models restricted to the temporalities of Earth? A curious restriction on its capability from the outset: I'd wait to fabricate another model altogether . . .

If restriction to our planet's temporalities is de rigueur, I'd want to retrieve in no certain order: 1) a complete set of the satires of Lucilius; 2) a complete set of Claudius' History of the Etruscans; 3) the Antikythera Mechanism before it went to the bottom of the Mediterranean.

The Roman Emperor Titus died of a fever in 81AD. Get to him at the right time, trade him a packet of penicillin for a bag of gold or diamonds.

Look up Megamillion numbers from 5/29 and Powerball numbers from 5/30, go back to 5/29, buy tickets with the numbers, win $158 + $120 million. And then make extra money off all the TV and magazines that want to report on your incredible story.

Yeah, that works, too. Plus you could find out who else might have picked the correct numbers and hunt them down and kill them so you wouldn't have to share the pot with them.

I'm not sure that the same numbers would turn up. There's physics, and probability of stuff at molecular levels, etc. But a small sheet of paper taken back not that long ago would land some pretty vast sums. My guess is that after a couple wins you'd get banned from the lottery.

If you get banned from the lottery. You can just sell your numbers. Then as a bonus you'll end up on MR'a markets in everything.

In terms of rate of return this probably wins, and since it would be the recent past you can park your winning in some stock or other investment that you know will pay off well. Since the 'present' is only a few years into the future you don't have to worry about establishing ownership.

How random are those drawings? Maybe just being present in the same country a few hours earlier causes enough chaos theory to build up and change the result of the drawing.

Long ago I memorized lottery numbers from certain dates in the past just in case I end up going back in time some day. They're still stuck in my head even though the knowledge of "own Qualcomm for all of 1999" and "Bitcoin will hit $1000" are both much easier to remember and more resilient to how I might mess up the timestream.

Information seems likely your most valuable commodity (and don't try and say it doesn't count because we only want physical items....information is represented physically and the value of most physical items such as the penicillin above is really contained in the information value that it can cure certain things).

It is also your most valuable thing to acquire. Find the location of the right spanish galleon that has sunk and you have more gold than you can possibly carry (and more than any painting has gone for). You can then simply claim to have stumbled upon it through dumb luck.

Could you create a trust in the name of your future self and invest in the stock market?

Pay the Virgin Mary millions of dollars worth of gold/spices/whatever and buy baby Jesus from her as a slave.

Go back to pre-WWI Czarist Russia with drugs to help the prince before Rasputin shows up. Pretend to be an angel. Tell the Czar what's about to happen over next century.

Return to present with the satisfaction of a job well done.

In terms of biggest return on investment, spices and silk is probably the way to go...bring back gold. As a plus if you can bring back ancient gold coins you would have something of even more value than the current price of gold. Gold coins would also address the whole carbon dating problem you get with paintings, manuscripts and other pieces of art.

I see I wasn't the only one who noticed the aging problem, but I don't think gold coins completely escape that problem either.

It is still gold. In reality this question is what has dropped in price the most since any given time period from the past. Stuff like mechanical energy cannot be contained in an item so in reality the question is what commodity has dropped in price the most. The time traveller then would buy the cheap commodity here (say spices from Wal-Mart's supplier) to sell in the past. One issue, how much spice would you need for a serious amount of gold in the past? Could the time machine fit a cargo ship full of spice?

A commodity also solves the touchy negotiation problem. Maybe an Emperor from 2500 years ago would give you a ton of gold for a working iPad. Or maybe he'd just kill you and take it.

Gold today sells for 20,000x what aluminum does. In 1850 aluminum sold for 2x gold.

How deep was the aluminum market in 1850?

Well the obvious answer is stock shares/lottery tickets.

But it's more in the spirit of the question to bring salt back to the Middle Ages and then bring forward the account number (and other necessary identifying information) for the bank account you deposited the proceeds in. Compound interest is going to beat pretty much anything.

Another idea, though it's basically the same as stock shares/lottery tickets, would be to go back a hundred years ago (you'd have to bring gold for this one I suppose) and buy real estate in Miami Beach and North Dakota.

The bearer bonds and such seem like the best idea, but if you want something more tangible, then picking up an original technology item would also be a good collectible where provenance doesn't matter. No one is going to want to carbon date your mint condition Apple I, but they just sold an old one for $200K. You could pick up many similar items to bring back from various relatively recent eras where provenance wouldn't matter.

Just have the artist sign the artwork over to a named and plausible ancestor right there on the back of the work. That provides the original provenance. Proving the authenticity isn't too terribly difficult, for a "unknown work". Given that alone, you won't be asked to take any polygraph, though you may well find difficulty with fellow family members.

However, there might well be a different problem- age of the work might appear off to any detailed examination- a day old de Kooning is not going to look like a 50 year old one.

For anything from the past 100 years, you can probably just wait it out.

As easy as it might be to tell the difference between a 1-day-old and a 50-year-old painting, it would be much harder to tell the difference between a 10-year-old painting and a 60-year-old painting. Especially if I stuff it in a plastic bag(*) and put it in my parents' attic.

(*) What kind of plastic bag did they use 50 years ago? I'd wrap it in that.

And a lot of the suggestions I see above run into the age of item problem.

Don't overlook the fact that some theoretically good trades may be quite difficult in practice to make.

In particular, attempting to sell some bit of modern technology to a pre-modern ruler for gold or treasure could easily end up with them taking the item and giving you in return nothing but their undying gratitude, or perhaps a pension.

For that reason, I think that if you're travelling back more than a couple of centuries, you're better off looking for something of relatively low value in the past (antiquities, perhaps some art) rather than trying to convince a big-wig to give you a vast chunk of gold.

Get some beads in exchange for land development in manhattan

Perhaps a few guns taken back in time, in exchange for the right to real property in a number of presently high-valued locales, at a time when the natives were about to be overrun by invading foreigners (Clearing title is obviously a problem here as it is for artwork). Manhattan from the local Native American population, perhaps?

One issue with this - the painting would never appear old enough to seem authentic to anyone. At the extreme, you go back to 1500 and buy a freshly finished painting. You take it back to 2015 and try to sell it immediately. "Five hundred years old? The paint's still wet...."

Find the worlds richest widower and bring back their spouse for an intertemporal ransom.

I would bring some money, go to the 1980s, buy Apple stock, put it in my brokerage account and come back and be worth a lot more. Cash would have to be dated 1980 or before. Sell it, pay taxes and retire happily ever after. No IRS questions, no title problems, etc.

Also, bring bread and fishes, meet Jesus, ask him to bless you.

Trade someone important a copy of my book, which prophesizes various historical events and then predicts the birth of a messiah in my birth year who has my attributes. Take whatever they will give me.

Just to be sure, I will put a handprint on the last page as Handprint of the Messiah.

For me the obvious answer is to go back to Rome circa 30 AD or so and collect manuscripts of philosophers/writers/playwrights from the Greek and Roman world that we know exist or think exist. You may not see a large financial gain, but it would be a huge windfall for our knowledge of the period.

BTW: I'm a different David from the one higher up the thread (my bad, sorry.)

Go back to 1472 and make a large gold deposit to be collected in 2015 by your name here:

We can clone things, right? I'm going back in time and grabbing a dinosaur.

Sure, the dino (or its mother) might try to kill me, but so would the Incan ruler everybody's talking about trading with.

I would get "The Compete Guide To All Human Knowledge", go back to eg. Rome and return to a civilization with many years of much improved growth rates. We both get to live in a much better world, so fair trade.

Or there was a war worse than both the world wars combined and civilization was ruined.

This has always been my time travel money-making scheme: Buy all the rights to the Beatles' and Beach Boys' songs in the late '60s.

You don't have to go so far back in time... find some artist who recently became very popular, then go buy her paintings a week before anyone cared.

How big of an item can I bring back? Does it have to be something I can carry?

I would pore through the history books and find a ruler from the past with great wealth (in the form of gold) at his disposal, but who suffered or had a loved one who suffered some curable disease. I would go back in time with the cure. I'd chose the latest point in time at which the person can actually be cured and bring with me enough "modern stuff" to convince the guy that I am, in fact, from the future, so he'll have supreme confidence that I can make good on my promises.

The bargain would then be "all your riches" for "your life" (or "the life of your loved one").

Alternately, I could take a nuclear weapon back to 1939 and sell it to the Nazis. Or the Allies. Probably the Americans since I know the allies win and the U.S. doesn't get turned into rubble. They could pay me with some obscene amount of war bonds.

Anyone toss this one out yet?

Buy today's best bitcoin mining rig, go to the past when it was easy to acquire bitcoins and mine away but keep yourself less than 50% of the computing power (if you win all the bitcoins ever made the market for them will never grow and they will not be worth anything). Write down the numbers on a piece of paper and take it back to the future in your time machine.

Take a solar-powered pocket calculator back to the 18th century and trade it for a giant ruby.

The simplest solution:

1. Go buy some old money printed in the 1950's or so. A lot of bills from earlier in the 20th century can still be had for not much more than face value.
2. Go back in time and buy a bunch of rare comics, trading cards, stamps or other small items that we know today are worth a fortune. Simply pay for them with your old bills.
3. Take those items, find your childhood home (or your parent's home if you're too young), and stash the stuff in a hiding place in your attic.
4. Go back to the present, and suddenly 'remember' you had some old comics that you can't find. Tear up the house, find them, and now you have a legitimate claim. They're aged properly, and the discovery is exactly how many of these rare finds are discovered today.
5. Profit.

Geology map and exchange for overrides and mineral rights. You don't even have to bring anything back, you don't have to travel far. Same thing could be done for stock tips or any number of other financial instruments but knowledge of where and how deep to place a well and the right to some of the output seems to be the least likely to get you investigated.

Speaking of Bitcoin, why not:

1. Buy the best mining rig out there today.
2. Go back in time, start mining.
3. If the condition is you must take an 'object' back with you in the timemachine, take the hard drive with the mined bitcoins' keys in it.

Be careful not to gobble up too many of the available bitcoins in the past otherwise other people won't adopt bitcoins and they won't be worth anything today.

Remember the advice your father gave you on your wedding day.
If you ever travel back in time, don't step on anything.
Because even the tiniest change can alter the future in ways you can't imagine.

Sell your design for the time machine (or the machine itself) and let someone else worry about this problem.

or travel forward in time and collect the information that everyone has noted is so valuable

Go back to 2009 and buy a million bitcoin. Even at $230 today that's an easy $230 million and the logistics would be simple (ownership and so forth). The only issue would be rapid liquidation.

Does that fit the rules of the question? I could argue that you are required to bring a physical object from the present ($230 in currency might work), to back to some point in the past and buy something at its then market price and then bring it into the future. Bitcoins are not techinically something you can bring with you (although I suppose the access code to get them would be).

That rule would preclude other tricks like opening up a brokerage account with shares of whatever, interest bearing savings accounts, and so on. It would also preclude gambits centered at alerting history (i.e. becoming a Roman Emperor) etc.

I wish it was possible, I would have done so much and I believe that one might not be able to go into past, but can definitely cover up mistakes by hard work, I am lucky to be having OctaFX, it helps me correct my mistakes and overcome them with rebate service, it’s an excellent service to use and really help us get positive results, I am getting 15 dollars profits per lot size trade, so that’s just outstanding for any trader.

I would ask A different question:,thieves, tax evaders and time travelers hold thousands of unknown works of art never to be seen unless you create a appropriate incentive inccluding hold harmless enforcesble world wide.... Proposals?

Let's say we really want to shoot for $1b+ dollars here. Plenty above have listed ideas that get you into the mid 9 figures. The question perhaps should not be asked what item, but what buyer? Functional stuff with a decent market (art/artifacts) have a ceiling, and plenty of people have brought IRS/authentication risks with that as well as the bitcoin/stocks path.

So lets get very personal to try a high risk. Would Bill Gates pay $5 billion dollars for his childhood computer? Would orphans Li Ka-Shang or Roman Abramrovich give a few billion for pictures or mementos of their parents? Authentication would be an issue here, but with enough research there is probably a way to get to a good payday.

A copy of Love's Labor Won would probably give the best combination of portability and value.

I wish it was possible, I would have done so much and I believe that one might not be able to go into past, but can definitely cover up mistakes by hard work, I am lucky to be having OctaFX, it helps me correct my mistakes and overcome them with rebate service, it’s an excellent service to use and really help us get positive results, I am getting 15 dollars profits per lot size trade, so that’s just outstanding for any trader.

Bitcoins would be a way to physically transport a lot of money back with you that you could pick up very cheap. The hard drive would have all the verification you need, and you could probably time it to bring back a couple hundred million dollars. That said, it's pretty hard to offload all those bitcoins and its rise might be very contingent - your huge transaction might screw up the future.

Going back 4 years, I bet my iPhone in its current state is worth billions of dollars. It's not clear that the best arbitrages involve big jumps in time.

Find a way to raise the wealth of all people from that point in history forward. Profit.

The Cathar version of the bible and other writings.

Simple. Table salt. at some points in time it was extremely valuable. Hit the right ancient city with a big ole bag of modern salt and you'd leave with bags of jewels and gold. a quick stop in 80's to invest in microsoft and apple via an investment firm paying all dividends to an offshore account. Boom in 24 hours you turn a 30 pound bag of salt (retail $27.99) into billions. or alter history and cause yourself to never have been born. Butterfly effect and whatnot....

No need to trade anything at all. Go back to the grassy knoll with an old camera and film the Kennedy assassination, with a view of the Book Depository window or the Grassy Knoll (ethically challenging admittedly) and then hide the film. Discover it, and sell it.

But if you want to trade for something, how about tape from Super Bowl I?

date: may 23, 1626
travel object: gold ingot
exchange with: the canarsee indians of the lenape
exchange for: that land that is known as manhattan

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