Ever since I moved to Europe, about eighteen months ago, I've been feeling my lack of nobility. Portrait galleries, stately houses, and magazines like Hello! and Paris Match constantly remind me of aristocracy's prominence in the Old World. People who have them say titles are mostly useful for getting a table at a crowded restaurant, but the rest of us know better. Lords and ladies appear on corporate boards and royal-wedding guest lists at a significantly higher rate than the general population. So although no one has yet turned to me at a party and asked, "Are you born?" when it happens I want to be able to say yes.
I can't literally change my origins, of course. But being an aristocrat isn't necessarily a matter of pedigree. Nor need I renounce my U.S. citizenship and spend decades distinguishing myself as the subject of some European monarch. I can acquire nobility the American way—by buying it.
Exchanging money for rank is actually a well-established European practice. As Hugh Thomas (Lord Thomas of Swynnerton) wrote in A History of the World (1979), "From the sixteenth century, it was usually possible for the successful merchant to buy a title or otherwise make his way into the aristocracy." Under Joseph II of Austria-Hungary "it cost 20,000 gelden to be a count, 6,000 to be a baron and 386 to be a 'von.'" A title acquired in this way might lack the cachet of one earned by battlefield victory or strategic marriage, but not even the haughtiest of the old guard could have denied its validity.