We fall about laughing, says a friend from the corporate reconstruction and insolvency division of a City accounting firm. 'We have a check list of all the toys that insolvent companies always seem to have: the Range Rover with personalised plates, flags, aquarium in the boardroom, a portrait or bust of the founder, a flash head office designed by a name architect, helicopter and an 'executive retreat', usually in Spain, for senior executives to shag their mistresses, who are the girls in personnel with big tits.'
These are the status symbols of the doomed provincial widget-pusher.
Like all status symbols, they are borrowed from someone else's status.
Note the feudal touches: the pseudo-aristocratic 4x4, the flag blazonry, the ancestral iconography. The one that always gets me is the aquarium.
Aquaria are often used to enhance the status of an institution, but they are just metaphors for the pointlessness of the business in hand: a lot of people showing off in a very restricted environment, going around in small circles, with a load of onlookers staring at them and thinking: 'What on earth are they doing?' A hubristic variant is the babbling brook running through reception, like the one at British Airways' Waterside complex near Heathrow. In BA's case, the metaphor is of fish swimming futilely against the current.
What will corporate reconstruction and insolvency find when it picks over the rubble left by the plethora of abouttoimplode.com start-ups?
Dot.com status symbols are inverted, or so small as to be barely perceptible except to other dot.comers. Asked about First Tuesday e-ocracy toys, Adrian Burford, founder of CubicEgg, the fledgling e-department store based in Mayfair, shrugs: 'Oversized flat screens; expensive Nokia WAP telephones, which are useless because there's nothing to see on them; infra-red computer mice; Caribbean sun tans in mid-winter.
People who are making money on the internet are very scarce, so debt has kudos: the bigger the loss, the greater the credibility.'
This downbeat tone chimes with the experience across the pond. Duff Johnson, who runs Document Solutions, a California-based online business, says: 'E-ocrats get their toys du jour from Wired, the American magazine for the tech geek who wants to do stylish in Silicon Valley: the latest infra-red beamed Palm Pilot, the smallest cellphone, cars with global positioning systems.' GPS says it all: where the hell are we going? However, 'their real status symbol is founder's shares in a really hot start-up'.
Every walk of life has its own Byzantine and usually unwritten status symbols that change all the time: the scrambled egg on the army officer's tunic, the 'i' on the salesman's Mondeo, having an entourage that includes a bodyguard or minder, Louis Vuitton luggage, living on your own island like the Barclay brothers. What is absolutely out is the Armani loose-fitting suit, which has died unmourned. Instead, corporate man is struggling to come to terms with how to advertise his wealth, status and fertility via the new 'dressing down', but that's beyond the scope of this article.
What are the appropriate ways in which new money spends itself today?
Investing in restaurants was very now until about three years ago when Luke Johnson made a meal of the Belgo Group (if he ballses it up, so the thinking goes, then either everyone else will or he isn't that smart).
Today, the thing seems to be investing in small-budget British movies and hoping you're backing the new Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which cost pounds 2 million and grossed over pounds 18 million in the UK, handsomely rewarding its seven private investors.
The higher up the new-wealth ladder, the more the toys and status symbols seem to converge irrespective of milieu, especially when viewed from the gutter. The truly stratospheric corporate honcho surrounded by a kaleidoscope of insanely overpowered cars, helicopters, jets, yachts, racehorses, art collections, cellars, Tuscan villas, wives and mistresses has been so ingrained into our psyches as the material accoutrements to which we should aspire that they form part of a social code barely changed in years.
When did executives first signal their significance to the outside world with toys? When they became rich after the transport revolution of the 19th century. Until then, landed aristocratic society revolved around the horse, which, for 800 years after the Norman Conquest, was the obvious status symbol. A gentleman sat on a horse. The horse symbolised a rural, ordered, hierarchical, aristocratic world. Horse symbolism survives in those migraine-inducing equestrian motifs in Hermes ties, so prized among bankers.
The advent of the train, motor car and aeroplane helped consolidate the triumph of town over country, of the mass over the elite, of industrially produced riches over landed inherited wealth, and of speed over repose.
Fast cars, aeroplanes and boats have always been toys of the newly rich.
The motor car as horse-substitute symbolised the irresponsible plutocracy by which the aristocracy felt threatened from the 1880s onwards. Even today, the insignias of Ferrari and Porsche are a horse.
Mobility is still a vital ingredient in classic super-status symbols.
The ultimate executive jet, the Gulfstream V, flies higher and faster than any other and can transport you up to 10,500 miles in one go. Only some 40 have been produced. JP McManus, the Irish racehorse owner, flies one out of Ireland. Dr Michael Smurfitt, head of Jefferson Smurfitt, bases his in Nice.
The scarcity and longevity of Gulfstreams mean you can easily sell them on for a profit - ie, they are investments - but a super-yacht even more powerfully symbolises massive solvency. It is the largest piece of kit you can buy that isn't an investment. As soon as you switch on the motor, a yacht loses a chunk of its value. You'll have to refit it every two or three years, and when you finally sell it, it will fetch a fraction of what you put into it in real terms. You've got to be bloody rich or stupid, or both, to own one.
The finest sailing yachts are made by Perini Navi in Italy. The ultimate Perini Navi is Liberty, a 52-metre sailing cruiser launched three years ago with a beautiful Italian interior, state-of-the-art machinery and hydraulics; its owner, Eric Albada Jelgersma, made his pile in supermarkets in Belgium, Holland and Spain. For something racier, try a New Zealand yard. Duty-free king Bob Miller recently took delivery of a sailing yacht from Down Under called Mari-Cha III: the entire luxury interior can be lifted out and replaced with a strip-down racing interior.
As far as cars are concerned, Ferraris are more cash than cachet now that most footballers drive them. You really need a fleet of them to say anything meaningful: Eddie Irvine, the Formula One racing driver, owns a fleet of them. He also has a brace of special motorbikes, a helicopter, a Learjet, a yacht fitted with jet skis, more motorbikes and a share portfolio.
Back in reality, the hard-working old-economy rich seem to want nothing more ostentatious than a fuck-off-I've-made-it chauffeured car. One City PR went on a shoot in Scotland with the partner of a US law firm. 'The partner rolled up in a chauffeured Jag,' noted the PR. 'The poor driver had spent the day driving up to Scotland simply to ferry his boss - who had flown up - the few miles from the airport to the shoot and back again, before driving back down to London. Throwing your partners' money around like that implies high job security.'
The point of these super-toys is not so much to enjoy them - there's no time for that, unless you are Sir Donald Gosling, who almost lives aboard his yachts - as to have a hand in their creation and to merely possess them. Mohammed Fayed, for example, has his yacht fitted out like a mobile office, but he's hardly ever on it. Owners' attitudes towards these machines is to buy them and keep them for a year or two, until a superior version comes along. Julian Metcalfe, co-owner of the Pret a Manger sandwich chain, went through his helicopter phase and on to his yacht phase. Now he wants an even bigger yacht, along with his chauffeur-driven Bentley, his house in London and estate in the country.
The reason why one Ferrari or yacht simply isn't enough is that the value of conventional status symbols has been eroded by their affordability.
Who cares that Sir Anthony Bamford, the JCB digger tycoon, owns all the cars, aeroplanes and helicopters you could shake a chequebook at, as well as the yacht The Virginian, when any district manager can charter, hire or rent such machines? These status symbols are almost meaningless as an indication of wealth. Asked how rich he is, one jet-flying, yacht-sailing financier smiled: 'I'm as rich now as I've always pretended to be.'
More status-worthy is something that exists in only finite quantities, like fine wine and great art. Wine is a relatively cheap status symbol, but carries cachet because a knowledge and appreciation of it implies refinement and a sense of deferred gratification. At the highest level, must-have wines are Petrus, Romanee Conti, Leroy, Domaine Leflaive and Le Pin; more adventurous types might go for Pingus from Spain, Sassicaia from Italy, Dominus from California and Grange from Australia.
The champagne-swilling Loadsamoneys of the '80s have now matured into bottle-fondling, wine-sipping connoisseurs. Adam Brett Smith, of Corney & Barrow, says: 'We have a large selection of young, aggressive City types who are in tune with fine wines. Sometimes there is a faint element of embarrassment mixed with an air of determination in their approach. They must know the wines and expect others to know them.' Alex Ferguson and Chris Evans (the biotech entrepreneur) are keen collectors.
But even rare wine is readily available if you know where to look. Similarly with art, there's little status to be gained from walking into a West End gallery and saying: 'I'll have two hundredweight of Damien Hirsts and 15 yards of Rachel Whiteread.' People want uniqueness or specialness in ways other than simply buying being special or unique. For most of us, this is impossible. You cannot buy the sense of style that comes with having been brought up in a beautiful country house. You cannot buy 'having had a nanny'.
But you can buy yourself time to become a connoisseur, which will allow you to spot a great talent before anyone else and to say, without lying: 'I've had this Lucian Freud since we knew each other in our 20s.' This is what the Saatchis have done in the contemporary arts. Having collected virtually unknown artists, they have become cornerstones of the modern art market. It's the art equivalent of holding founders' shares in a hot net start-up.
Some people go one stage further and give money away without getting anything materially in return. Ted Turner recently bailed out the United Nations to the tune of dollars 1 billion. Warren Buffett intends to give 99% of his pounds 19.37 billion fortune to charity; Bill Gates has expressed similar sentiments. Sir James Goldsmith bequeathed 10% of his fortune to his brother Teddy to further the ecological movement. Sir Arthur Gilbert, the 86-year-old, California-based property developer, has just given his gold, silver and micro-mosaic collection to the nation; it has just gone on show at Somerset House, London.
Giving away your time is the ultimate inverted status symbol. We all have less and less time. Every time you look at your watch, you see it ticking away. People express the value of their time in two ways: by being perpetually in a hurry, and by wearing an expensive watch, which says symbolically: 'My time is money.' Today's status watch is Franck Muller's Master Banker, a three time-zone tonno-shaped item developed by Muller after he'd met a party of bankers.
In the end, most of us who make it settle for the same old things. After going through the Ferrari phase, the helicopter phase, the jet phase and the yacht phase, most of us realise that keeping up with the latest toys is a treadmill, because they're always turning out something faster, bigger, better and more expensive. The smart people do what Chris Evans (the DJ) has done, which is to buy a Tudor pile in the country, or what Peter Kindersley has done, which is to devote more time to his 2,000-acre organic farm on the Berkshire downs.
The modern variant to this time-honoured theme is to build your own house.
Bill 'Attila the Brum' Harrison, former head of BZW, has bought a sublime villa in southern Tuscany and redeveloped it massively. Gavyn Davies, Goldman Sachs' chief economist, has built himself an award-winning house in north Devon. Eddie Irvine is having his own architect-designed house built in Dalkey, south of Dublin.
When you are standing warming yourself by your own hearth, gazing out at your acres with a two-mile drive meandering through them, while staff hand round drinks, what more, frankly, need you say about yourself. A more extreme variant of the Arcadian idyll is buying a ranch in an undiscovered part of Montana, where you can wax lyrical about the simple life with no running water and how the setting sun is one's television.
Status symbols are intended to impress others, not to please oneself.
There comes a point when you no longer need or want to impress and doing something purely to please oneself is the ultimate. Take Henry Roussel, late scion of the French pharmaceutical giant, who wore a new shirt every day. He never did it to impress; he just loved the rustle of the packets and the feeling of fresh silk or cotton against the skin.
I can just see the man from corporate reconstruction and insolvency, in a few months' time, picking through the remnants of wheresthemoneymartha.com and finding nothing but a fridge full of new shirts.