From time to time there are hints that civilization may have begun its endgame, the final stages of an orgy of conspicuous consumption that on occasion has made the excesses of ancient Rome seem trifling by comparison.

One such clue was an Associated Press news story out of Tokyo that ran in the morning newspaper a while ago. “Bunch of special grapes sells for $910 in Japan,” trumpeted the headline. A Japanese hotel manager had paid $910 — or about $26 per grape — for a pound and a half of a newly developed grape variety to serve to guests at his upscale hotel which apparently caters to clients with a lot more money than brains.

The name of the new variety is, appropriately, “Ruby Roman.” (See fall of the Roman Empire, above.) The news article described the fruit as a “premium” grape, and if that is not the understatement of the month it will certainly do until something better pops up.

The item left some questions unanswered. What is the markup on a $26 grape? Surely, a hotel manager who lays out that kind of yen for a bunch of grapes doesn’t serve those grapes to his posh clientele at cost, does he? Does each grape come with a certificate of authenticity guaranteeing it to be the real deal and not just any old grape from any old vineyard? And just how does one go about eating a $26 grape while dining out, anyway?

Slowly, no doubt.

But do you also roll it around in your mouth for a bit while offering a critique, like some wine-tasting dandy trying to impress his girlfriend with his savoir faire while the waiter stands by, checking his watch and counting the ceiling tiles?

I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the clientele for a supply of $26 grapes might include wealthy Russians, said to be a rapidly growing segment of society. My dawg-eared file contains a printout of a New York Times story written by Andrew E. Kramer and published in 2006 that tops even the tale of Japanese grapes at $910 the bunch. It concerns Moscow’s second annual millionaires fair that caters to Russia’s jet set.

Kramer wrote of cell phones that a Swiss company was hawking there at prices ranging from $18,000 to $150,000 — el-cheapo models apparently made for commoners whom the late billionaire socialite Leona Helmsley was fond of calling “the little people.” The Swiss company’s piece de resistance of cell phones was a diamond-studded model selling for $1.27 million, which would seem to be ideal bling to complement the 15 pounds of gold neck chain worn by many professional athletes.

“Somebody is wearing a nice watch or piece of jewelry. And then the phone rings. It doesn’t match. It’s a piece of plastic. We make it match,” is how the president of the phone manufacturing company put it.

Whether or not that match greatly improves the quality of the average cell phone conversation at the supermarket checkout line the story did not say. My guess would be that it doesn’t, but since anyone who can lay out $1.27 million for a cell phone is not likely to be standing in a supermarket line near me anytime soon, I’ll never know.

One of the hottest toys on display at the fair was what every macho guy needs on the crowded streets of Moscow — the handmade $1.65 million Bugatti Veyron sports car, a weapon of mass destruction capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph.

The Times article told of a Russian banker who married a Serbian model near Cannes, France in a ceremony that cost $40 million. For the nuptials, the couple dismantled an Orthodox church in Russia and reassembled it in France, a nouveau riche stunt if ever I’ve heard of one.

Such conspicuous consumption reflects a Russian joke that was making the rounds at the millionaires fair, Kramer reported. It describes how one Russian businessman tells a friend of buying a necktie for $100.

“You fool,” his friend responds. “You can get the same tie for $200 just across the street.”

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at