Fortune's Believe It or Not
They all laughed when Jefferson bought half the continent from France. Alaska was called "Seward's Folly." Other "crazy" investments have worked out fine too.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – It was literally, poetically, falling down. But that didn't stop oil magnate Robert McCulloch from shelling out $2.46 million to the City of London for the famed London Bridge in 1968. He moved it to Arizona and made it the centerpiece of his Lake Havasu resort, now a popular vacation destination.

Outbidding Paul McCartney for the rights to his own songs, Michael Jackson bought 260 Beatles hits for $45 million in 1985. Now those tunes are said to be worth about $500 million. But he may not hold on to his 50% stake (shared with Sony) for long--he's used it as collateral on hundreds of millions in loans.

When George Bissell bought a Titusville, Pa., farm in 1859, he believed lamp oil could be derived from the odd black sludge that bubbled out of nearby creeks. To collect it he developed the first modern oil well and struck black gold.

Malcolm Glazer was ridiculed when he paid $192 million for the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1995. But after a 2003 Super Bowl win, they're now valued at more than $700 million. This year, Glazer paid $1.47 billion for 75% of U.K. soccer club Manchester United.

Advertising mogul Charles Saatchi bought Damien Hirst's infamous shark installation (a 14-foot tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde) in 1991 for under $100,000. Twelve years later he sold it to hedge fund manager Steve Cohen for between $8 million and $12 million. Rumor has it that the shark may soon take up residence at New York's MoMA.

Snapple was a fast-growing midsized business when investor Tom Lee bought it for $135 million in 1992, took it public, and sold it to Quaker Oats for $1.7 billion of the actual best stuff on Earth in 1994. (Quaker didn't fare nearly as well: It offloaded Snapple in 1997 for $300 million.)

In 1891, Asa Candler, an Atlanta entrepreneur, paid pharmacist John Pemberton $2,300 for the formula to his weird brown health drink named Coca-Cola. Last year the company had revenue of $22 billion.

Back in 1961, $2.7 million seemed like a lot of money for a hamburger stand and some golden arches--in today's dollars, that would be $16.8 million--but Ray Kroc took the plunge. Forty-four years later, there are more than 30,000 McDonald's franchises throughout the world, and the company grossed $19.1 billion last year.

Ted Turner sold off most of MGM as soon as he bought it in 1986 (he paid Kirk Kerkorian $1.5 billion), but he held on to the pre-1986 film and TV-show catalogs. In 1988 he used the film library to start TNT. Turner sold his media holdings to Time Warner in 1996; now classics like Casablanca are raking in the DVD dough.

Standard Oil magnate Henry Flagler was mocked for buying the Jacksonville, St. Augustine & Halifax Railroad in 1885 and expanding it to Miami, linking South Florida with the rest of the country. Once people could get there, he gave them somewhere to go, building Palm Beach and Miami from the ground up.



NBC and Vince McMahon lost $35 million each when they started the XFL football league to satisfy Americans who couldn't make it through summer without football. In the end, though, the lack of talent kept fans away in droves.

Flush with oil money, Long Beach, Calif., bought the Queen Mary from Cunard in 1967 for $3.45 million to exploit as a municipal symbol. But the ship cost a bundle to fix up and never became a hit attraction.

Back in the late 1950s, Warren Buffett and his friend Tom Knapp cornered the market on 1954 Blue Eagle 4-cent airmail stamps. They found out that the 400,000 stamps were nearly worthless--plus the sheets kept sticking together. Buffett sold much of the lot at 10% of face value.

Thinking it could become a tourist attraction (and a film festival site), Kim Basinger helped buy Braselton, Ga., for $20 million in 1989, then had to sell for $1 million when she declared bankruptcy four years later.

Bookstore baron Louis Borders was among investors who took a bath on doomed online grocer Webvan, which raised $375 million in its 1999 IPO, then lost nearly a billion before going bankrupt in 2001.