They should have brought him shares

What price frankincense and myrrh? Two of the three gifts in the biblical story have been eclipsed by gold in the commercial stakes, writes Richard Phillips. But on a relative investment basis, they have outperformed the yellow metal - if only because the latter has been even more dismal.

Overall, the Wise Men would have been much wiser if they had bought stocks and shares for the infant Jesus. None of the products brought to celebrate his birth have proved a scintillating investment over the past decade. Gold has proved a dead loss: at the start of 1987 it stood at $391 (pounds 238) per troy ounce: on Friday it closed at a less-than-glittering $369 a troy ounce.

Gone are the heady days of the 1970s when its price peaked at around $800 an ounce as fears of world economic collapse and rampant inflation brought a flight to gold. But its solid image has been severely undermined by the unpalatable fact that as its monetary role has declined, so it has become more like other commodities. Its commercial applications are also in slow decline, with its use in electronics being squeezed by cheaper substitutes and more efficient use.

While gold is out of favour in the City, frankincense and myrrh at least have the merit of stability - even if they have underperformed inflation. Frankincense has been stuck at $1.70 a kilo since 1987, destroying any myth of preciousness, while myrrh has come off from $3.40 a kilo to $3.20 over the same period, according to Joseph Flach & Sons of Peterborough, one of the UK's leading importers of the two gums.

But they could yet forge a commercial revival, after centuries of relative decline.The advent of ever more exotic tastes in perfumery, a taste for authentic rather than synthetic fragrances, and growing interest in aromatherapy have helped them make a comeback.

A number of parfumiers, including Czech & Speake, and The Crown Perfumery, of Burlington Arcade, have introduced fragrances with frankincense and myrrh in them.