Monday, January 9, 2012

Pearl of Lao Tzu

The Pearl of Lao Tzu (also referred to as Pearl of Lao Tze and Pearl of Allah) is the largest known pearl in the world. It is not a gem-quality pearl, but is instead what is known as a "clam pearl" or "Tridacna pearl" from a giant clam. It measures 24 centimeters in diameter (9.45 inches) and weighs 6.4 kilograms (14.1 lb). It is an interesting piece of natural history surrounded by extraordinary stories and legends.

The pearl came from the Philippines. Wilburn Cobb, an American who brought the pearl from the Philippines in 1939 and owned it until his death in 1979, published an account of how he came to own it in Natural History Magazine. According to Cobb, he wanted to buy it from a Philippine tribal chief when he first heard of it in 1934, but the chief did not want to sell. However, in 1936 Cobb saved the life of the chief’s son, who was stricken with malaria, and was given the pearl as a token of gratitude.

In America, the pearl was exhibited at the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Odditorium in New York, valued at $3.5 million.

Much later, Cobb wrote a new account in the February 1969 Mensa Bulletin, this time promoting the pearl as an artifact of Chinese legend. He alleged he had been approached by a Chinese fellow named Li, who divulged a rich mythology. In short, the pearl had first been grown in a much smaller clam around a jade amulet inserted by a disciple of legendary sage Laozi more than 2 500 years ago, and been transferred over the centuries to ever larger clams, growing to record size. Wars had been fought over the artefact, and it had been sent off to the Philippines as a protective measure, where it was lost in a storm. Also according to Cobb, Li had tried to buy the pearl from him for $3.5 million.

After Cobb’s death in 1980, Peter Hoffman and Victor Barbish bought the pearl from his estate for the much smaller sum of $200,000. Barbish has claimed to have had further contact with other Li family members over the legendary status of his pearl. (The legend of a ”Pearl of Laozi”, however, is only known from the claims of Cobb and Barbish.)

When Victor Barbish borrowed money from a Joseph Bonicelli, he gave him an interest in the pearl. In 1990, Bonicelli took Barbish to court to collect his loan, and the court ruled that Hoffman, Barbish and Bonicelli were equal partners in the pearl. Bonicelli died in 1998, and after more legal proceedings the court ordered the pearl to be sold (it has not been), with a third of the money going to Bonicelli’s children.

The pearl is not on display to the public and is currently held as part of the probate inventory of Victor M. Barbish. The Pearl is presently owned in three equal shares by the heirs of Joe Bonicelli, Peter Hoffman, and Victor Barbish.

Gemologist Michael Steenrod in Colorado Springs has appraised the pearl at $60 million (1982) and $93 million (2007). Another 1982 appraisal, by Lee Sparrow of the San Francisco Gem Lab, put the pearl at $42 million.

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