By Caitlin Williams and Kathie Hodson
Millions of dollars, arranged murder, historical fabrications, journeys across vast oceans and battles in court … all are attached to what some people have called the ugliest pearl in the world. Complex and treacherous like the myriad folds on the surface of the 14-pound baroque pearl (the world’s largest), so too are the tales and trials surrounding the famed Pearl of Allah. Since the day of its discovery, the Pearl of Allah, otherwise known as the Pearl of Lao Tzu, has been escaping its reputation as a symbol of peace and harmony, and instead been the focus of innumerable suspect situations. Though mounted in the center of numerous legends, from ancient wars to the courts of the American West, the true history behind the pearl remains elusive. Addressing inconsistencies in the pearl’s histories, pearl experts and enthusiasts have set about establishing the fact and fiction behind this remarkable treasure, whose value, up until recently, has had little reassessment and tempering, and whose historical legitimacy has even been presented as of weight in the American legal system.
The Recounted History
The first version of its origins takes place in 1934 off the coast of Palawan, a Philippino island, where a young Muslim diver is said to have died after he found himself caught in the cockles of a great tridacna gigas clam. After divers recovered the clam and its victim, the chief of the native Dayaks declared the pearl be called “The Pearl of Allah” because the odd shape of the gem looked like a turbaned Muhammad.
According to the account by Wilburn Cobb, a visiting archeologist from San Francisco, he was presented the pearl in 1936 after saving the Dayak chief’s son from malaria. Cobb brought the pearl to New York City in 1939 and had it authenticated as a genuine tridacna pearl by Roy Waldo Miner, Curator of Living Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History. In a letter, Miner described the pearl as being almost 14 pounds and 9 inches long. Contrary to the perfectly shaped orbs with pearlescent sheens, as most pearls appear in stores, this pearl was grotesquely irregular in shape with many tortuous surfaces, much like a brain, and had a matte, porcelain-like surface. Miner mentioned that as growth rates are not known for giant clams, he could not guess its age.
Cobb recounted his story about finding the pearl for the November 1939 issue of the museum’s magazine, Natural History. He exhibited the pearl at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Odditorium in New York City, where it was claimed to be the world’s largest known pearl. An appraised value of $3.5 million was posted at the Ripley’s Museum show.
The pearl mysteriously went absent from public display or assessment for the next 30 years, until Cobb wrote another story about it in the February 1969 issue of the Mensa Bulletin. The introduction to the article stated that if Mensa could broker a sale for $3.5 million, it would get a much needed injection of funds in the form of a finder’s fee worth 5 percent ($175,000). Though the sale was unsuccessful, the article did present a very different history of the pearl than the one written 30 years before. Thus, Cobb’s retelling of the Pearl of Lao Tzu legend was born.
A Fantastic Story is Born
In the article, Cobb claimed that while the pearl was being exhibited at Ripley’s Museum in 1939, a Mr. Lee from China appeared at Ripley’s and claimed the pearl was the lost Pearl of Lao Tzu. Mr. Lee retold the ancient Chinese legend of the pearl to Cobb: Before Lao Tzu’s death 2,500 years ago, he instructed a disciple to implant a jade amulet, engraved with the faces of Buddha, Confucius and himself, in a clam shell to produce a pearl. Lao Tzu sought to demonstrate that if the three ancient sages with differing views could co-exist peacefully in the clam, then so could all mankind. He told his followers to guard and secure the amulet in the clam for four years; doing so would bring peace and harmony to the world. But instead, they transferred the pearl to larger and larger clams as it outgrew each one.
Cobb wrote that Mr. Lee told him wars were fought over the pearl and in 1750, it was sent away from China as a protective measure. The pearl was transported, in its clam, in a boat, where it was lost in a storm off Palawan Island until a diver found it (the young Muslim Dayak), still in its clam, in 1934. Cobb claims that Mr. Lee said it was the same pearl and was willing to offer $3.5 million for the pearl, but Cobb refused. Mr. Lee left Ripley’s and was never seen again.
When Cobb died in 1980, his estate sold the pearl to Peter Hoffman and Victor Barbish for $200,000. This transaction is the latest offer and acceptance of the pearl on record. According to Michael Steenrod, a Colorado Springs gemologist who appraised the pearl at $60 million, and likened the pearl to a religious artifact, "That was a fluke that somebody just let it go for $200,000 after the guy who owned it died."
The Story is a Proven Myth
However, according to pearl expert Jeremy Shepherd of the Pearl-Guide.com forum, Steenrod’s appraisal, those in Cobb’s articles and two additional appraisals from 1982 and 2007, are far from credible.
“The history of the Pearl of Lao Tzu is a fantasy,” Shepherd continued.
“It is impossible to culture a pearl in a clam. It has never been done, let alone 2,400 years ago. Culturing blister pearls in mussels only began in the 13th century and whole pearls were never cultured until around the turn of the 20th century. This pearl is a whole pearl, so the story has to be a complete fabrication.”
While Shepherd does not dispute that it is the world’s largest known clam pearl, he says it was not commissioned by Lao Tzu, it is not from China, and it is nowhere near 2,000 years old.
“This undoubtedly affects the value of the pearl drastically,” said Shepherd, “making it worth far less as a clam pearl found in 1934.”
The Perjured Pearl
Yet despite historical and scientific rebuttals about the pearl’s value by experts such as Shepherd, tales of the pearl’s fantastic voyage remained intact, even in the eyes of the legal system. Its journey continued as it became a key player in Colorado’s largest wrongful death judgment.
Soon after acquiring the pearl, Barbish took a loan from Colorado Springs bar owner Joseph Bonicelli and gave him an interest in the pearl. The pearl first went to court in 1990 in an attempt by Bonicelli to collect his loan. The Lao Tzu story became part of the legal record in an attempt to establish a value for the pearl during these proceedings. At that time, the courts ruled that the three men were equal partners in the pearl and ordered it be sold, though this order was never carried out.
After Bonicelli’s death in 1998, the pearl became involved in yet another legal imbroglio, though this time a gruesome murder case. Bonicelli’s wife, Eloise, was murdered in her home in 1975. The murder went unsolved until 1998 when the police received a confession from a participant in her murder plot. As revealed in the confession, Bonicelli had paid hit man Delfino Ortega, a local barber, $10,000 to kill Eloise.
Bonicelli’s children by Eloise, upon learning of how the murder was carried out, brought a wrongful death suit against their father, in which Bonicelli’s share of the pearl was the prize. The Colorado courts ruled in favor of the children in 2005. The case completed its appeals in May 2007, with the judgment still standing. The pearl was ordered to be sold again based on the 2007 appraisal by Steenrod of $93 million, with a $32.4 million interest in the pearl, or one-third of the total assessment, going to the children.
Exaggerated Appraisals and False Claims of Carbon Dating
Barbish has been certain to post Steenrod’s appraisal on his website about the pearl, in addition to information related to a 1982 appraisal by the SF Gem Lab’s Lee Sparrow. This appraisal makes reference to a previous carbon dating, though it does not mention the lab in which it took place nor the date it was completed. In addition, most experts mention that carbon dating a pearl would be either impossible or perilous to the pearl itself. Sparrow’s appraisal, worth $42 million, also claims the pearl was dated as approximately 600 years old, though that contradicts the Lao Tzu story, since Lao Tzu’s time period was 2,400 years ago. Regardless, this discrepancy did not thwart the assessment of Steenrod, who calculated his 2007 appraisal, accepted in court as an accurate value, based on Sparrow’s estimation and considering inflation.
Myths and Legends Perpetuated
Over the years, Barbish has claimed that various parties have made offers on the pearl. He claimed another member of the Lee family appeared in Pasadena, CA, in 1983, reiterated the story of Lao Tzu, and made an offer for the pearl. He was turned down and he too mysteriously disappeared into obscurity. President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines is said to have wanted to buy the pearl in 1986, but his fall from power interfered with that sale. More recently, Barbish claimed that Osama bin Laden tried to buy the pearl through a third party to give it to Saddam Hussein as a peace offering. The third party denies this ever happened. Barbish sued him and the case was dismissed. Barbish claimed that he canceled yet another offer because the buyers were not of “good character.”
Given that both Cobb and Barbish had good reason to perpetuate potentially profitable and fantastic histories behind the pearl, a door is opened for input by pearl researchers and scientists.
Tridacna clam experts agree that there is no authenticated example of a drowning by clam. In addition, it has been brought into question whether there were Dayak tribes or Muslims on Palawan at all at the time of discovery. Furthermore, if the Dayak tribe was Muslim, they would not have worshipped a visage of Muhammad on a pearl, or any other place.
Although skepticism regarding the pearl’s value, and the intentions behind the numerous recitations of legend, remains prominent, it is the intricacies of the claims, much like the face of the great pearl, that are indicative of the non-monetary worth and non-physical weight this gemstone graces on its audience.