Giant pearl tied to death and family quarrels

Published Jan 29, 2005


By Jon Sarche

Denver - Legend has it the so-called Pearl of Allah was created as a symbol of peace 2 500 years ago in ancient China. To Victor Barbish, the 6,4kg gem has been nothing but a big headache.

The rugby ball-sized grayish lump has been tied to enough greed, drama and intrigue to rival any Agatha Christie mystery, including two contract killings and a court fight that ended with one of the largest jury awards of its type in state history.

"It draws the wrong type of people," said Barbish, the pearl's majority owner. "It's only a pearl. It has a nice history. It was made to do something good, apparently, but what it's been drawing, it's been terrible."

Barbish says he kept the pearl in a Denver bank vault and a series of safe deposit boxes over the years, but he won't disclose its present location, even though he'd like to unload the gem to a museum or a library.

How the pearl wound up in Colorado is quite a tale - an extraordinary one, if the rumours are to be believed. It purportedly started as an amulet of Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, who is said to have carved his face and those of Confucius and Buddha into its surface. It was then planted in successively larger clams for generations; the convolutions on its surface resemble a human brain.

According to legend, the pearl was lost in a shipwreck centuries ago, then found in 1934 off Palawan Island in the Philippines by a diver who drowned when he reached into a huge clam to take it. The clam and the diver were pulled to shore and the island's chief, a Muslim who named the pearl, took possession.

About five years later, Wilburn Dowell Cobb saved the life of the chief's son and was given the pearl in gratitude. Cobb's heirs sold it in 1980 for $200 000 to Beverly Hills jeweller Peter Hoffman, who in turn sold part ownership to Barbish.

The two men formed the now-defunct World's Largest Pearl Company Incorporated in California and raised money by selling interests in the pearl to investors, including Joe Bonicelli.

This is where the history turns bloody.

The pearl is now part of the largest wrongful-death judgment in Colorado history after a jury recently awarded $32,4-million to Bonicelli's adult children, who sued over the 1975 death of their mother in a contract killing.

After Bonicelli's death in 1998, police said they determined that the decades-old killing was done at his behest.

His children want the pearl sold so they can be paid the settlement they won against their father's estate. They plan to use the money to establish a foundation in their mother's name to help abused women and children, said their lawyer, Richard Tegtmeier.

Bonicelli left his estate to his youngest daughter, whom he fathered with his second wife. Neither her attorney nor Phillips's attorney returned calls.

Appraisers have valued the pearl at up to $60-million, Tegtmeier said.

He said further court action will be necessary to determine how his clients will receive their money - but it will have to include selling the pearl.

Barbish just wants to be rid of it, but on his terms.

"We are donating that pearl," he said. "We don't want the money for it. We want it to go to a charity for everybody to see and view, either a museum or a presidential library." - Sapa-AP

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