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King of Pearls : 14-Pound Gem Arrives in L.A., Cloaked in Mystery and Destined for Sale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The famed Pearl of Allah arrived in Los Angeles Thursday, not by flying carpet or atop a white steed but in an armored truck, under a firestorm of flashing cameras.

The 14-pound convoluted pearl looks rather like a petrified white brain and appears better suited to a jar of formaldehyde than a satin pillow. But it retained an aura of mystery and romance as it was installed in a Studio City vault and briefly exhibited for photographers from around the world.

“I am very proudly a part of this priceless and remarkable artifact,” Peter Hoffman, a co-owner of the pearl, said as he placed the gem on a display stand draped in black velvet and gold lame. “It has a wonderful history and some remarkable legends to it.”

Considered the world’s largest pearl, its flamboyant arrival in the San Fernando Valley marked the latest turn in a fanciful, 2,500-year history and the end of a nine-year legal battle as twisted as its hard, white furrows.

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Hoffman said the pearl has been appraised as being worth $42 million by the San Francisco Gem Laboratory.

It is destined for sale, possibly to a foreign collector, Hoffman said. But before Hoffman and his partners see any profit, the proceeds will settle a number of debts stemming largely from its purchase, according to Matthew I. Berger, a Beverly Hills attorney who represents one of the creditors.

Hoffman, a second-generation jeweler who grew up in West Los Angeles, declined to discuss the pearl’s legal history. But Berger said his client, the Trans-Exchange Corp. of Texas, filed suit in 1981 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles after Hoffman and a partner failed to pay off a $200,000 promissory note.

The loan financed the purchase of the pearl in 1980 from the estate of Wilburn Dowell Cobb, a San Francisco archeologist who obtained it in the 1930s and met Hoffman in 1977, three years before his death.

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After Trans-Exchange Corp. won a judgment for repayment in the mid-1980s and sought assets to seize, the pearl could not be found, Berger said. It was finally located in Colorado Springs, Colo., where Hoffman’s partner in the pearl’s purchase had used it as collateral for another loan, Berger said.

Hoffman had the pearl brought to Los Angeles so he could oversee its sale.

Hoffman--who owns a one-third interest in the pearl--said he would like to see it sold to a private collector who would ensure its public display.

“It’s like a great masterpiece, like a Van Gogh,” Hoffman said earlier this week, adding that the pearl had changed him.

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“It has made me a very spiritual person,” Hoffman said. “Everything I do I look at from a spiritual point of view instead of from a material point of view.”

Wrapped in layers of plastic foam and bubbles, the pearl rolled into Los Angeles from Denver Thursday morning. About two dozen photographers waited while the Loomis Armored Inc. truck positioned itself in front of American Vault’s main entrance off Laurel Canyon Boulevard.


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