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Chasing the Pearl of Lao Tzu


A tale of ancient philosophers, alien abductions, murder-for-hire—and how the world’s largest pearl came to be the centerpiece of an 80-year-old hoax


Legend says the diver drowned retrieving the pearl. Trapped in a giant Tridacna clam, his body was brought to the surface by his fellow tribesmen in Palawan, a province of the Philippines, in May 1934. When the clam was pried open, and the meat scraped out, the local chief beheld something marvelous: a massive pearl, its sheen like satin. In its surface, the chief discerned the face of the Prophet Muhammad. He named it the Pearl of Allah. At 14 pounds, one ounce, it was the largest pearl ever discovered.


A Filipino American, Wilburn Dowell Cobb, was visiting the island at the time and offered to buy the jewel. In a 1939 article that appeared in Natural History magazine, he recounted the chief’s refusal to sell: “A pearl with the image of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, is earned by devotion, by sacrifice, not bought with money.” But when the chief’s son fell ill with malaria, Cobb used atabrine, a modern medicine, to heal him. “You have earned your reward,” the chief proclaimed. “Here, my friend, claim this, your pearl.”


In 1939, Cobb brought the pearl to New York City, and exhibited it at Ripley’s Believe It or Not, on Broadway. There, a new legend emerged, eclipsing the first. Upon seeing the pearl, Cobb said, an elderly Chinese gentleman “of highest culture and significant wealth” named Mr. Lee “burst into an hysteria of trembling and weeping.” This wasn’t the Pearl of Allah; this was the long-lost Pearl of Lao Tzu.


Around 600 b.c., he told Cobb, Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, carved an amulet depicting the “three friends”—Buddha, Confucius, and himself—and inserted it into a clam so that a pearl would grow around it. As it developed, the pearl was transferred to ever-larger shells until only the giant Tridacna could hold it. In its sheen, Mr. Lee claimed, was not just one face, but three.


On the spot, Mr. Lee offered Cobb half a million dollars, saying the pearl was actually worth $3.5 million. But like the principled chief before him, Cobb refused to sell.


Wilburn Cobb was born in 1903 on Cuyo, an island in the western Philippines. His father was an American mining engineer, and Cobb grew up affluent, with a penchant for adventure. Ruth described him as a brilliant swimmer who would go diving in Palawan’s underwater caves and race with schools of sharks. As he traveled from island to island, he grew enamored of indigenous cultures, and began writing romantic stories about the people he encountered.


“The storytelling part of him was always, always there,” Ruth told me. “He wanted to be a writer.” Cobb studied his pearl, sketched it from different angles, and finally saw the turbaned face, like a figure in a cloud. He called it the Pearl of Allah in heretical, if well-meaning, deference to the chief, who was Muslim—and then put the words in the chief’s mouth, in the pages of Natural History. With a childlike indifference to distinctions of fact and fiction, Cobb seemed to perceive the pleasure of a story as proof of its validity.


William Cobb was born in the Philippines but moved to the U.S. with his record-breaking pearl in 1939, leaving his wife and eight children to fend for themselves during the Japanese occupation. (San Francisco Chronicle)


“Psychologically, he really couldn’t separate from it,” Ruth said, even as his life grew increasingly austere. Upon returning from the war, he settled in San Francisco and got a job as a guard at San Quentin State Prison. Cobb cherished the pearl all the more in San Quentin’s spare confines. “A lot of money would be just another headache to me,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1967. “The richest man in the world doesn’t have what I have.”


But what was it worth? Such a singular object was hard to appraise. In a way, the pearl was worth only what someone would offer, and it was toward the end of Cobb’s life—when he flirted with putting the pearl on the market—that the story of Mr. Lee first circulated.


When Cobb died, in 1979, Ruth was left to settle his estate. Once a rival for her father’s affection, the pearl now became a tax liability. Wanting a second opinion of its value, Ruth consulted a gemological expert at the IRS, and they arrived at a price of $200,000. That sounded fair. Soon after, a jeweler from Beverly Hills said he’d found a buyer.


And so, 40 years after the Pearl of Lao Tzu had come to America, Ruth Cobb Hill met its buyer at a Wells Fargo in San Francisco. Under armed guard, she lifted the world’s largest pearl from its safe-deposit box, and handed it over to a man named Victor Barbish.


If Cobb wrote the pearl’s original gospel, Victor Barbish was its fundamentalist. He founded a holding company, the World’s Largest Pearl Co. Inc., and named himself president. Then he elaborated on Cobb’s story—“the factual history,” he called it.


During the Sui dynasty (a.d. 581–618), Barbish said, the pearl’s owner awoke to find a young boy desperate for food and shelter knocking on his front gate, and took him in. One night, the man dreamed that the Pearl of Lao Tzu spoke to him and prophesied that the boy would initiate a new dynasty, “a reign distinguished by a more humane attitude than has prevailed heretofore.” Sure enough, the boy grew up to become Li Shih-Min, a founder of the Tang dynasty.


Barbish also resolved a key logistical hitch in Cobb’s story: how the pearl ended up off the coast of the Philippines, some 1,800 miles away from the seat of the Chinese empire. Still snug in its shell, he said, the pearl found its way onto a trading ship during the Ming dynasty (a.d. 1368–1644), and was swept overboard in a typhoon.


He claimed to have learned these facts from a member of Mr. Lee’s family in Pasadena in 1983. With the help of a former CIA agent named Lewis Maxwell, Barbish said, he planned to sell the pearl to the Lee family.


Yet something always seemed to thwart the pearl’s sale. The problem wasn’t that Mr. Lee never existed—that he was only ever a Wilburn Cobb invention—it was a series of action-packed calamities of the sort Barbish seemed to attract. In Japan, Barbish said, Mr. Lee gave Maxwell a check for a $1 million down payment, but after returning home to Alaska, Maxwell bled to death during a botched bypass surgery. The check disappeared, and Barbish never heard from the Lees again.


Lewis Maxwell is just one of many names that float through the pearl’s history with Victor Barbish. Doctors, generals, princesses—there usually was a real figure somewhere behind the name. Like Cobb, Barbish sensed that the story could be worth more than the actual object. And in Barbish’s telling, the story of the pearl always ended with you becoming rich.


When I began looking into the Pearl of Lao Tzu, I heard about a woman in Florida who knew more than anyone else about Victor Barbish’s 25-year ownership. She’d even written a memoir about Barbish, I was told, but was sitting on it for fear of being sued, or worse.


I met Laura Lintner-Horn in Bradenton, Florida, in October, and over the course of several days, she told me how she had lived with Barbish’s family, on and off, for 50 years—from when she was a little girl until she met her third husband—never questioning his claims or disobeying his orders. She’d held the Pearl of Lao Tzu in her hands, and thought Barbish was here to fulfill its ancient message of peace. Indeed, she’d have done anything for the man she believed to be her father.


For 10 years, Laura has been trying to piece together the life of Victor Barbish, yet even basic facts are difficult to recover. He was a man who praised America as a place where a citizen “could be anything he or she wants to be,” and took full advantage of the national tolerance for self-invention. He said he was a monk, a prizefighter, a CIA agent, an opera singer. He was the business partner of Sammy Davis Jr., the lover of Sophia Loren. He was poisoned, shot, imprisoned in war, possessed by demons. His family calls him a visionary; most others call him a con artist.