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Chasing the Pearl of Lao Tzu

追寻老子宝珠

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

这是一个关于古代哲学家、外星人绑架、雇佣谋杀以及这个世界上最大的珍珠是如何成为一个80年的骗局的核心的故事。


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.

传说认为一个潜水员在试图取回珍珠的时候被淹死了。1934年5月,他那具被夹在一个巨砗磲蛤中的尸体被他位于菲律宾巴拉望省的部落同胞带到了水面。当这个巨砗磲蛤被撬开,肉被刮掉的时候,当地的酋长看到了一件了不得的东西:一颗巨大的珍珠,它的光泽就像缎子一般。在它的表面,酋长看到了先知穆罕默德的脸。他把它命名为“安拉之珠”。它的重量达到了14磅1盎司,是迄今为止发现的最大的珍珠。

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.”

当时,一名菲律宾裔美国人威尔伯德·道尔·科布正在岛上访问,他提出了要购买这颗珍珠。在1939年发表在《自然历史》杂志上的一篇文章中,他讲述了酋长拒绝出售这颗珍珠的故事:“一颗带有穆罕默德先知穆罕默德形象的珍珠,是需要通过奉献和牺牲获得的,而不是用金钱买来的”。但是,当酋长的儿子患上疟疾时,科布使用了一种现代药物——疟涤平治愈了他。“你已经赢得了你的奖赏,”酋长说,“我的朋友,这颗珍珠是你的了”。



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.

1939年,科布把这颗珍珠带到了纽约,并在位于百老汇大街上的“信不信由你奇趣馆”中展示了它。在那里,出现了一个新的传说,它使得第一个传说相形见绌。科布说,看到珍珠后,一位被称为李先生的中国老绅士“突然陷入了一种战栗和哭泣的歇斯底里状态中”。这不是安拉之珠;这是遗失已久的老子宝珠。


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.

他告诉科布,公元前600年左右,中国古代哲学家、道家学说的创始人老子雕刻了一个护身符,其中描绘了“三个朋友”——佛陀、孔子和他自己——并把它插进一个贝类当中,这样珍珠就会在它周围生长起来。随着它的成长,珍珠被转移到越来越大的贝壳里,直到后来,只有巨型的砗磲才能容纳它。李先生声称,在它的光辉中,不仅仅出现一张脸,而是三张脸。

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.

李先生当场就给了科布50万美元,他说这颗珍珠实际上价值350万美元。但就像之前那位有原则的部落酋长一样,科布拒绝出售这颗珍珠。

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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.

威尔本·科布于1903年出生于菲律宾西部的库约岛。他的父亲是一名美国矿业工程师,科布出身富裕家庭,喜欢冒险。露丝形容他是一位出色的游泳运动员,他会到巴拉望的水下洞穴里潜水,与成群的鲨鱼竞逐。当他从一个岛到另一个岛旅行的时候,他开始迷恋当地的文化,开始撰写关于他遇到的人的浪漫故事。

“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.

“他讲故事的那部分始终存在,”露丝告诉我,“他想成为一名作家”。科布研究了他的珍珠,从不同的角度绘制了它的草图,并最终看到了那张包裹着头巾的脸,就像一个藏在云中的人物。他把这颗珍珠叫做“安拉之珠”,表达了一名异教徒对这位穆斯林领袖的尊重,然后借那位酋长之口在《自然历史》的书页中讲述了这个故事。科布对事实和虚构的区别有着天真烂漫的态度,他似乎把故事的乐趣看作是它的有效性的证明。



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)

威廉·科布出生于菲律宾,但是他在1939年日占期间带着这颗破纪录的珍珠来到了美国,他的妻子和八个孩子不得不自己照顾自己。(《旧金山纪事报》)

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“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.”

“从心理上来说,他真的无法与之分离”,露丝说,即便他的生活变得越来越简朴。从战事中返回之后,他在旧金山定居了下来,并在圣昆廷国家监狱获得了一份警卫的工作。科布在圣昆廷监狱的空闲时间里更加珍视这颗珍珠。“拥有很多钱对我来说只会是另一个令人头疼的问题”,他在1967年对《旧金山纪事报》说,“世界上最富有的人都没有我所拥有的东西”。

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.

但它值多少钱呢?这样一个奇异的物体是很难评价其价值的。在某种程度上,这颗珍珠只有在别人愿意出价时才有价值,而当科布的生命即将走到尽头的时候——当他想把这颗珍珠放在市场上出售时——李先生的故事第一次流传了开来。

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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.

1979年,当科布去世时,只留下露丝来解决他的财产问题。这颗曾经与她争夺父爱的竞争对手现在却成了一种税收负担。想要获得第三方对其价值看法的露丝咨询了美国国税局的宝石专家,他们给出的价格是20万美元。这听起来很公平。不久之后,一个来自贝弗利山庄的珠宝商说他找到了一个买家。

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.

因此,在“老子宝珠”来到美国40年后,露丝·科布·希尔在旧金山的富国银行遇到了买家。在武装护卫之下,她从保险箱里拿出了这颗世界上最大的珍珠,并把它交给了一个名叫维克多·巴尔比什的人。

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.

如果说是科布创作了这颗珍珠的原始福音,那么维克多·巴尔比什就是它的原教旨主义信奉者。他创办了一家控股公司,“全球最大珍珠”有限公司,并任命自己为总裁。然后他详细精心包装了科布的故事——“真实的历史”——他这么称呼它。

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.

巴尔比什说,在隋朝时期(公元581年至618年),这颗珍珠的主人醒过来后发现一个迫切地想要获得食物和住所的小男孩敲他的前门,他把这个男孩带了进去。一天晚上,这个人梦见老子宝珠跟他说话,预言这个男孩会开创一个新的王朝,“一个比以前更人道的王朝”。果然,这个男孩长大后成为了唐朝的建立者李世民。

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.

巴尔比什还解决了科布的故事中的一个关键的逻辑问题:珍珠是如何来到距离中华帝国所在地1800英里之外的菲律宾海岸附近的。他说,在明朝(公元1368年至1644年),这颗珍珠搭上了一艘商船,并因为台风被冲到海里。

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.

他声称自己是在1983年从帕萨迪纳市的李先生家人那里了解到这些事实的。巴尔比什说,在一位名叫刘易斯·麦克斯韦的前中情局特工的帮助下,他打算把这颗珍珠卖给李氏家族。

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.

然而,似乎总有一些事情阻碍了珍珠的出售。问题不在于李先生从来没有存在过——他只是威尔伯恩·科布虚构出来的热舞——而在于一系列似乎围绕着巴尔比什发生的奇奇怪怪的灾难。巴尔比什说,在日本,李先生给了麦克斯韦一张100万美元的定金,但是在回到阿拉斯加后,麦克斯韦尔在一次失败的心脏搭桥手术中失血过多而死。这张支票消失了,而巴尔比什再也没有听到过李家的消息。

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.

刘易斯·麦克斯韦尔只是维克多·巴尔比什所经历的这颗珍珠的历史中飘过的众多名字中的一个。医生,将军,公主——在这个名字后面通常都有一个真实的人物存在。和科布一样,巴尔比什也意识到,这个故事的价值可能超过了实际的物体。在巴比的叙述中,这颗珍珠的故事的结局总是你变得富有了。

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.

当我开始研究老子宝珠时,我听说了一个佛罗里达的女人,她比任何人都更了解维克多·巴尔比什拥有这颗珍珠的25年的情况。有人告诉我,她甚至还写了一本关于巴尔比什的回忆录,但却因为害怕被起诉,甚至是更糟糕的结果而作罢。

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.

我在去年10月于佛罗里达见到了劳拉·林特纳-霍恩,在之后的几天里,她告诉我她和巴尔比什一家分分合合生活了50年,从她还是个小女孩开始一直到她遇见了她的第三任丈夫——她从来都没有质疑过他所说的话或违抗过他的命令。她曾经手里拿着老子宝珠,并且认为巴尔比什在这里就是为了传递它古老的和平讯息。事实上,她为那个她曾认为是她父亲的男人做过一切事情。

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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.

十年来,劳拉一直在努力拼凑出维克多·巴尔比什的生活,但即使是最基本的事实也很难得以恢复。他曾称赞美国是一个公民“可以成为他或她想成为成为的任何人”的地方,并充分利用了国家对自我创造的容忍。他说自己是一名僧侣,一名职业拳击手,一名中央情报局特工,一位歌剧演唱家。他是索菲亚·罗兰的情人小萨米·戴维斯的商业伙伴。他曾经历过毒杀,枪杀,曾在战争中被俘,被恶魔附身过。他的家人称他为梦想家;但大多数人则称他为骗子。