Claim: Rock purchased for $10 proves to be a valuable star sapphire.
Origins: One of the top "get rich quick" daydreams involves a lucky buyer who stumbles across something offered for a relatively low price by a seller who doesn't realize its true
value — perhaps an old, short-printed baseball card turned up at a garage sale, a collectible record offered for sale via eBay, a rare coin discovered in a jar of otherwise unremarkable change, or perhaps even a valuable painting tucked away in a dusty curio shop.
This favorite form of financial fantasy seemingly played out for real in February 1986, when Texas gemstone broker Roy Whetstine came across a potato-sized rock in the bin of an exhibitor at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Sale. Bargaining the seller (who thought the stone was a lavender-colored agate) down from his $15 asking price, Whetstine hurriedly purchased the rock for a mere $10.
Nine months later, after he had the stone appraised, certified, and insured, Roy Whetstine announced to the world what he had bought: a whopping 1,905-carat star sapphire, the largest such stone ever found (over 700 carats larger than the previous record-holder, the Black Star of Queensland), appraised at a cool $2.28 million.
Whetstine and his fabulous find became overnight celebrities, their story featured in such popular media outlets as network news segments, People magazine, the New York Times, and Joan Rivers' talk show. Whetstine announced plans to sell his bargain gem in uncut
form for $1.5 million, putting the proceeds into a trust for his two sons.
But by a few months later, the wheels had fallen off his ride to the land of riches.
Follow-up news stories disclosed that Lawrence A. Ward, the jewelry store owner who had issued the $2.28 million appraisal, had been kicked out of the American Gem Society over complaints that he had inflated appraisals. Moreover, court records revealed that two lawsuits had been filed against Whetstine and Ward a few years earlier for inflating the value of stones. And John Sampson White, curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian Institution, dismissed the find as "insignificant":
"I've handled it and I've spoken to the owner. It reconfirmed all my initial opinions: It's an insignificant stone."
"We wouldn't buy it. We wouldn't want it, I don't think, even if it were offered to us. We certainly couldn't accept it as a gift, given the crazy values on it."
"Technically it's a sapphire" — it has a six-ray star, and its size is "very interesting" — but to qualify as a gem, its color should be attractive.
"The color," he says, "is awful — it's just kind of muddy gray."
Mr. White says his estimate of the stone's value "would be modest indeed — maybe as low as a few hundred dollars."
The Los Angeles Times talked to five gem experts, most of whom had either examined or handled the stone (since cut, polished, and named the Life and Pride of America's Star), and found a consensus that the sapphire was worth a few thousand dollars at best:
"You would put it on your desk to keep papers still," said Jean F. Moyersoen, editor of Gemstone Price Reports and an independent gem appraiser for Sotheby's auction house.
Whetstine suggested that The Times call appraiser Elly Rosen, an independent appraiser from Brooklyn who has been a gem consultant for the Internal Revenue Service. Rosen said: "It is not of gem variety ..."
Asked about the value of the stone, Rosen said, "I don't think the word million can enter into conversation. I don't think six figures can enter into the conversation. I think the difficulty would be in the five figures. It is not what it has been made out to be. It is nice to see, it is an oddity ... but that's it."
By August 1987, a year and a half after purchasing the sapphire, Whetstine was still maintaining that "we are negotiating to sell the stone" and that "we firmly believe we're going to get several million dollars for it." Nonetheless, the lack of any further news stories on the subject in the subsequent two decades tends to indicate that either he never found a buyer or he unloaded the stone for an amount too small to merit press coverage of the sale. The find may have been a windfall, but apparently not quite the life-changing one that was originally reported.
Last updated: 17 October 2007
Frammolino, Ralph. "Controversy Centers on Texan's $10 Find — Sapphire May Not Be a Star After All."
Los Angeles Times. 13 February 1987 (p. 1).
Herold, Ann. "To a Texas Gemstone Broker, $5 + $5 = $2.28 Million."
Los Angeles Times. 13 November 1986 (p. OC2).
Associated Press. "Star Sapphire Called 'Insignificant Stone.'"
The New York Times 14 February 1987 (p. 50).
The New York Times. "$10 Purchase of Star Sapphire Produces a New Texas Hero."
17 November 1986 (p. 15).
The New York Times. "Precious Mettle."
21 November 1986 (p. 34).
The New York Times. "When a Sapphire Is Not a Gem."
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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