Star of Africa, p.19Scott Mariani
What Eugene loved, more than anything in all the world, more than money, more than power, was diamonds.
Diamond. Even the very word itself seemed to glitter. Cut, uncut, white, pink, red, yellow, he didn’t discriminate. He adored them all in equal measure, and over the last thirty or so years had spent gigantic fortunes putting together one of the world’s most magnificent collections, one that he revered and guarded jealously from anyone’s eyes but his own. The Nizam Diamond, a three-hundred-and-forty-carat colourless topaz that sparkled like all the stars in the sky put together, was one of his favourite pieces. Then there was the Akbar Shah, once part of the jewelled Peacock Throne of northern India’s Mughal emperors, now in the hands of an unknown collector: guess who? The Archduke Joseph, a flawless Golconda beauty snapped up anonymously at Christie’s in 2012 for an eye-watering twenty-one and a half million bucks – that one was his, too. And there were more, a whole sackload more.
He never displayed them publicly, and God forbid that he should ever resort to gifting any of them to some grasping female in an attempt to gain her transient affections. People just didn’t see what he saw in them. While to most folks, diamonds were simply an expression of great wealth, for Eugene their monetary value only mattered insofar as the dollar price required for him to possess them. In no way did he regard them as mere investments, to be cashed in for a profit at some point in the future. Quite the contrary: he intended to hold tightly onto his babies forever, and his will specified that each and every one was to be interred along with him when he eventually shuffled off to a better place. They had come from the earth, and he would accompany them on their journey back.
But as much as Eugene’s magnificent collection nourished his soul, the object of his most ardent yearning was one diamond he’d never in all these years managed to possess. For as long as he could remember, it had haunted him. An image of unattainable perfection that brought tears to his eyes and a lump to his throat every time he let his imagination wander. The Holy Grail of precious stones. A legend. Or, as some believed, a myth. But Eugene Svalgaard had long refused to accept the naysayers’ claims that it didn’t exist. He’d always known it was out there, somewhere, waiting for him.
The lost Great Star of Africa. Possibly the most fantastical diamond in existence. Certainly one of the most elusive, especially to a man who had searched for it for most of his adult life.
The story of the diamond was a long and twisty tale that began in February 1905 at the famous Premier diamond mine in what was then the British-ruled Transvaal Colony of South Africa, with the discovery of an enormous rough stone that would become legendary as the Cullinan Diamond – named after Sir Thomas Cullinan, the mine’s owner. When first unearthed, the diamond was so huge that the stunned mine’s superintendent didn’t at first believe it was real. Weighing in at over three thousand carats, or more than a pound, the sheer size of the monster had a similar effect on the famous Dutch jeweller who would eventually cut it, Joseph Asscher, said to have fainted from the stress of having to cleave such a valuable stone.
The Transvaal Colony government had purchased the Cullinan for the then-huge sum of one hundred and fifty thousand pounds, and presented it as a gift to King Edward VII. Amid rumours of an impending robbery attempt, the British government had a decoy fake replica of the diamond transported under heavy armed guard on a ship to England while, in a flash of insane genius that could have gone very horribly wrong, the real one was sent by ordinary parcel post. King Edward then commissioned the Royal Asscher Diamond Company of Amsterdam to cleave the stone into smaller pieces. Ultimately there were nine of these, the choicest of which found their way into the British Crown Jewels. The largest was set into the head of the sceptre originally crafted for the coronation of Charles II in 1661. The second largest became the centrepiece of the Imperial State Crown. A third was crafted into a brooch often worn by Queen Elizabeth II throughout her long reign. The smallest of the Cullinan fragments adorned a ring designed for Queen Mary in 1911. It was soon after the cutting that the polished pieces of the original diamond became known as the ‘Stars of Africa’: the Great Star, the Second Star, and the various Lesser Stars. More than a century after its original discovery, all of the pieces of the original ‘Star of Africa’ were still accounted for.
Except one. One that remained the most exciting and tantalising mystery in the history of the diamond world.
When first discovered in its rough state, it had been noted that one whole side of the diamond was so flat and smooth that it was thought to be only part of a much bigger crystal, separated under the ground by the massive pressures inside the earth. That smooth, flat surface was called a cleavage plane, which theoretically should mate perfectly to that of its enormous half-brother like matching pieces of a puzzle.
Soon the hunt was on, and hopeful prospectors were falling over themselves in the mad rush to unearth the Star of Africa’s missing half. For many years, wild yarns had abounded about its possible whereabouts. Nothing was found, until 1934. Eugene possessed a copy of the Chicago Tribune dated January 18th of that year, in which an article had appeared headlined: FIND LOST HALF OF CULLINAN DIAMOND.
‘Reports from Pretoria, South Africa, yesterday told of the finding of a massive gem which may be the lost half of the Cullinan diamond,’ the article proclaimed, going on to describe the lucky discoverer as a ‘poor digger’. That poor digger had been a black worker named Makani, employed by Johannes Jacobus Jonker, a veteran diamond prospector who had established a claim at a site called Elandsfontein, less than five kilometres from the Premier Mine. On making his amazing discovery on January 17th 1934, Makani had thrown his hat in the air, run to show his boss, and the incredible diamond had been promptly locked in a hut guarded against thieves by men with revolvers until they could decide what to do with it.
This diamond, soon to be named the Jonker, did at first sight appear to be the missing half of the Great Star of Africa; but when carefully examined by experts it was found that its cleavage plane didn’t match perfectly enough with casts of the original Cullinan. Moreover, the Jonker diamond had been unearthed such a distance from the Premier Mine that it seemed unlikely they could have ever been related: thus, speculation that they had once been one huge diamond was laid to rest. The Jonker was ultimately divided into thirteen smaller diamonds. Past and present owners of these pieces included the Maharajah of Indore, John D Rockefeller Jr., and one Eugene Svalgaard.
All of which of course meant that, if the missing Star of Africa indeed existed, it was still out there. Did it remain buried deep underground? Had it been found and its discovery kept secret? For years after the Jonker episode, those questions still burned brightly in the minds of many. But as with all things, in time the excitement faded. The advent of World War Two pushed all thought of diamonds aside and the legend soon lost its lustre.
The saga might have ended there, swallowed up into history. But it didn’t, not for Eugene Svalgaard who, picking up the trail so many decades later, was undeterred in his quest to find the lost Star of Africa. In 2004 he bolstered the efforts of the small army of investigators he had working on the case by offering a million-dollar reward for information leading to its whereabouts. He was cautious enough to keep his name out of it, of course, setting up a chain of contacts that couldn’t lead back to him. Some in the specialist diamond world were scandalised; others scoffed; and everyone soon forgot about it as years went by and nothing happened. Even Eugene began to lose hope as his quest seemed to stagnate.
Then, in 2013, a forty-five-year-old Belgian named Marc Redel stepped into the picture, having only then heard through the grapevine of Eugene’s reward. He belonged to a line of jewellers going back to his grandfather, Elias Redel, now deceased, who had been a valuation expert for the Antwerp Diamond Bank from 1936 until his retirement in 1977. It was concerning his late grandfather that Marc Redel had a strange story to tell. He told it, in person to Eugene, on March 4th 2013, in a suite at the Waldorf Towers in
Old Elias had passed away eight years earlier at the age of ninety-nine, riddled with disease and suffering badly from dementia, though still capable of moments of great lucidity. Marc and his father had been present at the old man’s death-bed in 2005 when, close to eternity and ready to make his final confessions, Elias Redel had revealed to them a secret from his distant past that he had kept locked up and never spoken of until now. He related how, late one afternoon in August 1938 as he walked home from work through the streets of Antwerp, he had been approached by a mysterious Afrikaner who introduced himself as Henrik Cornelius Steenkamp and said he had a business proposition for him. At first unwilling, Redel had let himself be persuaded to go for a drink with the man and hear what he had to say.
Steenkamp had come to the point pretty quickly. Over glasses of Witkap Dubbel beer he claimed to be a one-time adventurer, slave trader and now South African diamond mine owner, with a pressing need to have a certain item valued.
‘That’s what we do at the bank,’ Redel had said. ‘Why not come to us?’ To which Steenkamp had replied that, due to the sensitive nature of the item in question, he wished to conduct the valuation as much under the table and out of reach of government bureaucrats, specifically tax officials, as possible. He was willing to pay a premium for discretion, and had heard through the grapevine that Redel was the best young valuer at the Antwerp Diamond Bank. Would he help?
Elias had sniffed more than a slight tang of illegality here. ‘I’m a valuer, not a fence,’ he’d said. Steenkamp had laughed at that one. ‘I’m not asking you to sell it for me, man. I’m asking you to do your job, privately, just for me, as a special favour. You’ll be well rewarded, hey?’
Steenkamp had laid his money on the table. It was an extremely tempting sum for a recently married man of thirty-two saving up to buy a bigger apartment for his growing family. Elias struggled with his conscience. If he declined the bribe and insisted Steenkamp go through the proper channels, he knew the only real loser in the situation would be him. It was just another diamond, after all. What harm could come of it?
Except that it was very far from being just another diamond. When Steenkamp showed it to him, Elias’s eyes popped. As he lay dying sixty-seven years later, he could still describe it perfectly.
Even before testing to see whether the smooth, flat cleavage face was a match, there was little doubt as to the identity of the rough stone. It was even bigger than its sibling discovered back in 1905. Bigger than a man’s fist, over four thousand carats in weight and absolutely flawless.
An unabashed white supremacist, Steenkamp made no secret of what had happened to the black mine employee who had found the diamond and brought it to him. When Steenkamp had got over his initial shock at the sight of the thing, he’d immediately asked the black digger whether he had told anyone else about this. The answer was ‘No, bwana.’ Whereupon Steenkamp had unholstered his Colt New Service and shot the ‘stupid dumb kaffir’ in the head to make sure it stayed that way. Steenkamp laughed as he told the tale. ‘Don’t look so bloody shocked, man. They’re animals, nothing more.’
Elias Redel was a Jew who lived in horror of the rising tide of racial persecution in neighbouring Nazi Germany, and Steenkamp’s hateful tale had shocked him deeply. But then he went ahead and did the very thing that would most haunt him for the rest of his life. He accepted the Afrikaner’s offer and went with the money.
The private valuation took three days to complete. Redel used an exact zircon replica of the original Great Star of Africa to confirm what he already knew: Steenkamp’s 4,322-carat stone was the genuine article. That alone pushed its value through the roof. The figure Redel arrived at, after a great deal of soul-searching, was in the region of thirty-five million dollars.
That equated to a present-day value of just shy of six hundred million dollars. Working out the inflation as he sat listening to Redel in the Waldorf Towers suite, Eugene Svalgaard himself had to swallow hard at such an astronomical figure.
That was the end of Marc Redel’s story, but it was just the start of the next chapter in Eugene’s. Fired with an excitement beyond belief, after paying Redel his million, Eugene had set his investigators back to work. Now that they had a name to chase up and the almost limitless funds to bribe anyone they wanted and find out almost anything, they quickly discovered the trail of the diamond.
Needless to say, it transpired that Henrik Cornelius Steenkamp hadn’t kept it for long after August 1938. Suddenly enriched beyond most people’s wildest dreams, he had sold up his mine and retired to Switzerland, where he managed to duck the war and lived like a hog in the fathouse until his death, a penniless alcoholic, in 1952. The transaction that had made him fabulously rich had taken place in December ’38 after a successful bid at a private, invitation-only specialist diamond auction in Geneva. The buyer, according to the very hard-to-access archive records, had been a sixty-year-old Omani aristocrat named Farouk Al Bu Said. The sum he had paid was a hair-raising $36,795,000, well above Redel’s estimate.
And so the diamond had gone to Oman – and there, as far as anyone could ascertain, it had stayed. Farouk Al Bu Said died in 1964, passing his very considerable worldly goods to his son Feisal. Feisal’s own son, Amir, in turn inherited the bulk of the estate on his father’s death in 1983 and subsequently passed it twenty-five years later to Hussein Al Bu Said, the elder great-grandson of old Farouk.
Throughout that whole time, the diamond remained hidden, and in 2013 it was impossible for Svalgaard’s investigators to tell whether the Al Bu Said dynasty even still owned it, a frustration Eugene found extremely hard to bear. Had those dirty A-rabs auctioned it off on the sly? Eugene disliked and mistrusted all Arabs even more than he hated the Japanese. He only did business with any of them because he had to. By 2015, he had worked himself up into a terrible lather, convinced that the diamond’s trail had once again gone cold.
Then, in June of that year, a miracle had occurred when a specialist diamond agent in Zurich by the name of Levin Fiedelholz, part of Eugene’s extensive secret spy network, called urgently to say that his firm, Fiedelholz and Goldstein, had been approached by Al Bu Said’s ‘people’ with a view to putting a certain high-value item on the market. Fiedelholz himself had been made privy to confidential photographs that left no doubt about what kind of ‘high-value item’ they were talking about. For secrecy’s sake, for now the piece was being referred to only by a catalogue code number, as ‘Stock # 227586’. Reading between the lines, Fiedelholz said, it appeared that Hussein’s real estate empire had suffered some bad investments, and he needed to raise cash to bail himself out. The firm had been instructed to begin the process of trawling around for potential buyers.
Eugene was beside himself with excitement, until he was told the reserve price. Seven hundred million was outrageous, beyond even his means. But, Fiedelholz insisted, Al Bu Said would take a lot of persuading to budge. So began a game of chess that had dragged on for several months, until Hussein Al Bu Said’s business troubles apparently resolved themselves and he suddenly changed his mind about selling at all.
Fuming like a starving dog cheated out of a bone, Eugene had considered his options. They were few, and they were ugly, but he’d come this far. He would not be denied.
In early September, Eugene had put out cautious feelers to facilitate the plan that was brewing in his mind. Two weeks later, those feelers bore fruit in the shape of a professional criminal and soldier of fortune called Lee Pender. They’d only met once, in October, at which meeting Eugene offered Pender five million dollars to obtain the diamond for him, smuggle it out of Oman on board one of his ships and carry it to Mombasa, where Eugene would be waiting. Pender agreed. If the plan necessitated (as Pender put it) ‘pressing the button’ on Al Bu Said, then so be it. Eugene had few qualms on that score. Pender certainly had none whatsoever.
It had all seemed so easy, Eugene now reflected miserably as he paced the living room of t
Just like he could only think of one thing now.
Where’s my ship? Where’s Lee Pender? Where’s my goddamned diamond?
But for every problem, there was a solution. And as the initial panic began to subside, and Eugene was able to reflect a little more calmly over the situation, possibilities began to dawn on him that made him realise, with a flash of hope burning brightly in his head like a light bulb, that there might be another way to see this.
He picked up the phone and dialled another number, one that few people knew.
When a voice answered, he said, ‘It’s me. Is he there?’
The voice replied, ‘He’s not here.’
‘Get him for me. I have a job for him.’
Eugene waited. Nineteen minutes later, the phone burred and Eugene snatched it up.
‘Bronski,’ said a different voice. Slow, calm, quietly self-assured, infinitely patient. Like the man himself.
‘Listen,’ Eugene said. Bronski listened. And Eugene told him what he wanted him to do.
Something was tap-tap-tapping against Ben’s head. He opened his eyes, and found himself squinting blearily into the black eye of a seagull. He jerked his head up off the hard, uncomfortable surface it was resting on and shooed the gull away. It flapped off on broad wings, low over the water, then looped up high and circled overhead.
Ben eased his aching body into a sitting position and gazed around him. The sun was rising over a calm, flat ocean and rising slowly into the cloudless sky. It was as if the storm had never happened, except for the absence of the ship and the remnants of the slick of wreckage that floated on the water. The only sound was the soft whisper of the ocean and the creaking of the makeshift raft Ben was sitting on.
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