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Sunday, June 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Battle Heats Up Over 840-Pound Emerald

LOS ANGELES (CN) - In the Bahia emerald trial on Tuesday, gem buyer Anthony "Tony" Thomas insisted that he is the rightful owner of the world's largest emerald, even though he does not have the bill of sale to back up his claim. He accused the other parties laying claim to the 840-pound gem of destroying his paperwork and burning down his house along with it. "I just know that they were involved," he said of the gem buyers, investors and miners he's battling for legal ownership of the emerald.

At 840 pounds, the Bahia emerald, found in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is the world's largest emerald and is estimated to be worth as much as $800 million, according to Thomas, who intervened in gem investor Kenneth Conetto's bid for ownership of the stone.

The emerald launched a legal tug-of-war among several parties who claimed to be its rightful owner, including petitioner Conetto, respondents Kit Morrison and Todd Armstrong, and Thomas and gem speculator Mark Downie, the two intervenors.

Morrison and Armstrong settled with Conetto by promising him a cut of the emerald sale. But the remaining claimants continue to battle it out in court. Until the ownership dispute gets settled by Superior Court Judge John Kronstadt, the Bahia emerald is under Los Angeles County Sheriff's custody, safely locked in a vault.

Thomas said he is the sole owner of the world's two largest emeralds: a 50-pound "Thomas" emerald and the 840-pound Bahia emerald. He allegedly bought the world's largest raw emerald from Brazilian miners in 2001.

Andrew Spielberger, a lawyer for Morrison and Armstrong, asked Thomas whether he bought the 50-pound emerald for $20,000 and the Bahia emerald for $60,000. The Thomas emerald turned out to be worth about $400,000, and the Bahia emerald around $800 million after they were appraised by a gem expert.

Thomas confirmed he bought them for the prices Spielberger mentioned.

Spielberger honed in on the Bahia emerald, asking Thomas, "Was the deal ... solely limited to their offer to sell it to you for $60,000 and you orally responded by saying yes? And in your mind, you then became the owner of the emerald, is that correct?"

"In my mind, that's correct," Thomas replied.

But Spielberger emphasized that Thomas did not take the Bahia emerald back to his home in San Jose, Calif., and instead took 25 pictures with it.

Thomas said the bill of sale for the 840-pound emerald perished in a house fire.

"Why would you take 25 photos of the emerald if you were gonna end up taking it back home anyway?" Spielberger asked.

"Why not?" Thomas answered. "I did it for myself ... it was a special occasion for me. I took pictures because I was the owner and I was proud of what I bought."

"Why didn't you take the picture with the bill of sale?" Spielberger asked.

"You guys are the ones putting all the emphasis on the bill of sale," Thomas answered. "It didn't matter much to me. It's just a piece of paper."

When Spielberger finished examining Thomas, Downie's attorney, Steven Haney with Haney, Buchanan & Patterson, questioned Thomas about his alleged ownership of the emerald.

Haney pressed Thomas about the bills of sale for both emeralds, and asked if Thomas bought the 50-pound emerald sight unseen before going to Brazil.

"I never knew that a bill of sale was required for the purchase of the emerald," Thomas said.

He claimed he took the 50-pound emerald on a plane, in an overhead compartment, to his home in San Jose.

Thomas said he paid $60,000 for the Bahia emerald based on the Brazilian miners' assumptions that the stone was three times the size of the 50-pound emerald.

When Haney asked why expert emerald miners would sell an emerald potentially worth more than $800 million for a mere $60,000, and a 50-pound emerald worth $400,000 for $20,000, Thomas answered, "I don't think they knew how much they were worth."

Returning to the destroyed bill of sale, Haney confirmed with Thomas that the paperwork was lost in the house fire triggered by someone cooking green beans on the stove.

"I was not home at the time of the fire," Thomas said. "Then, when I got home, the house was bulldozed without my permission."

Thomas said he thought Conetto and the Brazilians started the fire to burn the bill of sale, which he claimed had been filed in a fire-proof cabinet. He then said another respondent named Jerry Ferrara may have been responsible for burning down his house and other important documents connecting the Bahia emerald to Thomas.

"My wife saw him taking pictures of our house before the fire started," Thomas said.

"Okay, so you're now saying that besides Mr. Conetto, Mr. Ferrara is also involved with the fire. Who else do you think is involved, Mr. Thomas?" Haney asked.

"I don't know. I just know that they were involved," Thomas answered.

Thomas also accused Conetto of stealing the 50-pound emerald from his house before the fire.

When Haney asked Thomas how Conetto could have known where Thomas kept the Bahia emerald's bill of sale, Thomas responded, "Maybe Ken knew that I had the bill of sale."

Thomas's lawyer, Jeffrey Baruh with Adleson, Hess & Kelly, questioned Thomas on Wednesday. Thomas's wife, Wendi Thomas, also testified.

Baruh said he does not plan on calling any more witnesses, as he expected the trial over his client's ownership to wrap up Wednesday.

A trial date to determine the legitimacy of Downie's ownership to the Bahia emerald has not yet been set.

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