Around the Mall & Beyond

On the 26th of April, 1947, Evalyn Walsh McLean, the mining heiress, died at her Georgetown mansion that overlooked Washington, D.C. She was 60 years old.

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The bankers were persuaded that if a Supreme Court Justice had brought it from the McLean mansion, it quite likely was the Hope Diamond. But what was the value?

So they called Henderson, the associate curator of mineralogy and petrology. He remembered Mrs. McLean's heroic efforts in 1932 to get the Lindbergh baby back — bear with me here. For the ransom money Mrs. McLean had hocked the 44.52-carat gemstone at a Virginia pawnshop.

In the complex scheme Mrs. McLean hired one Gaston B. Means, a grafter who'd done time in a federal penitentiary. Means, who said he knew who the kidnappers were, apparently pocketed the money. He later went to prison for the scam. Mrs. McLean eventually got the stone back.

Anyway, Henderson thought the value had been set then at about $100,000. That doesn't sound like much for the Hope Diamond, but at the time it was a respectable sum.

The bank deigned to accept the stone, and soon after that Harry Winston, the noted New York jeweler, made a sealed offer for it. He set a three-day deadline on the offer to prevent the entire diamond market from getting in on the deal.

The bank did contact Lazare Kaplan, another major league diamond man, but as Henderson says, "Kaplan decided that he didn't want to get mixed up with it. He had plenty to do, so [he] let Winston have it. I could see that these two diamond dealers were friends."

No, Henderson didn't appraise the Hope himself. "At no time do we ever want to get involved with a lot of diamond dealers," he told Henson.

Some years later, Harry Winston gave the stone to the Smithsonian. How did he get it safely to Washington? It was mailed to the Mall. Henderson recalled that Winston simply posted a package with two or three diamonds in it, and one of them was the Hope Diamond. "Mr. Winston undoubtedly took out other kinds of insurance," Henderson confidently explained.

About the gem collection: when Henderson came to the Smithsonian in 1929 "it wasn't much to be proud of," he said; "a number of different gems were there, but they weren't high quality."

The stones, mostly unmounted, were displayed in flat-topped cases down the center of the hall. "People would lie against them, and gems would rattle off their pads." The burglar alarm beneath the cases was run by batteries that had to be tested every few weeks.

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