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The Odyssey of the World’s Largest Freshwater Pearl

The gem, which was was recently bought at auction, was likely found in China in the 1700s and was once owned by Russia’s Catherine the Great

(Venduehuis)
smithsonian.com

The Sleeping Lion, the world’s largest freshwater pearl, isn’t round and beautiful, or even particularly pretty. In fact, under the right light, the pearl resembles one of the wrinklier creatures of the Star Wars universe. But chances are its latest buyer, who picked it up for $374,000 at auction in the Hague, Netherlands, last month, doesn’t mind.

Deustsche Welle reports that this is the first time the Sleeping Lion, which measures 2.7 inches and weighs in at 4.2 ounces, has been up for public auction in more than two centuries.

The pearl has a lot of history behind it. AFP reports that the gem was found around 1765 and was likely formed in Chinese waters.

According to a history of the pearl by Venduehuis, the auction house that sold it, it’s likely a Chinese trader used some auditing trickery to get around a ban on exporting large pearls out of the country. It was sent to Jakarta by the Dutch East Indies Company where the company’s accountant general Hendrik Coenraad Sander just had to have it, paying 4,500 British pounds to possess the unusual pearl, which got its name because some think it looks like a lion curled up for the night.

In 1778, after Sander’s death, an inheritance dispute led to an auction of his vast property, including furniture from the far east, 200 bed spreads and a collection of exotic bamboo canes. The pearl, along with a cut diamond, were advertised for months before the sale, in hopes of driving up the price. The pearl sold quickly to a Dutchman buying the piece for an anonymous party, who turned out to be Russia’s Catherine the Great. It then became part of her vast collection of art and natural curiosities. After her death in 1796 and the chaos that followed, however, the Sleeping Lion, along with other treasures, vanished.

It next appeared in the port city of Danzig, Poland, in the hands of a family of shipowners. Eventually, they sold it to a family of jewelers who returned it to Amsterdam, where it remained till it was sold to the Amsterdam Pearl Society in 1979.

In 2009, after Sander’s documents were digitized, the Pearl Society was in for a surprise when it discovered its true name, the Sleeping Lion, and royal pedigree. It was also certified as the largest freshwater pearl in the world. All of that, along with several journal articles on the piece, boosted its profile, pushing its price deep into the six-figure range.

While 4.2 ounces might sound impressive, it’s hardly a rounding error when it comes to the difference between the world’s largest freshwater and salt-water pearl. In 2016, a fisherman in the Philippines revealed that he’d found a 75-pound pearl inside a giant clam he’d snagged with his anchor. The gem, called the Pearl of Puerto, may be worth up to $130 million, though it’s unlikely to make it into any jewelry pieces because of its ginormousness.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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