How a 20-Year-Old Sapphire Theft Sparked Years of Litigation

A New York City pawnshop has asked the state Supreme Court to rule that it is the proper owner of one of the world’s largest untreated Kashmir sapphires.

It’s the latest in a series of suits, which date back to 2011, involving a rare 59.96 ct. sparkling-blue sapphire that appears to have been stolen from an auction house two decades ago.

According to a complaint filed May 28 in New York Supreme Court, in 2015, New York City pawnshop Modern Pawn took possession of the stone from local dealer Rafael Koblence in exchange for a $3.75 million loan. It soon appeared that the gem had an interesting history.

The complaint asserts that, in 1996, Geneva-based Horovitz & Totah consigned a 65 ct. sapphire, set in a Cartier bracelet, to Antiquorum to be auctioned as part of a Magic of Cartier sale in Milan. Before it could be sold, someone snatched it.

“I realized, while I was showing objects to a client, that the Cartier sapphire and platinum bracelet that was on display was missing from the corner window,” auctioneer Osvaldo Patrizzi told Italian police, according to the New York Post.

Horovitz & Totah submitted a claim to its insurance companies. They reached a $1.6 million settlement that gave insurers title to the stone.

In 2005, Koblence hocked the sapphire that’s the subject of the suit to Essex Global for $2 million, according to Modern Pawn’s filing. When Essex Global threatened to sell it in 2011—which led to the first, but certainly not last, lawsuit in this saga—Koblence approached Modern Pawn about a new loan, using the sapphire as collateral, it says.

Eventually, Modern Pawn settled the Essex debt and took possession of the gem, according to its court filing. Koblence never made the required loan payments, it said.

In 2015, related company Auction House 43 looked to sell it and consigned the sapphire to Phillips auction house.

Phillips sent out emails about the upcoming sale, one of which reached Ronny Totah, the owner of the sapphire that was stolen in the 1990s. When he saw the accompanying report, “I looked at the certificate, and I had this feeling. I said to myself: ‘That’s it. That’s it’, ” he told Agence France-Presse in an interview.

He called his insurers. Phillips sent it to the Swiss Gemmological Institute SSEF, which confirmed the sapphire was the same as the one that was stolen, the filing said. The auction was canceled.

Shortly after, the insurance companies filed suit against Modern Pawn for $7 million.

Koblence originally maintained that the gem had been in his wife’s family, according to the filing. But now, the auction house asserts that while the stone had been recut, the presence of “several distinctive inclusions” as well as “strong and highly unusual” orange fluorescence make it “indisputable” that the sapphire is the same as the one that was stolen from the display. It also has the same color and clarity as well as similar height and depth parameters, it said.

Eventually the insurance companies settled the suit with Modern Pawn and Auction House 43 for $4.6 million, in an agreement that gave the auction house title to the stone.

In 2017, Koblence filed suit against the auction house, seeking possession of the sapphire, claiming he never gave permission for the sale from Modern Pawn to Auction House 43. His complaint said the sapphire could be worth as much as $25 million–$30 million at auction. That suit was dismissed. Koblence is appealing.

Modern Pawn’s new suit seeks a declaratory judgment that it owns the stone and charges Koblence with a variety of claims.

Koblence could not be reached for comment. At press time he has not filed a response.

(Photo: Getty Images)

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JCK News Director