At 1,109 carats, big as a tennis ball, the world’s largest uncut diamond was expected to shatter records at a June Sotheby’s auction. How did the dazzling stone go unsold? An exclusive reveals what went wrong. The assassination of William Lamb began at 6:45 P.M. on a soft June night. Spectators packed the killing ground, a sales room on the second floor of Sotheby’s, in London.
The victim wore the raiment of his caste, a crisp tuxedo. A few yards in front of where he sat, blazing in its spotlight on a plinth beside the auctioneer, was a 1,109-carat top-color white diamond called Lesedi La Rona, the vessel of Lamb’s hopes for a bold new way to sell rough diamonds. His wife had bought him new shoes for the occasion, the toe caps spattered with faux gems. He wore socks patterned with jaunty slashes of color.
The Lesedi diamond opened at $50 million and struggled from the start. Fifty-one million dollars, someone offered, and too long after that, $52 million. This was not the scenario that Lamb had imagined in his dreams. In that version, a forest of bidding paddles would have shot up in the room as eager buyers drove the price north of $100 million.
Just the month before, Lucara Diamond Corp., the company Lamb runs and the owner of the diamond, had sold an 813-carat stone for $63.1 million—the highest price ever paid for a rough diamond. Now here was this even greater jewel, the second-biggest diamond ever found, and where were the clamoring suitors?
Just that morning at breakfast, Lamb’s boss, Lukas Lundin, a Swedish oil and mining tycoon whose family is Lucara’s largest shareholder, had explained to me that the company’s commission arrangement with Sotheby’s meant the stone would have to reach $150 million for the auctioneer to make decent money. “Up to $100 million,” he said, “they make almost nothing.”
“You have a buyer already, don’t you?” I said.
“We think we do,” Lundin replied, slicing into a poached egg. He glanced out the window at the trees of Green Park and at the traffic on Piccadilly flowing by in the rain. “But,” he raised his knife in a cautionary gesture, “you never know.”
Nine hours later he sure found out, sitting in front of Lamb while the auctioneer tried to drag up the price in increments of $500,000. At $61 million, still short of the reserve, the price would not budge. The gavel came down and brought the failed auction to a close.
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