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A Blank Cheque

The 1974  OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) meeting took place in Ecuador at the Hotel Quito International and El Pub, situated across the Ave Gonzalez Suarez from the hotel, was the oasis for the visiting journalists, off-duty ex-SAS bodyguards and a few middle eastern delegates.

Two minor sheiks who had taken to popping into the pub for a drink (see Intrepid’s recent El Pub story) asked me if and where in Quito they could buy Columbian emeralds. It just so happened - as they say in the business - that I knew a dealer and was able to arrange an appointment for the two to view some stones the following morning.

Despite my assurances, Juan Escalante, the dealer, was a little concerned about showing his collection to unknown customers and asked me to accompany him to their hotel suite. He spoke only Spanish and I would be able to translate for him. He became even more nervous when we arrived on sixth floor and were met at the lift door by two fierce looking Arabs, armed with automatic weapons. They escorted us along the corridor to the hotel room, where a further guard was on duty.

Eventually we were admitted into the suite, where the two potential buyers invited us to join them at a breakfast buffet of enormous proportions. It was only after we had eaten and conversed in general that they asked to see the emeralds.

It had been too risky for Juan to be carrying a briefcase or bag through Quito with him, as he was a known dealer and was always on his guard against well informed thieves. From his jacket pocket he produced a folded velvet cloth, which he opened on the table to display a stunning collection of gorgeous gems. The Arabs - yours truly included - were duly impressed at the sight of  around thirty brilliant green emeralds,  in a variety of sizes and cuts which glittered in front of us.

Juan explained how Colombian emeralds were highly sought after because of their special green colour and gave his smooth sales patter on the variety of cuts, and clarity. He had their interest when he described the mines of Chivor, Muzo and Cosuez and the mafia that controlled the business. The two sheiks sifted through the collection; examining and holding them up to the light. It seemed  to me that they knew as much about emeralds as I did.

Prices were asked and given, heads shaken, counter offers refused as Juan,  a shrewd Latin and the two Arabs - traditionally versed in camal trading, negotiated. While the bargaining was going a third man entered the room through an adjoining door and without any introduction being given, also started poking the emeralds around and examining them individually. It took me a moment before I realized it was  Yamani. His Excellence Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources and the most powerful of the OPEC ministers. Twelve months previously, during the 1973 oil embargo, this man had succeeded in hustling OPEC to quadruple crude oil prices, to the detriment of the western world.

Following a brief exchange in Arabic between the three, Yamani asked me in English if we had any larger samples to show. I explained what Juan told me; that his emeralds came from Columbia and that it was an extremely dangerous business to be in. Pure large stones were difficult to come by and were discretely traded. There were a lot of fake stones and no one would advertise that they had a genuine large one, for fear of robbery. He mentioned that only two days before a friend of his, a Columbia dealer, had been robbed and murdered in Quito. However, if His Excellence would like to say how much he would be willing to spend on a stone he might be able to acquire one for him.

Considering the offer for a few moments, His Excellence calmly asked to see samples around the US$100,000 mark, adding that he would like to have them as soon as possible as he was flying out the following afternoon. Juan was quite unprepared for the casual way Yamani threw in this sum, as though it was small change.

Recovering quickly, he explained that he did not have an emerald of this value and it would take a few days to procure one. Too bad, replied Yamani but if he did manage to get a couple, he should let him know and maybe fly over to show them to him in Saudi Arabia or to his office in Switzerland. Wishing us all the best he left the suite as quietly as he had entered it. 

The showing ended with only one of the sheiks choosing a few of the smaller gems and the price was agreed. Apologizing that he could not pay with cash, he produced a paper block from his brief case and commenced scribbling, pausing only to ask how Juan’s name  was spelt. He tore the sheet off the pad and handed it to Juan, who seeing it was in English, passed it to me to translate.

The single page of headed stationary had the sheik’s name printed at the top; nothing else was on it - no address, no telephone number. What he had written was brief, to say the very least. Three lines, which including the name and address of a bank in Washington, ordering it to pay Mr Juan Escalante the sum of US$9000. It could not have been written simpler or clearer but where, I asked, in an attempt to appear  accustomed to such documents, was the account number? Not necessary, he replied.

Juan and I went into consultation mode in Spanish. Should he trust them? Juan suggested I guarantee the sum? After all, they were my friends, were they not? I wasn’t falling for this, so I lied. I told him that in England I payments in this form were normal and that I had heard that someone had once used an egg (hard boiled I presumed) for a cheque. He was not completely convinced but as he wanted the sale to go through as much as I did, he reluctantly accepted the cheque and after wrapping up his samples we took our leave.

That same day I helped Juan with an accompanying letter to the Washington bank, with directions as to where the money was to be transferred. It was a long two months for me before payment was confirmed. I say for me, because Juan phoned on an almost daily basis, informing met that no transfer had yet been made. After learning the truth from his bank manager, that in England only a fool would accept such a “cheque”, he advised me in the nicest possible way that if payment was not quickly forthcoming, I could be expecting a visit from his Columbian friends.

 Finally and thank God – just as Juan was beginning to be more precise about which parts of my body I was going to find myself without - the cheque was honoured and the money was transferred.  Assuring  me of his eternal friendship and that his threats had only been a joke (Ha Ha) Juan presented me with a nice bit of commission before suggesting that I contact Yamani and arrange to show him some larger emeralds.  But I refused - imagining receiving as payment a cheque scribbled on a camels arse.

(extract from Wildcatting Times by Bryan Thomas)

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