For sale: The contraceptive that cures flatulence - bids begin at $15,000,000

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The Independent Online

New York

A divorce case now under way in suburban Atlanta would have passed unremarked by the world except for one thing: the husband in the case is a descendant of a co-founder of the Coca-Cola empire. More than that, he claims he is the rightful owner of an original copy of the drink's secret formula and that he is willing to sell it.

Suddenly, the divorce of Frank M Robinson II from his wife, Patti, from whom he has been separated for two years, has risen far above the mundane. In the 110 years since Coca-Cola was concocted by an Atlanta chemist, John Stith Pemberton, its precise make-up has reigned as the world's most celebrated corporate secret.

Mr Robinson, who was in the divorce court last Friday, is the grandson of Frank Robinson, who was Mr Pemberton's closest assistant. It was Robinson who chose the Coca-Cola name and drafted the flowing rendition of it that is still the product's logo. According to the living Robinson, his grandfather also copied by hand the exact recipe. That note, he says, was given to him by his own father in 1970.

The circumstances of Mr Robinson are not what they might be. He was one of the heirs to a family fortune of $15m (pounds 10m) but now, 57 and afflicted with prostate cancer, he is in desperate need of cash. A real-estate broker, he has no qualms about putting his grandfather's note up for sale. "I've got the real thing and I'll get every dime I can for it," he said.

There is a problem: the documents are in the hands of Patti, who claims that they were given to her by her estranged husband as a pre-marriage romantic gesture in 1991.

Coca-Cola's assumed properties extend well beyond the ability to quench thirst. A Harvard University study in 1969 found it could work as a spermicide, and it is widely held to combat flatulence. But few myths have endured longer than that of the recipe. In 1977, the company withdrew from the Indian market, when Delhi insisted on knowing the drink's ingredients. Eight years later, Coca-Cola was forced to repel in court an attempt by some of its bottlers to lay their hands on the secret.

Mr Robinson says his papers include a list of the ingredients for the syrup that provides the essential flavour, that for generations have been known only as 7X. Supposedly, it is a mix of oils from the likes of lemons, oranges, coriander and nutmeg. The original recipe also, of course, included a cocaine extract, long since dispensed with.

In truth, the exact value of the Robinson document may not be that tremendous. Coca-Cola itself is disputing its authenticity, insisting that the only real copy of the recipe lies inside a company vault. "We've never seen the evidence that Mr Pemberton shared the formula with anybody - even Mr Robinson," a company spokesman asserted.

Much of the planet is in any case already the battlefield of a cola war that long ago transcended any mystery about how it should be made. Indeed, it was only a decade after Pemberton made his brew that a North Carolina chemist, Caleb Bradham, came up with his version, to become Pepsi Cola.

Pepsi Cola, based in New York, remains the most potent challenger to Coca-Cola. It had its best shot in the mid-Eighties with the launch of its Pepsi Challenge advertising campaign. Today, however, Coca-Cola outsells Pepsi by 3-1 worldwide.

The third cola giant is the Cott Corporation of Canada which manufactures generic brands, including Richard Branson's Virgin Cola and Classic Cola sold by Sainsbury.

But to the warriors in the boardrooms the manoeuvres of Mr Robinson in the courtroom will be only of limited concern. If he can wrest his grandfather's papers from his wife, maybe he will be able to sell them. The buyer, however, is less likely to be a rival than an enthusiast for Coca-Cola collectables.

Coca-Cola: The facts

It would take 23 hours for all the Coke ever sold to flow over Niagara Falls.

Thirty times more bottles of Coke are drunk each day than there are letters in the Bible.

In 1993 an author claimed he had stumbled across the original recipe while carrying out some research in the Coca-Cola archives in Atlanta. The company dismissed it as a fake, "the latest in a long line of unsuccessful attempts to reveal a 107-year-old mystery".

The "hobble skirt" bottle design was patented in July 1916; it is supposed to resemble the shape of a cola nut.

The average United States citizen watches 75 Coke commercials every year.

On the 28 February 1950, the Paris Assembly passed a bill curbing the sale of Coke in France.

A Harvard University study in 1969 found that Coke has sperm-killing properties. The study was commissioned after reports that the drink was often employed for this purpose in countries where contraceptives were in short supply. Diet Coke was found to be the most efficient of the Coke varieties for this purpose.

An unsuccessful Coca-Cola Cookery Book was once published, containing recipes such as Fruited Pork Chops a la Coca Cola.

Ben Summers