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Lobsterman steamed up about one that got away

The world was almost Bernard Warner's lobster (as Bobby Robson, the former England manager, once famously said, mixing up his seafood) but then he sold it.

The crustacean that is. Apparently pale and old, it turned out to be almost worth its weight in gold.

For by the time Mr Warner realised that the oversized, grey lobster fished out of the sea was in fact a rare albino, worth more than pounds 20,000, it was too late.

He was on holiday in Madeira and the priceless crustacean had been boiled and eaten by some unsuspecting diner.

Mr Warner, 52, from Doncaster, south Yorkshire, had acquired the off- white specimen in a routine delivery from the East Coast. It was two and half times the size of an average lobster, weighed between two and three pounds, compared to the usual one pound, and was covered in barnacles. "The comments at the time were: `We'll never sell that, because it's too big,'" he recalled yesterday.

Nevertheless, he sent it on to Mrs B's Fish Emporium in Doncaster, along with a batch of pink lobsters. A week later, in a restaurant in Madeira, he woke up to the true value of the rogue specimen. "We were passing comment on the price of a lobster," recalled Mr Warner, who has worked in the family business, Warner's Fish Merchants Ltd, for the past 40 years. "It was about pounds 40 and we said: `We'd never get that in Doncaster.' The manager said: `What about this one?' and passed us an article about a similar looking albino lobster recently found in America."

The fraught fishmonger sped to the telephone and rang his sister-in-law, Brenda, at Mrs B's. She was "quite proud" of the fact that she had sold the large lobster, he said. "I couldn't believe it. In all my time as a fishmonger I've never come across one before. I'm pig sick." His wife, Chris, was "gutted".

Mr Warner sells his lobsters to restaurants and private customers throughout the country and he has no idea where his prize catch went. Given that it was boiled at Mrs B's, it was probably eaten fresh - and the customer paid cash, so there is no invoice. "Someone has had a very valuable meal without even knowing it," he said. "For me it's like winning the lottery and then discovering you have thrown the ticket away."

The albino lobster featured in the article read by Mr Warner was found in Maine. At first it was dismissed as a plastic toy. Bill Coppersmith, the lobsterman who caught it, thought it was a practical joke. "It looked like someone had planted a toy in the pot," he said. Now "Lionel", as the lobster has been nicknamed, is being hailed as one of the rarest live finds in marine history and one private collector is reportedly offering pounds 14,000 for him.

Mr Coppersmith is "real curious" to see what colour Lionel would turn if he was cooked, "but if he's worth that much, perhaps I can live with not finding out," he said. Another albino lobster, "Barry", which weighs 1lb 2oz, resides at the Sea Life Centre in Scarborough, north Yorkshire. Following the discovery of Lionel, the centre's owners woke up to Barry's worth. Barry is now insured for pounds 20,000.

But none of that helps Mr Warner, who has resigned himself to laughing off his misfortune - and looking a little closer at his lobsters in future.