Jewel owner in real gem of a fix

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FOR OVER a decade, an Indian named G Vidyaraj has been sitting on rare jewels worth more than a billion dollars that he cannot touch. Mr Vidyaraj, 63, a retired solicitor, does not live like a billionaire. He and his wife rent a decaying house in the southern city of Bangalore for pounds 3.50 a month. The couple get by on handouts from their son and daughter in the United States.

Yet Mr Vidyaraj possesses the world's three largest rubies - the 2,475- carat "Ravirathna", luminous, purple-red and the size of a cricket ball; the 650-carat "Vidyaraj" and a 215-carat ruby named after his wife, Indumathi. The largest double-star sapphire, the 1,370-carat "Neelanjali" also belongs to him.

His predicament is that the Indan government says these gems are antiquities and cannot be sold without its permission.Since the stones are uncut, Mr Vidyaraj argues they are not antiquities. The rubies and sapphires are safe in an American bank vault, but he is worried that he might end up in an Indian jail.

For generations, his family kept what looked like lumps of coal for worship in the family's Hindu shrine. In 1983 he tried giving them away to a temple, but the pandits refused them.

Mr Vidyaraj confided to his wife that he intended to clean them up. "She told me they were sacred stones and I shouldn't dare tamper with them," he said. Undeterred, he began scrubbing with hot water and an old toothbrush. "I saw these red and blue specks."

Three of the gems are now listed in the Guinness Book of Records. He is not certain how they fell into his family's hands, but the Vidyarajs are descended from ancient Indian kings.

If cleared by Indian law, Mr Vidyaraj hopes to auction some of his jewels this year, possibly through Sotheby or Christie's in London. If he does succeed in selling the big stones, Mr Vidyaraj will donate most of the money to charity. As he told India Today: "What earthly benefit will I get if the stones are locked up?"