What would a conquistador’s emeralds be worth? Lawsuit tells a million-dollar tale

A tale of Cortés’ emeralds and Kansas City volleyball

A lawsuit in Johnson County challenges jeweler Tom Tivol’s appraisal of emeralds supposedly rescued from a shipwreck and once the property of Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés.
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A lawsuit in Johnson County challenges jeweler Tom Tivol’s appraisal of emeralds supposedly rescued from a shipwreck and once the property of Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés.

Inside a $22 million Florida fortress, a jeweler hired in Kansas City eyed nine stunning emeralds. These, he was told, came from a shipwreck and had once belonged to the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés.

The skilled eye knew nothing of that history. Even if the emeralds never fell into the conquistador’s cache, he opined, the collection of 300 carats was worth $600,000 to $900,000.

Thus begins a bizarre tale, laid out — though only in part — in a lawsuit brought by Overland Park investment banker Jim McMullen’s firm on Tuesday, nearly seven years after the September 2011 appraisal.

In the interim, a Leawood-based volleyball venture founded by Olympic athletes faltered, a credit union’s $1 million loan went bad, the fortress holding those precious stones descended into a bankruptcy that one attorney described as “sheer madness,” and a Florida man cried fraud in a deal there supposedly backed by emeralds that once belonged to Cortés.

It’s not clear whether the Florida man and McMullen’s firm, Royal Blue Capital LLC, were shown the same emeralds. But each claimed in court to have dealt with the same man, Victor Benilous, and his firm, Iconic Ventures.

One key difference: The Florida man claimed he put up $190,000, secured by Benilous’ pledge of the stones, without getting the gems appraised. McMullen’s firm, according to its lawsuit, secured the high-value appraisal before putting up $1 million secured by the appraised emeralds.

Now, Royal Blue Capital and investors it organized have sued Tom Tivol and his firm, Tom Tivol Jewels LLC, claiming the appraisal was botched. The emeralds, subsequently secured by Mazuma Credit Union and set for auction in New York City, hold “no significant value whatsoever,” the lawsuit claims.

“That appraisal was sought from Mr. Tivol, and my client relied on that appraisal for his decision to go forward with this investment,” said Andrew Protzman, an attorney representing McMullen’s firm and investors in the deal.

Tom Tivol said Wednesday that he has not seen the lawsuit and is unaware of its claims.

“I can’t give you any comment yet,” Tivol said. “I’m sure this is something I’ll defend.”

Tom Tivol Jewels in Leawood’s Park Plaza shops is independent of his family’s Tivol jewelry, which has stores on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City and in Hawthorne Plaza in Overland Park.

The website for Tom Tivol Jewels states that he does appraisals for many kinds of situations, including valuing items used as collateral for loans.

“Appraising jewelry is the most challenging task in the jewelry business,” the website declares, “a profession unto itself.”

It also lays out Tivol’s credentials, which include that he has 46 years in the business and is a certified gemologist in the American Gem Society.

The site said Tivol teaches at the University of Kansas. It also said he is “an attorney whose practice revolves around the Federal Trade Commission Rules for the Jewelry Industry.”

According to the lawsuit, McMullen’s firm and two other businesses had “organized an investment of up to $2 million” in Championship Volleyball Inc. Protzman said it was a startup in Leawood founded by Olympic athletes to promote the sport, both indoors and on sand.

As part of the deal, McMullen’s Royal Blue investor group agreed to invest $1 million, and Benilous pledged the emeralds as collateral securing the investment, according to the lawsuit. It said Royal Blue’s investors, in turn, borrowed $1 million from Mazuma Credit Union and pledged their claim on the emeralds as collateral.

Tivol’s job was to ensure the stones’ value independent of the historical claims of Iconic Ventures, said the lawsuit. It said Tivol traveled to Fort Lauderdale and examined the stones inside RoboVault, an automated storage facility, where they stayed.

RoboVault, which had opened two years earlier, cost $22 million to build and was designed to withstand hurricanes, according to a report at the time. It houses automobiles that are retrievable through multiple security layers that can include a key card, fingerprint and pass code. It also offers wine storage and safe-deposit boxes.

Less than a year after the Royal Blue investors backed the volleyball deal, RoboVault declared bankruptcy in September 2012.

It was a chaotic case. In January 2013, the federal bankruptcy judge signed writs for the arrests of RoboVault’s owner and his attorney. The judge signed the writs after a courtroom shouting match with a “political agitator” also described as a “sovereign separatist” who was led away in handcuffs and at one point declared he was suspending the federal bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction in the case.

Then, in 2014, a Florida man sued Benilous and Iconic Ventures. The claim was that the man had lent $190,000 to another man and Benilous pledged emeralds worth $285,000. The gems would go to the lender if the borrower defaulted, a published report said.

“I didn’t realize that it was designed to default and when I would go to get my collateral that the collateral would be valued at this immense number that was completely fraudulent,” the Florida man told The Palm Beach Post.

The Post reported in 2017 that the Florida man collected a settlement and agreed to withdraw claims that Benilous had faked his story about a shipwreck.

An attorney who represented Benilous in the case did not return a call from The Star.

Protzman said his client has had less luck with Benilous.

“We’re preparing to file a lawsuit versus Mr. Benilous and his entities and affiliates,” Protzman said.

Meanwhile, the Royal Blue investors’ lawsuit against Tom Tivol Jewels and Tom Tivol seeks $1 million in damages for a loss on an investment and the investors’ obligation to Mazuma Credit Union. It said neither would have happened but for the appraisal.