When the $30 million estate of Capt. Joseph Rafael DeLamar was divided up about 60 years ago, nobody bothered to look for the relatively worthless stock certificate that had been given to this "mystery man" of Wall Street as partial payment of a debt.
Today, after collecting dust in a San Francisco bank for decades, the stock is worth $3.2 million and is being fought over by Texas, DeLamar's 82-year-old daughter and three prominent medical schools, including John Hopkins in Baltimore.
"It's an exceedingly fascinating story," said Hopkins' general counsel, Estelle Fishbein. "The historical aspect makes it something romantic."
The hunt for the forgotten stock certificates for 100 shares of the Texas Pacific Land Trust Co. dates back more than 10 years when the firm, which now holds extensive oil and natural gas interests throughout Texas, began searching for its lost stockholder.
The search touched off what amounted to a modern land rush. Thousands of Texans, finding torn and yellowed documents in their family Bibles and letters in their ancestor's chests, staked their claims for what was said to be the most valuable single missing U.S. security.
Texas, claiming that the stockholder, whoever he was, must have resided in the Lone Star state, went to court to ask for the stock and its sizable annual interest earnings until the descendants of the owner were found.
Then, several years ago, a historian for Wells Fargo Bank in San Francisco came across a Texas Pacific stock certificate in the bank's archives along with letters tracing the stock to DeLamar, a millionaire businessman and bon vivant in New York around the turn of the century.
DeLamar, an Amsterdam native and onetime commander of a Dutch trading vessel, came to this country in the late 1850s and made his fortune in mercantile shipping and gold mining. His secretive, though successful, business maneuverings mystified many of his colleagues on Wall Street and earned him his nickname.
When he died at the age of 75, he left about half of his $30 million estate to his only daughter, Alice A. DeLamar, who now lives in Palm Beach, Fla. The remaining portion of his money was bequeathed to three university medical schools -- Hopkins, Columbia and Harvard.
But when the money was split in 1918, the estate did not include a stock certificate for the Texas Pacific company, which had been collected for DeLamar years earlier by an officer at Wells Fargo Bank in New York as the partial payment for a debt.
The stock -- worth about $2,000 when it was purchased in 1888 -- "really wasn't worth a tinker's damn" when the will was probated, said one of the medical school lawyers. "With all those millions being divided, it just got caught in the shuffle."
The Texas Pacific company was set up in the late 1880s to hold about 5 million acres of land that had been granted to the Texas Pacific Railway Co. for construction of a railroad stretching across the state. Then the railroad folded, leaving the land in trust.
In the early 1900s, oil and natural gas were discovered on the land, which forms a checkerboard pattern throughout the state, and Texas Pacific organized its own company to develop the land. That company eventually merged with Texaco Inc., according to Hopkins' Fishbein.
DeLamar's stock certificate -- which was authenticated this month by a court-appointed examiner in Dallas -- is worth 53,456 shares of Texas stock and thousands of shares of the Texas Pacific company. The combined value is estimated at $3.2 million.
The three medical schools, which claim a share of the stock because they were named beneficiaries in DeLamar's will, first became aware of the lost certificate about six months ago when a Columbia University alumnus spotted a news item about the stock in a San Francisco newspaper and called the university.
The certificate ended up in the California bank, it appears, because the Wells Fargo official who first collected the stock kept the document in safekeeping until the New York branch was moved to San Francisco.
DeLamar's daughter also has a claim for her father's stock -- a claim that could cause problems for the three medical schools, which agreed in 1936 to transfer to her any remaining assets in the estate if she remembered the schools when she died.
"We weren't counting that [certificate] as an asset at the time," said Fishbein, adding that she believes the agreement will not be binding. "Nobody was aware of it then."
Lawyers for the schools say they hope to ally with Alice DeLamar and put in their claim for the stock, which now has an annual dividend income of nearly $170,000. But they may face a contest in a Dallas court where the state of Texas still is making its demands, contending that some benefits should accrue to the state during years when a rightful owner was not known.