South African platinum heist breaks records

It pays to read the fine print. Just consider the bombshell that awaited stockholders of Rustenburg Platinum Holdings Ltd., a South African firm.

There in a footnote at the bottom of the company's just-released preliminary annual profit statement was the disclosure that there had been a theft of a ''significant quantity'' of platinum group metals and gold.

In its own understated way, Rustenburg was disclosing what may be the largest heist of precious metals in history. The company estimates that the theft from its refinery near Johannesburg is worth $11 million (US).

South African police and insurance investigators are in pursuit, but the trail may be growing cold. Rustenberg Holdings, the world's largest platinum producer, discovered the ''stock loss'' back in March during an audit. But there is no telling exactly when the theft took place, since the previous stock audit was taken a year earlier, in March 1981.

The thieves could have taken the material any time during that year, or even bit by bit over the 12-month period. ''It seems more likely it was done over time,'' a company spokesman says.

Platinum group metals have a number of uses. They are used as catalysts in motor car exhaust systems and have applications in jewelry and glassmaking. Platinum itself is quite valuable, selling at present at about $314 per ounce, compared to gold's price of about $400 per ounce. Usually it sells for a higher price than gold, but the platinum industry is in a severe slump at the moment.

Some gold is produced as a by-product in mining platinum metals, but just how much gold was stolen along with the other metals is not known. Company officials are puzzling over what the thieves will do with the material. Considering its semi-refined state, a company spokesman says, it is at present ''not a very marketable commodity.''

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