In early September, the announcement came from Christie’s: Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic collection of haute couture apparel and jewelry (as well as memorabilia and collectible artwork) would be part of a four-day, five-part auction. Many retail jewelers entertained the idea of going to New York City to see the 269 pieces of jewelry on sale from Dec. 13-16.
But going to the auction and actually bidding on specific lots, during the height of Christmas shopping season, was a journey few seriously pondered let alone made happen. Two such adventuresome retail jewelers were Jenny and John Caro, co-owners of Jewelry By Design in Woodridge, Va. The couple went to the auction with the hopes of buying one or more pieces from Taylor’s famed jewelry collection.
Jenny and John Caro
In an exclusive interview with Retail Details, Caro shared the details of her journey to New York and what it took to actually go to the auction and bid on the desired lots. Back in October, she had made plans to attend the Christie’s auction to bid on the more affordable lots. “Some lots had estimates of $5,000 and $7,000,” says Caro. “Those were within our overall budget of $30,000.”
Caro was realistic about the auction. She knew many wealthy bidders, established collectors, overseas buyers, and celebrities (Kim Kardashian, Michael Kors, Nina Garcia, and Jennifer Tilly, to name a few of the boldface names who attended) would quickly drive up the bidding.
Her journey began like many expeditions: with an idea and a destination in mind. Caro’s goal was to create a permanent display in her store that would give customers the chance to try on a piece of jewelry worn by a Hollywood legend who was also a key figure in America’s cinematic history and one of the world’s leading connoisseurs of fine jewelry.
As the jewelry auction was split into five parts, including an online-only component, Caro’s plan of attack was to bid on three lots at the first sale on the evening of Dec. 13 at Rockefeller Plaza (The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor: The Legendary Jewels, Evening Sale (I) sale, comprising 80 lots) and to try for additional lots in the next day’s sale (The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor: Jewelry (II). She also wanted to compete in the online portion of the auction on Thursday.
The very first step in Caro’s journey was ordering Taylor’s famed book, My Love Affair with Jewelry. Caro sharpened her bidding skills by purchasing the book on eBay along with many other obscure books showing Taylor wearing jewelry. A review of the books confirmed that Taylor did own some inexpensive pieces of jewelry in her vast collection.
As with most auctions, Christie’s had detailed information of the Taylor auction online. Caro checked out the more affordable lots with estimated prices around $5,000 to $7,000. But before she could put bidding paddle 110 to use, Caro, like all potential bidders, had to go through a meticulous application process, which included reviews of her business financials by the esteemed auction house’s Bid Department, to establish her line of credit for the auction.
Jenny Caro produced a promotional video for her auction journey.
Weeks later, she received two tickets to go to the auction and her catalog. Her travel plans quickly took shape. Caro had plans to bid on Lot 3 (an ivory and gold necklace), Lot 4 (an enamel flag and gold necklace by Bulgari), and Lot 14 (the famed ping pong three-ring set) at the Dec. 13 evening auction.
Caro knew that auction estimates were simply ballpark figures to start the bidding. Little did she know that as the bidding quickly escalated, the realized prices would skyrocket, sometimes as high as 10 times their low estimates. When Lot 3 was up for auction, Caro’s heart sank when the auctioneer told the room full of bidders that there had “been a lot of interest in this piece.”
“The ivory and gold necklace estimates were $1,500 to $2,000,” says Caro. “The realized price for the lot was $314,500. That’s when it sunk in, that even with a budget of $30,000 to spend at the auction, we might just walk away empty handed.”
When lots 4 (estimate $8,000 to $12,000, sold for $122,500) and 14 (estimate $5,000 to $7,000, sold for $134,500) went under the hammer, it nailed Caro’s worst fears on the first night of the auction. “It was disappointing,” says Caro. “We did leave that night empty handed.”
Caro and her husband returned to their hotel that night to plan for the next day’s auction. She had some other low estimate lots in mind, but in true strategic planning she hoped for the best, but planned on the worst. Lot 136 was part of Taylor’s jewelry collection but wasn’t actually real jewelry. It was a suite of paper cut-out jewelry: a “gag” gift given to Taylor by none other than Malcolm Forbes. If all else failed, Caro was determined that she would take home one of the least expensive jewelry lots in the auction.
The couple returned to the auction floor the next morning. As they feared, the same scenes played out once again during the morning sale. After a lunch break, the couple gathered their courage and returned for the afternoon portion of the Jewelry II auction. That’s when Lot 136, the paper suite, was going up for sale. Caro was sure no matter how crazy the bidding got, she would go to top dollar to secure the lot with estimates starting at $200 to $300.
“Surprisingly, I think a lot of people who wanted a piece of jewelry history, like me, wanted this particular lot,” says Caro. “The big bidders from overseas weren’t an issue like they were during The Legendary Jewels auction the previous night, but there was very active bidding.”
Paddle 110 got a work out when bidding started for Lot 136. Caro waited for the bidding to begin, and then quickly jumped in. “I was actively bidding throughout most of the sale,” says Caro. “In the end, it got down to one other woman and me. My heart was pounding and I wanted the bidding to stop, but she kept on going.”
The final bid went to Caro. And Lot 136 went under the hammer for $5,500. When she had time to take in her triumph, she noticed some people around were laughing: a woman just paid $5,500 for paper cut-outs of jewelry that were originally a gag gift. But Caro got the last laugh.
“It didn’t bother me at all,” says Caro. “This lot has an incredible story behind it that my staff and I will proudly share with our customers. And there is a heartfelt mention of it in [Taylor’s] book, which will go well with my store display ideas.”
After paying for her lot (auction fees and taxes brought the final price to $6,875), Malcolm Forbes’ granddaughter, Moira Forbes, a writer for Forbes magazine, was one of the first journalists to write about Caro’s purchase after the sale. Then another Forbes writer interviewed Caro and wrote an article explaining why she purchased the paper suite.
“BBC TV also interviewed me,” says Caro. “Then we went back to the hotel to drop off our prize. It felt kind of odd to lock a suite of paper jewelry in our hotel safe.”
Jenny Caro and her husband John took time out from the auction to visit the 9/11 memorial
After a stressful yet successful day of bidding, Caro and her husband had some time to unwind. Her husband bought her a lovely Louis Vuitton scarf. Then the couple went out for an Italian dinner in the village, and visited the 9/11 memorial.
But the auction wasn’t over yet for Caro. Thursday, during the train commute home, she was actively bidding on other lots. After carefully reviewing My Love Affair with Jewelry, Caro had her eyes on a coral branch, multi-gem, pearl, and gold necklace, and a pair of white gold and diamond earrings.
Where auction paddle 110 left off, taps to Caro’s iPad resumed the bidding. Caro boarded the train in New York with a suite of paper jewelry and arrived in Woodridge, Va., the proud owner of two real pieces of jewelry from the auction.
Her top bid of $8,000 secured the coral branch necklace, and $14,000 for the chandelier diamond earrings. “My husband John was totally stressing me out by making me wait til the last 15 seconds to bid so the price wouldn’t be bid up,” says Caro. “At one point the train went through a tunnel where we lost the internet connection right before the bidding ended.”
With the auction behind her, and a successful mission completed, Caro went straight back to the business of selling jewelry during the busiest time of the year. With Christmas sales soon to be over, Caro is already making plans for her Taylor jewelry displays.
“Our store has four large exterior window boxes,” says Caro. “I plan on using pages from her jewelry book to show how the pieces [we purchased at auction] were worn. I also plan on taking pieces of jewelry from our take-in [secondary market jewelry purchases] and estate jewelry to group it in a display with the auction pieces in what I call ‘What Liz would have worn’ groups of jewelry.”
Caro hopes this will bring in customers during January, planting the seeds for Valentine’s Day purchases. Eventually Caro is looking to create a permanent display for the Taylor auction jewelry with plans to host a Taylor event or two in the near and extended future.
But for now, she’s simply planning on sharing her pieces of jewelry, film, and auction house history with the people Caro values most, her staff and customers.