Like disciples gathering at the altar of their high priestess, the jewelry faithful packed the showroom at Christie’s New York Dec. 13 for an evening sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s “Legendary Jewels,” an epic assortment of 80 lots that earned $115,932,000, setting a world record for the most valuable private collection of jewels sold at auction.
“We knew it would do well, but no one dared dream of $115 million,” said François Curiel, Christie’s international head of jewels. “Probably we will not see another sale like this for many years.”
Nearly every lot sold well above its high estimate, “a testament to the affection for Elizabeth Taylor worldwide as well as to her collecting ability,” said Marc Porter, chairman and president of Christie’s Americas.
The top lot, the legendary La Peregrina, a 16th-century natural pearl suspended from a diamond, ruby, and cultured pearl necklace by Cartier, sold for $11,842,500 (including the buyer’s premium), setting a world auction record for a pearl jewel. Purchased by Richard Burton in 1969 for $37,000, the historic piece carried a high estimate of $3 million.
La Peregrina on diamond, ruby, and cultured pearl necklace by Cartier
Tied for second place were the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, a 33.19 ct. D color potentially flawless stone formerly known as the Krupp Diamond, and the Taj Mahal Diamond, a gift from Richard Burton set in a heart-shaped pendant on a ruby and diamond chain by Cartier. Each realized $8.8 million, against high estimates of $3.5 million and $500,000, respectively.
The 33.19 ct. Elizabeth Taylor Diamond
The power of provenance—the circuitous journey of ownership that can render an ordinary, if beautiful, jewel extraordinary—was evident from the start of the sale: The opening lot, a gold and multigem charm bracelet, sold for a hammer price of $270,000—more than 10 times its low estimate of $25,000.
“We valued every item on its intrinsic value—what would it bring without Elizabeth Taylor?” Curiel explained. “We wanted to let the market decide what premium it would pay for the value of the jewels plus the provenance.”
Lot 45, another gold and multigem charm bracelet—this one estimated at no more than $6,000—sold for a hammer price of $160,000, offering a compelling example of just how much the market is willing to pay for an illustrious backstory.
Gold and multigem charm bracelet
“We’ve entered a new era,” said Lee Siegelson, the New York City–based estate jeweler, as he left the sale, which concluded just before midnight.
It was impossible not to draw parallels between the Elizabeth Taylor sale—the first in a four-day series of sales featuring the actress’ jewelry, haute couture, decorative arts, and film memorabilia—and the 1987 Sotheby’s sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewelry, which brought in some $50 million (about $45 million of which went to the Pasteur Institute).
Many people familiar with the jewelry industry cite that sale as a turning point in the market because it signaled the birth of a new breed of buyer, as private individuals demonstrated they were willing to pay dearly for provenance.
In a 25-year-old video clip shown before the Christie’s sale got underway, Taylor, a notable buyer in the 1987 sale, said it best. The actress could be seen lounging poolside in Los Angeles, bidding via phone on items in the Duchess of Windsor’s jewel box, and chattering enthusiastically about the extraordinary prices they were then fetching.
“It sounds like things that are really desirable are going to go for 10 times what’s expected,” Taylor said.
The Taj Mahal diamond, on a gold and ruby chain by Cartier, fetched $8.8 million—a world auction record for an Indian jewel.
For more on Elizabeth Taylor’s love of jewelry, check out: