National Jeweler Network

Jewelry Auctions

Final Taylor tally: $156.8M worth of "magic"

2011-12-22

New York--The most telling sale in the recent auction of icon Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry at Christie’s here wasn’t necessarily the 33.19-carat “Elizabeth Taylor Diamond” that garnered $8.8 million or the dazzling “Le Peregrina” that fetched a cool $11.8 million.

It was this: Lot 136, A suite of paper imitation jewelry, which, as the name indicates, consisted of nothing more than paper cutouts of a necklace, earrings and a pair of ear clips. Yet that didn’t stop an ambitious buyer from plunking down $6,875 for the pieces.

“It’s magic,” Rahul Kadakia, head of jewelry for Christie’s Americas, said in a post-auction interview with National Jeweler. “It’s not paper in this case. (It was) paper when someone else owned it. But this was Elizabeth Taylor’s.”

Lot 136 fetched more than 20 times its highest estimate. Yet that was not out of the ordinary for this extraordinary sale, which totaled $156.8 million in the end. That includes the online-only auction, a first for Christie’s, which ended Saturday after fetching $9.5 million.

Kadakia, one of two auctioneers at the helm of the sale, said some pieces drew 400 to 500 times their estimated price. The auction shattered 12 world records, including most valuable jewelry auction in history and most valuable private collection of jewels sold at auction.

Previously, the sale of the Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, which garnered an impressive $50.3 million in 1987, held the latter record. But even the fabled duchess--a woman so enchanting a man abdicated the throne just to be with her--couldn’t hold a candle to Taylor.

“She was truly a global icon,” Kadakia said. “You could go to any corner of the world and say her name. Everyone knew her.”

Pricing the pieces
Christie’s used a simple formula when pricing the jewelry in Taylor’s collection. Figure out of the market value of the materials included in the pieces, the gemstones and the metals, and then allow the market to decide how much they are willing to pay to own a piece that once occupied real estate in Taylor’s jewelry box.

“How can you put a price on Elizabeth Taylor’s magic?” Kadakia asks. “Do I know the answer to that? No. Did we find out? Absolutely.”

It’s a fine formula to use, say those in the industry who have experience with estate and antique jewelry.

Lee Siegelson, president of Siegelson, a New York-based company that serves as a source of and authority on rare jewelry and gemstones, said he was surprised by the prices garnered by some of the pieces that might not have had such a high artistic or extrinsic value but, apparently, had extreme emotional value to certain bidders.

“When it happens continually across the board, it reminds me that when two people really want something and can’t live without it, it’s ... not about what it’s worth. It’s about how much they’re really prepared to pay,” he said.

That emotional factor is not something that can be calculated prior to the auction, especially when dealing with a celebrity on the level of Taylor, who is famous for her acting career--she won two Oscars--eight marriages and for being one of the first celebrities to speak out on AIDS.

People, Siegelson said, “wanted a piece of Liz. And her jewelry is definitely something she lived with.”

Heading into the auction, Kadakia, who has been in the jewelry business a total of 20 years, including 15 at Christie’s, said he had a “secret” number in his head, an inner estimate as to what the sale would realize: $100 million. That number was obliterated by the end of the first night, when the auction total added up to $116 million.

He said the frenzy to come was evident with the first lot of the evening, a gold and multi-gem charm bracelet. The high estimate on the piece was $25,000 and the hammer went down at $275,000, with the bracelet selling for a total of $326,500 including buyer’s premium.

“That was the first lot,” Kadakia said. “I thought (at the time), it’s going to be a long night, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Pieces sold that first night include the aforementioned La Peregrina and the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond. The evening sale also featured the lot that would turn out to incite the most frenzied bidding of the entire auction-- Lot 56, the “Taj Mahal Diamond,” a heart-shaped diamond on a gold and ruby chain by Cartier.

Richard Burton gave Elizabeth Taylor the “Taj Mahal Diamond” when she turned 40 in 1972. Burton and Taylor were married twice, once from 1964 to 1974 and for less than a year between 1975 and 1976.

The auctioneer for that specific lot, Kadakia said he counted five competing buyers in the room who were up against another three “very active” bidders on the telephone. The diamond eventually sold for a total of $8.8 million after bidding started at $300,000.

It set a new world record for an Indian jewel sold at auction.

Sale of the century? 
Given the gap between the $156.8 million Elizabeth Taylor jewelry sale total and the second highest-grossing private collection, the $50.3 million Duchess of Windsor sale that took place in 1987, it’s not difficult to conceive that the Taylor auction was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“I think it changes the market,” said Beth Anne Bonanno, who now runs her own jewelry consulting firm and previously spent 10 years working with estate and antique jewelry at Siegelson. “I think it’s going to be great for jewelry sales for a while. It boosts everybody’s desire for jewelry.”

She said it also creates an interesting proposition down the road for the purchasers who paid such high prices for the pieces, which are not likely to re-emerge on the market for some time.

Like so many pieces, this gold charm bracelet sold for well above its high estimate of $15,000, garnering $182,500. The draw of charm bracelets in any auction is that they mark milestones in the wearer’s life, said Beth Anne Bonanno of Elizabeth Anne Bonanno Consulting.

“How are you going to realize that price again?” she asks. “A lot of those pieces might go in the vault for a long time.”

After the auction, Bonanno said she had a discussion with an industry colleague about whether or not the market would see another sale like this one any time soon. While there are some private individuals that no doubt harbor impressive collections of jewelry, there’s not likely to be another famous individual with a collection quite like that of Taylor.

“I can’t think of anybody that would fit the bill,” she said.

Michael O’Connor, jewelry style expert and celebrity stylist, said most celebrities these days borrow jewelry to wear, but may still be building their own collections. Still, he said, those collections won’t come close to Taylor’s.

“The issue is that Elizabeth Taylor built such a huge and famous collection, that she could wear the jewelry she owned time and time again and people would still be very interested in covering the piece,” O’Connor said, “Some jewelry collections of today’s celebrities are beautiful, but none of them are of the magnitude or have the dramatic appeal that Elizabeth Taylor’s had.”

What ends up happening with today’s celebrities, O’Connor explained, is that they don’t want to be seen in the same jewelry over and over, and because they have opportunities to borrow jewelry, they don’t have to repeat pieces.

“But Elizabeth could repeatedly wear her pieces, and it would still get coverage because they were so amazingly over-the-top,” he said.

O’Connor said Taylor always portrayed herself as a huge jewelry lover, and during her time it was common for men to gift large, impressive pieces of jewelry.

“As a result, her collection ended up being a major collection, and I think that hers is probably the last of what we’re going to see of that caliber,” he said.

Kadakia, who is only 37 years old, agrees that the Taylor sale was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

“This was the sale of the century and the sale of my lifetime, and I’m still here at Christie’s for a while,” he said.

-- Fashion editor Hannah Connorton contributed to this report.