A salesroom full of one-percenters made it rain at Christie’s last night during the first wave of the “Collection of Elizabeth Taylor” sales, fetching $115,932,000, wildly over pre-sale expectations of $16-23 million. All of the 80 lots offered sold, translating to what the auction world calls “a white-glove sale,” that rare event free of any market casualties. The auction also ranks as the most expensive single-session jewelry sale ever, as well as a record for a single-owner sale of jewelry.
Twenty-four of the 80 pieces of jewelry that were either obsessively collected by the screen legend, who died in March at the age of 79, or presented to her in earlier times as blingy tokens of Hollywood-style affection by a roster of famous or at least rich men, hurdled the million-dollar mark. Of those high-flying ornaments, six went over $5 million, setting at least three records along the way.
Perhaps the most impressive, at least from a spectator’s view, was the luscious La Peregrina, a 16th-century pear-shaped natural pearl with a long history of Spanish royal ownership suspended from a 1972 Cartier necklace clustered with diamonds, rubies, and cultured pearls. Selling to a telephone bidder for a top-lot price of $11.8 million (est. $2-3 million), it achieved a record for any pearl jewel.
It became obvious early on that the combination of Taylor’s fame and Christie’s global marketing machine would create a perfect storm of competition for hungry collectors.
Though it was a night for jewels and not paintings, a number of high-profile contemporary art collectors were spotted in the throng, including Warhol kingpins Peter Brant and Alberto Mugrabi as well as investment guru Glenn Fuhrman and international art trader Ezra Nahmad.
Mugrabi, a fixture in the contemporary sales arena as both a buyer and seller of artworks, was outgunned last night, winding up as the underbidder for the glitzy gold and multi-gem charm bracelet — boasting thirty charms, ranging from a Scorpio pendant to a gold gallows with a red enamel heart — that sold for $194,500 (est. $15-20,000). Buttonholed as he exited the salesroom with his girlfriend midway through the four-hour bidding marathon, Mugrabi said, “I thought it was crazy! I tried but I wasn’t successful. People love Elizabeth Taylor.”
He should know, since his family consigned Andy Warhol’s 1962 painting “The Men in her Life,” a black-and-white composite of Elizabeth Taylor striding with her third husband, Michael Todd, at an English race track as they passed Eddie Fisher (later her fourth husband) and Debbie Reynolds. It sold at Phillips de Pury in May 2010 in the “Carte Blanche” sale for $63.4 million.
Reminded of what that painting fetched, Mugrabi noted, “It’s cheap compared to what’s going on here.”
Estimates, usually a gauge for how much an object is expected sell for, were typically trampled last night and frequently outpaced at ten times the house figure — no doubt resulting from a gambit by Christie’s to lure in bidders with a low estimate, as if the house were feigning ignorance that these jewels were owned by anyone out of the ordinary.
It didn’t seem to bother one successful bidder, seated solo by the aisle with several large handbags and a fur coat occupying the seat beside her. The unidentified bidder outdueled fierce competition for an ivory-and-gold necklace that came into Taylor’s possession from a bequest of the legendary costume designer Edith Head. It fetched $314,500 (est. $1,500-2,000).
The piece was composed of 13 antique circular ivory opera passes, engraved with the name of the opera house, the seat allocation, the name of the ticketholder, and dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.
“I’m an opera lover,” said the elegantly clad successful bidder who declined to identify herself other than to say she lived in New York. “This is my first piece of Elizabeth Taylor jewelry and it’s very exciting. I’ve always adored Elizabeth Taylor and it just seemed appropriate for me” to buy it. Asked to name her favorite Taylor film, she instantly answered, “National Velvet.”
Christie’s wasn’t shy about hammering home Taylor’s cinema legacy, projecting a short Oscars-style tribute film immediately prior to the auction with snippets from the best of her 50 films, such as “Giant,” Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and “Butterfield 8.”
Even better was the home-video footage of Taylor, clad in a white swimsuit at poolside, bidding by phone for a bauble known as the Prince of Wales Diamond Brooch that had been worn by the Duchess of Windsor and which was being offered at Sotheby’s Geneva in 1987. Surrounded by an entourage in the film, Taylor joked on the speakerphone that she’d probably have to pay ten times the estimate to get it. She won it for approximately $566,000.
It was déjà vu all over again last night as that brooch sold again for $1,314,500 (est. $400-800,000).
Jewels identified as gifts from Richard Burton, the late, great Welsh actor who was Taylor’s fifth husband and who famously co-starred with the screen siren in films such as “Cleopatra” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”, fared particularly well.
An emerald-and-diamond necklace by Bulgari, mounted in platinum and given to Taylor on the occasion of their 1964 wedding in Montreal that marked the first of their two marriages, fetched $6,130,500 (est. $1-1.5 million). A 1958 emerald-and-diamond pendant brooch by the same Italian jeweler, given to the actress on the occasion of their engagement in 1962, made $6,578,500 (est. $500-700,000).
A Michael Jackson provenance also helped launch a diamond-and-sapphire ring with a pear-shaped diamond, weighing in at almost 17 carats, that the late music legend gave Taylor, selling to a telephone bidder for $722,500 (est. $80-120,000).
But that price certainly paled when compared to the final lot of the long evening, when another Burton gift, “The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond,” a 33-carat rectangular-cut diamond mounted on a platinum ring, sold for $8,818,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million).
In a postcard written from Holland in 1968 to her parents, Liz exclaimed, “did you read about my ring? It’s fab!”
In keeping with Taylor’s longtime commitment to charitable causes, a portion of the profits from the sale of publications related to the epic auction event and its accompanying exhibition — where 26,000 people have flocked to date, at $30 ticket prices — will go to the renowned Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
The action resumes today at 10 a.m. with back-to back sessions of less valuable jewelry.