Christie's François Curiel on What the Liz Taylor Sale Means For the Future of Jewelry

Christie's François Curiel on What the Liz Taylor Sale Means For the Future of Jewelry
Francois Curiel
(Courtesy Christie's )

Christie's ended 2011 with a Hollywood-style bang after its $157 million Elizabeth Taylor estate sale, which included the most valuable sale of jewelry in auction history. However, last year was not without its hiccups for the auction house as it struggled with weakening demand for wine in Hong Kong, increasing competition in Asia, and a flop of an Impressionist and modern auction in New York. After the Liz Taylor dust settled, ARTINFO caught up with one of the figures behind the sale — Christie's international jewelry specialist and the president of Christie's Hong Kong François Curiel — to discuss the importance of provenance, the advantages of low estimates, and how the end of 2011 will affect 2012 and beyond.

Let's begin with the Liz Taylor sale. You wrote in your email to ARTINFO that the sale demonstrated the significance of provenance in jewelry, where the history of the object has often been of less importance than in visual art sales. Do you think that means provenance will be more important for jewelry sales going forward, or was this auction be an outlier?

It has always existed. One can always sell jewels with a royal provenance — or if you remember when we sold the jewelry that belonged to Ellen Barkin three or four years ago, it commanded a premium over the intrinsic value of the jewels. But, in the case of Elizabeth Taylor, it was really exemplified. The premium was larger than for many other collections. If you look at the very old catalogues from Christie’s when I started working in the 1970s, whenever a piece of jewelry came from a private client, we used to put a note in the catalogue that it came from "property of a lady" or "property of a lady of title." That sent a message to potential buyers that it came from a distinguished provenance. So it [the importance of provenance] has it has always existed, but not to the level that we have seen at the Elizabeth Talyor sale.

Does it allow you to market jewelry more easily if you can lean on the provenance?

Yes. Whenever we have jewels somewhere in an exhibition, there is always a lot of interest. Jewels attract passionate people. But had the collection of Elizabeth Taylor not belonged to Elizabeth Taylor, we certainly wouldn't have sold 25,000 tickets at $30 a piece for people to come to the exhibition, and we certainly would not have had 39,000 people around the world look at the exhibition. Her name drew the crowd.

There is a rumor that BVLGARI bought many of its own vintage jewelry back at the auction. Is it common for jewelry companies to collect their own pieces?

I can't comment about BVLGARI because they did not make any press releases or announcements, but I remember doing some auctions several years ago, and Van Cleef and Arpels used to — in a very proud manner — buy their invisible-set jewelry, which is a very rare technique that Van Cleef and Arpels had created in the '60s. Cartier always buys some of their vintage pieces when they come up for auction. Some very rare pieces end up in the Cartier Museum.

Prices at jewelry auctions — and not just auctions tagged with celebrity names — seem to have increased tremendously in the last few years. Is there a sense that gems, like art, are becoming more popular as an alternative investment or is there something else going on?

It's part of a general movement where, at the moment, works of art and jewelry attract a lot of customers. It's no longer the best-kept secret. Financial markets are not very attractive at the moment. If you give money to your bank they give you one percent a year, if that. The fact that the art market, over the past five to ten years, performed extremely well — not only in jewelry, but in Impressionist and modern art as well as post-war and contemporary — also gives new buyers courage to enter the market. I think it is mostly the lack of confidence in the monetary system, which pushes people to works of art and jewelry.

There are quite interesting statistics [about the jewelry market]. The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond was purchased by Richard Burton for her for $300,000. That, corrected for inflation, comes to $1.95 million. We sold it for $8.8 million. There are many examples like that, and we see the publicity that the auction houses now give to their reserves. I think it gives a lot of confidence to new collectors to enter a market that ten years ago was probably the best-kept secret, or reserved for a small group of aficionados.

In January the droit de suite royalty law goes in effect in London for artists deceased up to 70 years, and last week was a bill proposed in the U.S. to impose a tax of 7 percent on the resale of contemporary artworks. Do you see this benefitting Hong Kong's auction market? If taxes go up enough, will Western collectors start consigning in Hong Kong?

Not at the moment. I have seen this several times in my life. When there was a droit de suite in France and many other European countries, as well as in England for dead artists, some people thought that the market would move to Switzerland where there was no droit de suite — but it didn't. The big markets for Impressionist and modern pictures and for contemporary pictures are London and New York, and I can't imagine that contemporary pictures will be sold in Hong Kong soon because of droit de suite. I think at the moment, the markets will stay where they are. Look at the case right now — London has droit de suite and New York does not, and the London market has not disappeared. It's just another tax — it makes things more expensive and not everyone is happy about it — but I don't think that the market is going to shift to Asia, at least not in the immediate future.

While prices are still high, 2011 wasn't quite as spectacular as 2010 in the Chinese auction market. China's overall economic growth is slowing a bit. The demand for fine wine has leveled off a bit. How does this affect Christie's in Asia?

At the moment it doesn't affect it as much. We just released our figures for 2011. We're 25 percent up over 2010. Our sales in the fall were very strong. So far, it hasn't affected the art market in Asia. So far, we have seen the same phenomenon in Asia that we have seen in Europe: buyers going for works of art and jewelry. Our biggest jewelry auction of the group this year was in Hong Kong for $80 million — New York was $60 million and Geneva was $50 million. There used to be three big centers for jewel auctions: Geneva, New York, and Hong Kong. Now, Hong Kong is way ahead of Geneva and New York because of the presence of Chinese buyers. There are three or four Chinese artists in the list of top ten living artists at the moment. This is just this year. So, on the contrary, I think the Asian market is getting stronger and stronger, and is not affected by the slowdown of the economy.

Do you see that continuing into the next year?

When you sent me your email today you didn't tell me to take out my crystal ball, so I left it in the office... but, we are cautiously optimistic. At the moment, there are no signs that the market will slow down, but we are all extremely careful putting together our sales for next year. We certainly want what we have seen at the end of the year — for quality items there are always buyers. Perhaps next year we should have smaller sales with quality items, and also very attractive estimates.

The Elizabeth Taylor sale worked so well not just because  it had quality items, but also the becasue if the fact that the estimates were very conservative. The $8.8 million ring was estimated at $2-3 million. Everyone knew it was going to bring more, so I asked, "Why did you put such low estimates?" They were there because of the estate — it's a complicated story. But in the end, the conservative estimates very often make for the success of a sale. Had we estimated the Peregrina pearl at $8-12 million, I am not sure that it would have sold for $11.8 million. But if we estimate it at $4-5 million or $3-5 million, maybe it will get to a very high price.

ARTINFO had a conversation with the director of China Guardian a few months ago and he mentioned that he is studying Christie's and Sotheby's to try to bring his business model, specifically authentication methods and client services, up to your level. Mainland China seems pretty separate as an auction market for the moment, but do you see the big Chinese auction houses competing in Hong Kong at some point in the future?

Absolutely. Poly has opened an office in New York. They definitely want to connect to Chinese American sellers. So far we haven't seen them much in Hong Kong in terms of planning presale exhibitions, but they come to Hong Kong to buy works of art. It's a new force on which we will have to count. Before the market was just the two major auction houses, but now there are two very strong competitors with Poly and Guardian. It's amazing what you say that they are studying us, because I think they are doing pretty well, and their model is right. They don't do things too differently from us. What do they do differently?

What he said was that their authentication methods are not up to the same standards as yours.

It's certain that Christie's and our competitors have a group of experts who have been here for a long time. When an expert in Hong Kong sees a Chinese work of art, it is also vetted by six or seven other specialists at Christie's — in New York, in Paris, in Amsterdam — and they have regular conference calls where they look at each other's property and they discuss it among themselves. It is nice because you can play ping pong with a colleague rather than being isolated. I suppose if you work for a small auction house you can't talk to too many people. That is one of our strengths. Every department works as a team and works with specialists around the world. That network is difficult to replicate because we have been around since 1766. The system has been around for a while. If you take the five major departments, Impressionist and modern, post-war and contemporary, jewelry, Asian art, and Old Masters, there are between 25 and 30 specialists in each of the departments. They don't always all meet all the time, but there are always six or seven of them looking at every work of art that is sold at Christie's, with different points of view from different countries.

Does Christie's have any other expansion plans in Asia?

When I joined Christie's Hong Kong in January 2010, we were 80 colleagues in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Now, about two years later, we are 140. Nearly two years later, we have added specialists, we have added client-services colleagues, we have added support staff for all the departments. We are also having more exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing of the works that are being sold not only in Hong Kong, but all around the globe. We have had Chinese concierges head up customer service in London and New York so that the Chinese would find someone who speaks their language when they go there. We have done a lot of work to have our Web site in Chinese. My job when I went there was not to China-ize Christie's, but to make it easier for clients there to work with us.