Rapaport Magazine

The $137 Million Elizabeth Taylor Jewels

Christie’s New York auctioned the jewelry of a silver screen icon in what is, to date, the most important sale of the century.

By Amber Michelle

Elizabeth Taylor
©Getty Images
The hottest ticket in town was a coveted seat to the Elizabeth Taylor jewelry auction at Christie’s, held during the height of the holiday social season in New York City. The sale was indeed quite a show. Kicking off the proceedings was a black-tie evening event that enticed some attendees to dress up in evening gowns and other finery to pay homage to one of the most glamourous movie stars ever as they vied for a chance to own a little piece of the legend that was Elizabeth Taylor. “This is history; it is all one-of-a-kind,” gushed a dealer who was observing the auction.

The sale lived up to expectations as 270 lots sold 100 percent for a total of $137,235,675, setting a new world auction record for a single-owner sale, toppling the $50,281,887 Duchess of Windsor collection — sold in 1987 at Sotheby’s Geneva — into second place.

The Elizabeth Taylor sale also set seven other auction records, starting with the highest price ever paid for a pearl when La Peregrina sold for $11,842,500*, which also made it the top lot of the sale. The 50.56-carat natural pearl — something that will never be found again — was a gift from Richard Burton, who purchased it at New York’s Parke-Bernet Galleries in 1969 for $37,000. Discovered in the 1500s in the Gulf of Panama, La Peregrina has an enviable pedigree. It was owned by eight Spanish kings as well as Joseph Bonaparte of France, Prince Louis Napoleon of France and the Duke and Duchess of Abercorn. Taylor personally worked with the designers at Cartier to create a necklace for the pendant, which she described as “the most perfect pearl in the world.”

La Peregrina pearl

Extraordinary Collection

The scope of the Elizabeth Taylor jewelry collection was extraordinary. It included pieces of historical importance, the finest gemstones and top-name makers — Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Tiffany were some of the most prominent. Perhaps more significantly, Taylor’s jewelry chronicled the story of her life, with many pieces gifted to her by her famous husbands and friends. The provenance, coupled with the quality of the jewelry in this sale, sent prices through the stratosphere. 

“The sale was priced to the inherent value of the pieces,” said Sally Morrison, spokesperson for the Elizabeth Taylor Trust, which will receive the proceeds from the auction. “We all hoped, knew and expected high prices due to provenance, but like everything in Elizabeth’s life, this sale defied gravity. She was the first woman to make $1 million for a movie, she was the first to have a celebrity fragrance. This sale was an extension of that.”

The Elizabeth Taylor diamond ring
Indeed, estimates meant nothing at this sale. It was the consensus among the trade that the jewelry was estimated low anyway but, with bidding so competitive, one could barely blink as bids soared past any reasonable price. “This is the only time in my career that I’ve seen people bidding so ferociously, jumping from $2 million to $4 million in one bid. I’ve never seen it before,” marveled François Curiel, international jewelry director, president of Christie’s Asia and one of the auctioneers at the sale.

Important Stones

Two very noteworthy diamonds tied for second place in the sale’s top ten list. First was the Taj Mahal diamond, circa 1627 to 1628. The heart-shaped table cut diamond, in a jade, red stone and diamond mounting, dangles from a gold and ruby chain by Cartier. It is inscribed with the name Nur Jahan, who was the wife of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahangir, who later gave the gem to his son, Shah Jahan. It is believed that Shah Jahan gave the diamond to his wife, who died four years later, and in whose honor he built the Taj Mahal. Burton gave this historic piece to Taylor on her fortieth birthday in 1972. It is another irreplaceable gem and it sold for $8,818,500.

Taj Mahal Diamond

Also, selling for $8,818,500, or $265,697 per carat, was the Elizabeth Taylor diamond ring. The 33.19-carat D, VS1 rectangular cut jewel was originally named the Krupp Diamond. The ever-generous Burton bought it at auction from the Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York in 1968 for $300,000. It was a favorite of Taylor, who wore it almost every day for 30 years. This diamond set a new record price for a colorless diamond, knocking the 32.01-carat Annenberg Diamond from its perch of $240,000 per carat, a price garnered at a Christie’s New York sale in 2009. 

Sapphire and diamond sautoir

Taylor had a number of very fine colored gemstones in her collection as well. Her emerald Bulgari necklace, which sold for $6,130,500, was comprised of some of the finest stones. Christopher P. Smith, president of the American Gemological Laboratories (AGL) that evaluated the stones, spoke from firsthand observation of the gems. “The suite of emerald and diamond jewelry of the Elizabeth Taylor collection are some of her most famous jewels. She was frequently photographed wearing them. The emerald and diamond necklace and bracelet from Bulgari had a collection of very fine Muzo emeralds from Colombia, as well as a number of top-quality Sandawana emeralds from Zimbabwe. In the early 1960s, Sandawana produced some very fine emeralds and these pieces clearly denote how well Sandawana emeralds hold up to the top-quality gems from Muzo,” explained Smith. He also noted that the 52.72-carat cabochon sapphire set in a medallion necklace by Bulgari was “one of the most exquisite Burma sapphires I have ever seen.”

Bulgari emerald and diamond brooch suspended from emerald and diamond necklace
All of the biggest, finest and most significant pieces of Taylor’s collection sold in an 80-lot evening sale that took four and a half hours to complete — about 20 lots an hour, compared to the usual 50 to 60 lots an hour at a regular auction. Spectators in the sale room watched in awe as bidders — mostly on the phone — sent prices over the moon. The evening sale totaled $115,932,000 for the 80 lots offered that session. But there was more to come….

The Next Day

The sale continued the following day with another 190 lots garnering more astronomical prices and tacking on another $21.3 million to reach the astounding $137.2 million total. The day sale was less crowded and one did not need a ticket to attend. However, interest was high and bidding remained very competitive, with 100 percent of the lots on offer sold. While much of the action came from bidders on the phone and online, there were more people in the room bidding, including designer Lorraine Schwartz, known for her Hollywood celebrity clientele. Schwartz bid on some of her pieces that Taylor had owned, paying dearly to reacquire a diamond bracelet. A few lots later, a set of three Lorraine Schwartz jade and diamond bangles showed up and she bid furiously against someone on the phone before bowing out. That someone on the phone turned out to be reality TV star Kim Kardashian, who told US Weekly magazine that “Elizabeth Taylor was an idol of mine and I’m honored to now own something from her collection.”

The Mike Todd Diamond Tiara

Perhaps the most coveted items of the day sale were the two wedding bands that Burton gave Taylor — one for each marriage. After a lengthy bidding battle that brewed for several minutes between a buyer in the room and another on the phone — the two rings that were the final lot of the sale sold for $1,022,500.

 “This truly was the sale of the century,” concluded Rahul Kadakia, head of jewelry, Christie’s Americas, and an auctioneer at the sale. “And it is a great tribute to one of the greatest jewelry collectors of our time.”

*All prices include buyer’s premium.



SALE TOTAL:  $137,235,675
World Record for the Most Valuable Collection of Jewels Sold at Auction

Sold 100 percent by lot and value

LOT 12
La Peregrina

Natural pearl, diamond, ruby and cultured pearl necklace, Cartier
World Auction Record for a Pearl Jewel

Buyer: Anonymous

LOT 80
The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond
33.19-carat D, VS1 rectangular cut
$8,818,500 or $265,697 per carat

World Auction Record for a Colorless Diamond Per Carat
Buyer: Asian Private

LOT 56
Taj Mahal Diamond

World Auction Record for an Indian Jewel
Buyer: Anonymous

LOT 29
A 23.46-carat emerald and diamond pendant brooch, Bulgari
$6,578,500 or $280,000 per carat

World Auction Record for an Emerald Jewel and for an Emerald Per Carat
Buyer: Anonymous

LOT 28
An Emerald and Diamond Necklace, Bulgari

Buyer: Anonymous

LOT 72
Sapphire and Diamond Sautoir,

Buyer: Anonymous

LOT 77
An 8.24-carat Ruby and Diamond Ring, Van Cleef & Arpels
$4,226,500 or $512,925 per carat

World Auction Record for a Ruby Per Carat

Buyer: U.S. Private

LOT 79
The Mike Todd Diamond Tiara

Buyer: U.S. Private

LOT 31
Emerald and Diamond Bracelet, Bulgari


Buyer: U.S. Private

LOT 76
Ruby and Diamond Necklace, Cartier

Buyer: International Trade

LOT 11 (Not in the top ten, but world record price)
Natural Pearl and Diamond Ear Pendants, Bulgari


World Auction Record for a Pair of Natural Pearl Ear Pendants

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2012. To subscribe click here.

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