Rapaport Magazine

The Art of the Auction

Interview with Christie’s executive François Curiel

By Martin Rapaport

From Elizabeth Taylor to the diamonds that sell for millions, François Curiel shares his wide-ranging expertise as Christie’s chairman for Europe and international director of its luxury division.

How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted Christie’s?

Covid-19 has been such a catastrophic blow to the world. In response, the business world has learned to move on by moving everything online. Digitization has been an ongoing process and by no means an invention under the new order, but the pandemic has crowned it the way to do business, any business.

At Christie’s, we started developing our e-commerce strategy over 10 years ago, and we already had a solid running system even before Covid-19 hit. So not only do we weather the storm well, but we are also able to ride the online waves and take the business to a new place.

How did you enter the jewelry auction business?

As an intern. In 1969, I was a law student in Paris, and my father wanted me to work during our two-month summer break and practice my English. He introduced me to the then-chairman of Christie’s London, Peter Chance, who arranged an internship in the jewelry department. There, I worked under Albert Middlemiss, chief jewelry expert. As I was about to go back to my studies at the end of August, someone left in the department, and Middlemiss, who saw that I was enjoying myself so much, offered me a job that I accepted. So I never went back to my law studies, and I am still here…52 years later. I often think of Confucius’s famous words: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

What’s the most interesting jewelry piece that you’ve seen?

I have come across so many exciting jewels in my career that I will never be able to pick just one piece, even if my life depends on it. But I can say that the collection of Elizabeth Taylor, which Christie’s sold in 2011, was a dream. The collection itself was very comprehensive and diverse, every piece the best of its kind; the brightest gems, the richest natural pearls, many high-quality diamonds, Kashmir sapphires, Burma rubies, some very fine signed pieces, vintage as well as contemporary, and of course the strongest provenance of the seventh-greatest female screen legend of classic Hollywood cinema. There is just no second best. It’s like a soccer team with 11 Cristiano Ronaldos. To be entrusted with such a collection is indeed a high point of anyone’s career.

Did you ever meet Elizabeth Taylor?

Yes, we had been doing valuations for her collection annually for the last 10 years of her life. She was a very active buyer, and every time we visited, we discovered new, interesting pieces.

Her public image is all beauty and glamour, but we had the privilege to witness a different side of Ms. Taylor, that of a jewelry expert. Her knowledge was extensive, and she was generous to share. I have very fond memories of her and the time we spent together.

Was she as interesting as her jewelry?

Definitely, if not more. She was a very well-informed collector and knew all the stories behind every piece. She knew well the geographical provenance of her colored stones, the quality of her diamonds, and the provenance of the historic jewels she had acquired. Cut, color, clarity and carat weight were no secret for her.

How important is provenance, the stories and people behind the jewelry?

Previous ownership by royalty, aristocrats or celebrities enhances authenticity and gives the piece a persona. It can dramatically multiply the piece’s value beyond its physical worth. So in addition to the 4Cs, we now add a “P” for provenance.

Tell me about the Marie Antoinette auction that just took place in Geneva.

Marie Antoinette (1755 to 1793), the queen of France, purchased this pair of bracelets from a firm called Boehmer in 1776. In 1789 and with dark clouds looming, Marie Antoinette sent her jewels to Brussels for safekeeping, and after the turmoil, the jewels were delivered to her daughter Madame Royale (1778 to 1851). The jewels had been passed down through generations of Madame Royale’s descendants. The bracelets had always remained in the family, and Christie’s was entrusted with presenting them to the world. Estimated at $2 million to $4 million, they fetched $8.2 million at Christie’s Geneva on November 9.

Would you say that provenance created the value of the jewelry?

The stones are probably worth around $100,000, so the $8.2 million realized was 82 times the value of the diamonds, and all due to the royal provenance. So yes, the impact of provenance cannot be underestimated. In this particular instance, the power of the “P” quelled all 4Cs!

How important are private buyers to the auction business?

When I started in 1969, revenue from jewelry was about 2% of Christie’s total sales, and it’s now between 10% and 15%. At that time, mostly dealers came to auctions, and private buyers acquired through retail. The game has since changed. Both professionals and private collectors use the auction platform, with both groups participating in greater numbers as access is increasingly facilitated by technology.

How much more do privates pay than dealers?

There is no hard and fast answer to this question. It depends on the person and the object. Dealers are usually more rational and guided by the amount of profit they think they can make by reselling the piece. Private buyers can also be shrewd investors but are more prone to follow their passion. It is difficult to draw a meaningful comparison. What is clear is that we need both groups today to organize successful auctions.

What is the added value of the brands?

Value being defined by uniqueness and rarity, branding can add value if the piece is signed. A signed, branded piece can command a premium of 30% to 50% over a similar but unsigned piece.

What types of gems and jewelry sell best these days?

Anything that is reasonably priced always sells. Recently the market has been quite strong, and Christie’s has been selling upward of 95% of all lots in every auction. This is exceptional and quite rare, as before the pandemic, the percentage sold per lot was about 80%.

In great demand are signed pieces by iconic maisons like Boucheron, Bulgari, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Harry Winston and many others. Works by contemporary masters such as Viren Bhagat from India and Wallace Chan from China are also enthusiastically sought after. And then you have JAR (Joel Arthur Rosenthal), who created an utterly private world of anonymous yet illustrious clients, forming an exclusive international club whose members recognize instantly their jewels and one another the world over.

Untreated colored gems are in great demand. There is also great interest in signed vintage jewelry, but supply is limited, as museums and the test of time have taken a great number out of the market.

What are the popular price points at auction these days? How is the market for pieces over $1 million?

The most popular price points are between $20,000 and $200,000. With the price of colored diamonds, the price range is huge and can stretch from $1.5 million to $7 million or $8 million.

When I first started to organize auctions in 1982, there were no million-dollar pieces. The million-dollar price tag was reserved for old masters. Today, it is postwar and contemporary art where one sees $20 million-plus works. In the world of jewelry, the turning point was 1987, when someone paid nearly $1 million per carat for a red diamond. It was a 0.95-carat red diamond that sold for $926,000, an outrageous amount in those days. But that event triggered the rise of fancy-colored diamonds. Before that, colored diamonds were very much overlooked.

Where do the goods come from?

The auction industry often talks about the “three Ds,” which stand for debt, divorce and death, as such life changes necessitate the need to sell property for redistribution. Objects come from estates, trade sources, as well as private collectors pruning their collections. Dealers and private collectors come from all over the globe, so the jewelry market is truly a world without boundaries.

Is the crackdown in China a concern?

I have been to China numerous times during my decade-long tenure in Asia and had the great privilege of witnessing the luxury and auction markets there expand with the growing wealth of the region and the support of the government. Christie’s was the first and so far only international auction house licensed by the government to hold auctions in the country.

It is true that the market has become less heated in recent years, but partly because the industry and market are maturing, becoming increasingly sophisticated. A rational and less volatile art and luxury market is good in the sense that it is easier to predict trends and develop strategy. Chinese collectors are already contributing to over 30% of Christie’s global revenue. I think the percentage will continue to rise, and have nothing but optimism for the region.

Online auctions are so popular and seem to be taking over. I remember when the action was in the room: the excitement, the big dealer networking. What were those auctions like?

We are now enjoying a happy balance, with live and online auctions each reaching out to their target audiences with varying selections and price points. Nothing will ever beat the glamour and thrilling energy of an auction in a saleroom, in the presence of eager collectors. On the other hand, online sales offer a greater number of lots without constraints of time and place, bringing in a larger crowd with younger and newer buyers. Both are important and effective platforms.

How is the Arab market?

Middle Eastern collectors have a very long history of collecting. They are consistently active as buyers as well as sellers, and many have long-standing relationships with Christie’s.

What do you think of synthetic or lab-grown diamonds?

At Christie’s, we focus on natural diamonds and gems in the secondary market. We have no experience reselling a lab-grown diamond, so I cannot tell you much about the market for these new stones.

How do you see the estate jewelry market developing over the next few years? Will prices increase?

Back in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, there was a steady supply of estate jewelry for auctions. As time goes by, more family collections are divided up and sold off; intact or larger collections will dwindle, with individual pieces reappearing on the market every now and then. There has been renewed interest in vintage jewels in recent years, and in doing valuations, I used to put a 5% to 10% premium on estimates before the pandemic. I believe it is reasonable to expect prices for quality estate jewels to rise annually going forward. But buyer beware, only genuine jewels in which stones have not been replaced or signatures faked should continue to appreciate.

What roles do the dealers play in the auction and estate jewelry business?

In our industry, professionals are the backbone of our business. They buy and sell through us all year long, and at [the right] price, there is always a buyer for every jewel.

Private collectors are also extremely important, but they come and go, whereas dealers are there to run their business, so they are always present and eager to trade.

How is jewelry doing compared to other items that Christie’s auctions? Why isn’t jewelry doing as well as art?

Jewelry and paintings are both works of art, and objects of art have different price points. It may be a bit of a generalization to claim that jewelry sells for less than paintings and sculptures. A pink diamond could sell for $10 million easily, whereas there are Picasso etchings that cost under $10,000. The differentiation is not as much the genre or category but the quality and scarcity of the object itself.

What’s the highest price ever paid for jewelry?

The Pink Star, a 56.9-carat pink diamond, achieved $71 million in Hong Kong in 2017. The second-highest price is the Oppenheimer Blue, a blue diamond of 14.62 carats, which realized $57 million at Christie’s Geneva in 2016. It is followed by the Winston Pink Legacy of 18.96 carats: $50.7 million.

What advice do you have for the trade?

I would rather you ask me, “What advice has the trade for us?” We now live in a world where boundaries and time zones are fading away, and the auction market has become democratized. I would say: Think global and embrace technology. If your goal is to cultivate an international network of allies and clients to maximize your knowledge and reach, technology and alliances with other professionals are the means to achieve it.

What advice would you have for a young person entering the jewelry business today?

It’s all about commitment. Once you have decided that the jewelry industry is the career for you, map your training course. Consider enrolling in professional programs like those offered by the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to build a basic foundation. Practice what you learned with internships and jobs at manufacturers, stone cutters, retailers, dealers or auction houses. After a decade or less of dedicated work, you should have developed an area of expertise and a good professional network. You can then fly from there.

Who is François Curiel?
François Curiel began his career in 1969 at Christie’s in London as an intern. Based in Hong Kong from 2010 to 2017, following leadership positions in London, Madrid, New York, Geneva and Paris, he now operates out of Paris as chairman for Europe. A world-renowned jewelry specialist, he also heads the Christie’s global luxury division. He is on the board of the auction house’s parent company and is a member of the Christie’s executive management group, which oversees the firm’s activity on a worldwide basis. In 2016, Curiel was promoted to the rank of commander of the French Legion of Honor.

Image: Christie's

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - December 2021. To subscribe click here.

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