Rapaport Magazine
Markets & Pricing

More than a passing fancy

The blockbuster New York auctions raked in more than $100 million in total, signaling the robust health of the estate jewelry market.

By Carol Besler
Even as the pandemic rages — or perhaps because of it, what with pent-up demand and money saved on travel — the jewelry industry is thriving and the pre-owned market is booming. The Sotheby’s and Christie’s December Magnificent Jewels auctions in New York totaled $57.1 million and $55 million, respectively. Both had bidders registering for high-value paddles, since in each auction, every lot in the top 10 exceeded $1 million, and nearly half fetched over $2 million.

Signed pieces were strong, and the performance of colored diamonds was outstanding. The top 10 lots for the two sales combined included five blue diamonds — one of which sold for nearly $8 million. There were also a pink, a red, and two fancy-yellow diamonds, along with signed jewels by Van Cleef & Arpels, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Maubausson.

Sotheby’s: Making a mark

The star of the Sotheby’s auction on December 7 was the Medusa, a gold, opal and demantoid-garnet necklace that Louis Comfort Tiffany created for the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri. It went for approximately $3.7 million — more than 18 times its $200,000 high estimate. The necklace, which had been listed for decades as “whereabouts unknown,” has since appeared in illustrations in several books.

“That piece was beyond unique, and not just attributed to, but signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany — he didn’t sign many pieces of his jewelry,” commented Ronald Kawitzky of New York estate jeweler DK Bressler. “Like the design or not, it is typical of his work and has a provenance that can’t be beaten. Arcane pieces like this tend to really hold their value.”

The Medusa last sold in 1943 at Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York. It came from the estate of Sadie Walters, whose husband Henry was the namesake for the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. The buyer was entrepreneur Salman Schocken, and a descendent of his eventually consigned the necklace to last month’s sale.

“The Louis Comfort Tiffany necklace was not a huge surprise,” said New York estate dealer Ariel Saidian of Joseph Saidian and Sons. “Especially given its uniqueness and how early the jewel was dated. Quig Bruning and Frank Everett at Sotheby’s have an incredible knack for finding historic jewels, and this necklace was the star of a New York City auction week that included diamonds of every size and color.”

Saidian called the current vintage-jewelry market “the strongest it has been in years — definitely in my career. The exposure and education on the internet for vintage jewelry has caused a resurgence in demand. I think now, more than ever, consumers understand that jewelry value is not evaluated by per-carat mathematics. Jewels that do not necessarily have their value in traditional precious stones [such as sapphires, emeralds and rubies] are doing better than they ever have. Coral, turquoise and enamel jewelry are today’s sellers. Connoisseurs do not always want to buy a 30-carat diamond.”

Well, some do. The top two lots in the Sotheby’s sale were fancy-blue diamonds. A ring with a 6.11-carat, fancy-intense-blue, VS2-clarity diamond sold for just under $8 million, beating an upper estimate of $6.5 million. The second lot was a 3.01-carat, fancy-vivid-blue, VVS1 diamond in a ring that fetched $3.9 million. Both went for $1.3 million per carat; the record price per carat for a blue diamond is $1.9 million. Another blue in the top 10, an oval modified brilliant-cut, 4.88-carat diamond in a ring, sold for $1.8 million, or $376,025 per carat.

Meanwhile, a 1.03-carat, fancy-red diamond with SI1 clarity realized $2 million, or $1.9 million per carat. And a whopping 83.26-carat, fancy-yellow diamond brought in nearly $1.4 million, a per-carat price of $16,226.

“Fancy-colored diamonds continue to drive the highest end of the market for jewelry, and our sales reflect their strength,” said Bruning, who is head of Sotheby’s jewelry department for the Americas. “Several of these gems exceeded their estimate, and nearly all of them inspired extremely spirited bidding. Both the red and the intense blue, for instance, had multiple bidders who helped drive up the price, and many of these diamonds had active advance bidding, creating a presale bidding war.”

Another signed lot in the Sotheby’s top 10 worth mentioning was a large Mauboussin pendant-brooch, which sold for more than five times its $250,000 high estimate at $1.3 million. Its triple-threat qualities included a French maker’s mark, an elite name and a rare 11.76-carat Kashmir sapphire. The brooch, made in 1930, also contained 25 carats of diamonds.

Christie’s: copious colors

If you need more proof that fancy-colored diamonds are king, look no further than the Christie’s sale that took place on December 8. Fancy-yellow, blue and pink diamonds dominated the top 10, including the top four lots, all of which sold for over $2 million.

Leading the pack was a 70.19-carat, yellow, VS2 diamond pendant that sold for $2.9 million, or $40,600 per carat. Next was a vivid-orangey-pink diamond of 5.38 carats that went for $2.7 million ($500,000 per carat), followed by two blue diamonds: an 8.74-carat, fancy-dark-grey-blue, internally flawless stone in a ring that fetched $2.6 million (about $300,000 per carat) and a pear-shaped, 7-carat, fancy-blue one in a ring that netted $2.2 million, exceeding its high estimate by nearly $400,000.

“The market demonstrated its strength at our December Magnificent Jewels auction, with a $55 million [total] against a low estimate of $36 million, [and] 91% of lots finding buyers,” said Daphne Lingon, head of the Christie’s jewelry department for the Americas. “Fancy-colored diamonds continue to be some of the most sought-after gems at auction. We were especially pleased with the results for the fancy-vivid-yellow diamond, the fancy-vivid-orangey-pink diamond and the blue diamonds.”

Sellers may be liquidating assets, and they are having no trouble finding buyers looking to invest in diamonds, but there was more to the Christie’s sale than fancy diamonds. The auction included no fewer than 36 pieces by Van Cleef & Arpels, including an Art Deco diamond bracelet that sold for $1.2 million.

“With Van Cleef, you can’t go wrong,” declared DK Bressler’s Kawitzky. “It’s all lovely, clean, French setting and beautiful examples of Art Deco. Every piece is a work of art.”

Fancy-colored diamonds may command high prices, he continued, “but otherwise, they leave me cold. They’re the sort of thing you bring with you when you have to flee from someplace in the Middle East. There is no skill involved, or craftsmanship. For that, people look to pieces from the important makers. Vintage jewelry has never been more desirable, and your money is safe in that. I would happily buy back most of the things I’ve sold to clients over the years and give them 10% or 20% markup. There’s a shortage of nice merchandise.”

Among the Van Cleef lots were eight rare mystery-set pieces with rubies and sapphires, all but two of which sold for well beyond expectations. These included a sapphire and diamond floral brooch that went for $575,000 versus a high estimate of $300,000, and a pair of ruby and diamond earrings that fetched $237,500, beating their $150,000 upper estimate. The mystery or invisible setting — which Van Cleef calls serti mystérieux — is a brand signature. It eliminates prongs and leaves a clean surface of gems that are flush together. Sapphires and rubies have usually been the gems of choice because of their hardness.

“There has been a gradual increase in the realized prices for Van Cleef & Arpels mystery-set jewels, and we anticipated that these eight lots would achieve significant results,” said Lingon. “In general, signed jewels continue to attract global buyers, as evidenced by the strong prices achieved across the board.”

There were several other signed pieces in the auction, including works by Cartier, Bulgari, Harry Winston, Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR), Jean Schlumberger, Graff and Asprey, signaling confidence in both the gem quality and solid craftsmanship of important makers. Even smaller pieces containing elite gemstones performed well.

An Oscar Heyman & Brothers bracelet with Colombian emeralds, previously belonging to the family of tractor-company founder John Deere, sold for $125,000 over a high estimate of $100,000. A similar bracelet in the Sotheby’s sale — an emerald, onyx and diamond Art Deco piece — went for $189,000.

And it’s not just sapphires, rubies and emeralds that are popular; any gemstone of high quality is a draw right now in signed pieces, according Tom Heyman, the jewelry brand’s vice president.

“We have seen very strong demand and sell-through this year for pieces with colored gemstones, from emeralds to aquamarines, and exotics like alexandrites and pink diamonds,” he reported. “For the discerning collector who wants something individual and unique, there are many options. At auction, we have noticed a real increase in attention by collectors to signed, authenticated pieces by heritage brands.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2022. To subscribe click here.

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