Elizabeth Taylor jewelry auction breaks five world records

Christie’s sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s famous jewels was anticipated to be the most important single-owner jewelry sale in a decade, but the results were staggering. Taylor’s jewelry went for $115,932,000 – the most ever paid for a private jewelry collection. World record prices were also set for pearls, diamonds, rubies and Indian jewels.

Bidding was still going hot and heavy by 10:30 pm on December 13, 2011, at Christie’s packed auction house in Rockefeller Center

Recession, where were you last night? As crowds of holiday revelers packed Rockefeller Plaza outside, with its giant blue-lit tree, carols echoing from the ice skating rink, glittering jewels were flashing on a screen a few yards away while another crowd bid with quiet intensity, applauding each exhilarating hammer price.

No evidence of constrained budgets in that standing-room only auction room last night. It was rumored that everyone seated had to make a $100,000 commitment, the rest of the madding crowd filled the overflow room. Still, it seemed at least half the purchases were being made via phone. Rumors circulated that Madeleine Albright, owner of the Read My Pins collection that’s about to land at the Denver Art Museum, was in attendance. We’ll see if any of Taylor’s brooches lands on her lapel.

Taylor was showered in jewels by several famous men – most notably her husbands, actor Richard Burton, producer Mike Todd, and singer Eddie Fisher – as well as Michael Jackson. The decade of her two marriages and tumultuous relationship with Burton produced the most treasure. Eight of last night’s top sellers – about $47 million worth – came from him, or were purchased by the two of them as a couple. Her brief marriage to Mike Todd in the 1950s, before he was killed in a plane crash, produced several million as well. And that’s just the top 10!

Some highlights from last night’s sale:

La Peregrina pearl, once owned by King Phillip II of Spain, set in Cartier necklace, sold for $11,842,500, a world record for a pearl jewel (Christie’s Images)

Most astonishing price went for La Pérégrina Pearl, given to Taylor by Richard Burton in 1969, which Christie’s had estimated at $2 to $3 million. It sold last night for $11,842,500, highest price ever paid for a pearl jewel at auction.

That luscious pear-shaped pearl was originally found by an African slave on the Gulf of Panama in the 16th century, given to the administrator of the Spanish Colony in exchange for his freedom, and then to King Phillip II of Spain. It ended up in the hands of the Bonapartes, appeared in two paintings by Velazquez, and was eventually sold to an English duke.

Burton scored the famous pearl for $37,000 in 1969. After all that, it wound up in the teeth of Elizabeth Taylor’s dog. She lost the Peregrina hours after receiving it, embarked on a frantic search and eventually found her Pekingese puppy chewing on it like a bone. Remarkably, the Peregrina appears unmarred, a testament to the durability of natural pearls.

Taylor had the pearl set in a stunning necklace of pearls, rubies and diamonds designed by Al Durante of Cartier under her own very specific instructions.

Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, 33.19 carats, purchased by Burton in 1968, sold for $8.18mil (Christie’s Images)

Second highest price went for the final piece sold, the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, a 33.19-carat rock worn daily by Taylor. It sold for $8,818,500 on an estimate of $3.5 million – and a world record per-carat price for colorless diamonds. When Richard Burton bought it in 1968, it was called the Krupp Diamond for its former owner, wife of a German arms manufacturer.

“I thought how perfect it would be if a nice Jewish girl like me were to own it,” Taylor once said. (She converted to Judaism in 1959, between marriages to Mike Todd and Eddie Fisher, both Jews.) She described the diamond’s “deep Asscher cuts—which are so complete and so ravishing,” as steps leading “into eternity and beyond… it sort of hums with its own beatific life.”

Taj Mahal Diamond, c. 1627, on gold and ruby chain by Cartier, sold for $8.18mil, highest price ever paid for an Indian jewel (Christie’s Images)

“How many young women get a set of rubies just for doing something wholesome like swimming laps?” she once asked (referring to the Cartier suite from Mike Todd, necklace of which sold for $3,778,500 last night). “Or win a diamond ring at ping-pong with their husband?”

The “Ping Pong Ring” had tiny diamonds by Taylor’s standards but she often wore it with the humongous Krupp, jokingly holding it up when people asked to see “the diamond.”

Another famous diamond sold for the same amount as that famous rock, but this time the $8 mil+ price brought gasps. While the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond was expected to bring a few million, the unusual Indian Taj Mahal diamond was estimated at only $300-500,000.

Burton gave it to Liz when she turned 40, a heart-shaped diamond engraved with the words “Love Is Everlasting,” originally owned by the Persian emperor in the 17th century. Cartier had remounted the diamond in a chain of gold and rubies designed to resemble the old, silk cord from which the stone was originally suspended.

Ruby and diamond ring by Van Cleef & Arpels, from Burton in ’68, set a record for rubies (Christie’s Images)

The Burtons purchased it at Kennedy Airport while waiting for a connection. Yes, if you call ahead, you can get Cartier to meet you at an airport with their most valuable jewels – if you happen to be Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, that is. (Burton always made fun of jetsetters, but if that’s not the definition of a jetsetter, I don’t know what is.)

For all the millions Mike Todd’s diamond-and-ruby suite brought, Burton trumped his predecessor yet again (from the grave), with the 8.24ct ruby and diamond ring by Van Cleef & Arpels he gave his lady love on Christmas of 1968. It sold last night for $4,226,500, four times the estimate and a world record per-carat price for a ruby.

Related posts:

Liz Taylor on the block: $100 and up

Elizabeth Taylor: jewels of a lifetime

Van Cleef & Arpels: celebrity style

Van Cleef & Arpels: glamor and invention

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