Elizabeth Taylor's Celebrated Jewelry Collection Dazzles
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Elizabeth Taylor in 1963, wearing emerald and diamond Bulgari earrings given to her by Richard Burton
|Taylor wearing the tiara at the 1957 Cannes film festival|
|Taylor worked with Cartier to design this ruby, diamond, and pearl necklace to showcase La Peregrina, a 16th-century natural pearl once worn by Spanish queens|
|The Elizabeth Taylor diamond, a 33.19-carat Asscher-cut set in platinum|
A few butterflies routinely invade Rahul Kadakia’s stomach any time he steps up to an auction podium, but on the night of December 13 in the Rockefeller Center galleries of Christie’s, Kadakia says his nerves will be kicking into high gear, for one simple reason. “I’m not sure there will ever be a jewelry auction more important than this one, at least not in my lifetime,” he notes. “As far as jewelry is concerned, it’s the sale of the century.”
As head of jewelry for Christie’s America, Kadakia is well within his rights to make such a statement; over the years the house has organized more than its share of historic auctions, most notably for collections owned by icons such as Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Doris Duke, and Princess Margaret. But The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor, a four-day series of auctions featuring jewelry, fashion, and film memorabilia, promises to break all records, not only in prices achieved, but also in public frenzy. “Last month we had to open a separate extension of phone lines at Christie’s to field the incredible number of inquiries, and this was for an auction that was still three months away,” Kadakia said in early October.
An Unprecedented Collection
Why such interest over this particular auction? Taylor’s jewels arguably rank among the most significant collections ever owned by a private citizen, but the unprecedented attention ultimately is rooted in the eternal fascination surrounding the woman who possessed them. “We call it the Liz factor,” Kadakia says. “She wore her jewelry every single day of her life, and she lived every day of that life as Elizabeth Taylor, the ultimate movie star, a great humanitarian, and a superb human being. There’s a history, romance, and magic in every jewel.”
To handle the anticipated interest, Christie’s has opened the complete breadth of its Rockefeller Center gallery space for a museum-quality public exhibition, set for December 3 through 12. Viewers can get an up-close look at the more famous jewels to be auctioned at the December 13 Evening Sale of 80 important pieces, most notably a platinum ring featuring the 33.19-carat Asscher-cut Elizabeth Taylor diamond (formerly known as the Krupp), purchased for Taylor by then-husband Richard Burton for $300,000 in 1968; among all the jewels in her collection, Taylor favored this ring most, calling it “my baby.”
Sharing the spotlight will be the circa-1880 tiara of diamonds set in platinum and gold given to Taylor by her third husband, film producer Mike Todd, in 1957, and which she wore that same year to the Academy Awards when Todd’s film, Around the World in 80 Days, was nominated for and ultimately won Best Picture. The jewels given to Taylor by Burton and Todd, whom she referred to as “the two great loves of my life,” are sure to capture the lion’s share of attention, though Kadakia notes that “every single piece you touch comes with an amazing story, whether it’s historical or sentimental.”
The Stories Behind the Baubles
Indeed, Taylor’s collection is notable not merely for its array of large stones, nor for the variety of jewelry designers represented, including Bulgari, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Schlumberger, and Boucheron. Several pieces also boast a provenance as dazzling as the jewels themselves, including a diamond Prince of Wales brooch that had been owned by the Duchess of Windsor, née Wallis Simpson. Taylor and the duchess were acquaintances and mutual admirers of fine jewelry for many years, and the actress felt a special affinity for the brooch due to Burton’s Welsh heritage. When the duchess’ jewels went up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1987, Taylor was determined to have the brooch, bidding furiously until she captured the piece for $623,333.
But perhaps none of Taylor’s jewels has a more storied past than La Peregrina, an early 16th-century natural pearl that belonged to Spain’s Prince Phillip II, and which subsequently adorned a succession of Spanish queens and members of the Bonaparte family. Burton purchased La Peregrina for Taylor in 1969 for $37,000; soon after, the couple worked with Cartier to design a platinum-set ruby and diamond necklace to highlight the pearl. Kadakia calls the piece “one of the top-five contenders” for high bidding at the December 13 auction, with an estimate ranging from $2 to $3 million. “It’s magical, it’s historical, and above all, it’s rare,” he says.
Plans for handling the Taylor auction, Kadakia notes, were well in the works before the actress’ death on March 23, 2011. In 1998 Christie’s was asked by Taylor to appraise, catalog, and photograph the collection, a project that culminated in the 2002 limited-edition book My Love Affair with Jewelry (Simon & Schuster). The lead curator on the project was François Curiel, now the international director of jewelry and president of Christie’s Asia, who will join Kadakia at the podium on December 13 and 14. “I was with Christie’s in Geneva back then, though we were all involved with the project,” Kadakia remembers. “Miss Taylor also was kind enough at the time to allow us to exhibit highlights of the collection; the lines stretched around the block at Rockefeller Center.”
photographs by Edward Quinn (taylor with crown); Douglas Kirkland/CORBIS (opener); PR newsfoto/house of taylor jewelry/ap images (taylor in husband jewelry); rune hellstad/corbis (auction); AP photo/Calvert (burton)
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.