by Laurie brookins | December 9, 2011 | People
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.”
Pieces from the collection during its pre-auction tour
|Taylor in jewelry given to her by third husband Mike Todd, a year after his 1958 death in a plane crash|
|The diamond tiara given to Taylor by her third husband, Mike Todd, in 1957|
|Richard Burton once famously said, “I introduced Liz to beer, and she introduced me to Bulgari"|
Perhaps recalling this event, Christie’s also organized a three-month world tour of previews earlier this fall, with stops in London, Moscow, Los Angeles, Dubai, Paris, Geneva, and Hong Kong. “Apart from the fact that we wanted to reach out to all our customers, be they in Asia or Europe or the Middle East or America, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to see what Elizabeth Taylor was all about,” Kadakia explains. “We wanted everyone to experience the magic.”
There’s an added benefit the star surely would have appreciated: A portion of the proceeds from exhibition admissions and publications are being donated to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which the actress founded in 1991.
Cataloging a Legend
Between the 80-lot Evening Sale and two Day Sale sessions on December 14, a total of 269 pieces will go up for auction. Three additional auctions December 14 through 16 will highlight fashion, accessories, fine and decorative arts, and film memorabilia from Taylor’s estate, while an online auction commencing December 3 will include smaller items, such as the actress’ considerable handbag collection; additional auctions at Christie’s London in January and February will focus on Taylor’s artwork.
“I worked on the auction of Princess Diana’s dresses, and I also did the Marilyn Monroe auction,” notes Meredith Etherington-Smith, curator of the fashion auction for Christie’s. “Elizabeth Taylor is the only other 20th-century icon I really wanted to work on, because she was a global superstar before the term was even invented.”
Etherington-Smith and her team spent weeks cataloging Taylor’s fashion collection, accessories, decorative arts, and film memorabilia in a Long Island warehouse, a comparatively unglamorous setting to organize the clothes of one of the world’s most glamorous women. “It was a whole floor, stretching almost as far as the eye could see,” Etherington-Smith says.
A Fashion-Forward Taylor
A December 14 Evening Sale, titled The Icon and Her Haute Couture, will showcase the dresses Taylor wore to her 1964 and 1975 weddings to Burton; two Irene Sharaff costumes from 1963’s Cleopatra; and the lilac suit designed for Taylor by Gianfranco Ferré when she received her damehood from Queen Elizabeth in 2000. Three daytime sale sessions on December 15 will feature a wide variety of Taylor’s fashion over the years.
What’s notable about Taylor’s fashion eye, Etherington-Smith says, is how the star’s look evolved with the changing times. “The ’60s are sort of littered with Dior haute couture, and then the ’70s hit, and she gave in to caftans in a big way,” she says. “And then she discovers Milan in the ’80s.
Soon after you see her rock-chick period, with the amazing Gianni Versace embroidered jackets. She had a terrific eye and an exceptional talent for maintaining this public persona, which is only more incredible when you consider that for more than half of the 20th century, everyone in the world knew who she was.”
Ask Etherington-Smith to name a favorite from the collection, and she doesn’t hesitate. “There’s an incredible set of matched Louis Vuitton luggage which is quite nice,” she says. “But what’s significant about the collection is that every piece features a luggage tag in lilac, each adorned with one word: mine. It’s a wonderful detail, because it reflects not only a great self-awareness, but also a great sense of humor.”
That self-awareness almost certainly extended to thoughts of what might occur during these two weeks at Christie’s. In My Love Affair with Jewelry, Taylor ponders the question: “Sometimes I wonder what will become of everything, because just like the Duchess of Windsor’s collection, they will all be up for auction one day,” she writes. “They will be scattered to the four corners of the world, and I hope that whoever buys each piece loves it as much as I do and takes care of it and realizes that having jewelry is a temporary gift. In truth, we ‘owners’ are just the caretakers. Nobody owns beautiful paintings. Nobody ever owns anything this beautiful. We are only the guardians.”
Of course, before imparting such wisdom, Taylor also had noted, “As I look at some of my jewels, I realize what a very lucky girl I am.” Christie’s, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, 212-636-2000
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)