In the Market: Christie’s “Magnificent Jewelry” Sale

Last Wednesday (April 16) I had the opportunity to infiltrate a New York bastion of society, a place where Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dogs and the Taylor-Burton diamond have been put on the block and sold to the highest bidder.  Yes, I’m talking about none other than Christie’s auction house (49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza).  I attended the “Magnificent Jewelry” sale accompanying a family member who was a seller of several rare pieces. In case you’ve ever wondered what goes down in this storied place (besides the hammer) and what a high-end jewelry auction is like, here are my “insider” observations.

Catalog from sale

First, I noted that as you enter the building situated smack in the middle of “Tourist-mageddon” (NBC and Rock Center ice skating rink across the way) there is surprisingly little visible security.  On my initial foray  on the Friday preceding the sale (to view the collection on display) I breezed in wearing off-white jeans, faux fur vest, motorcycle boots, toting an enormous H&M shopping bag (I belatedly scored big with the closeted leftovers from the Conscious Collection sale) and nobody so much as raised an eyebrow.  Excuse me but sometimes it’s harder to get through the entrance of the subway although I’ve never personally been stopped.   After entering the spacious building lined with what appeared to be Buccellati sculptures I miraculously found the pre-sale viewing room. Although I’m a confirmed silver lover and John Hardy-aholic (they should have a 12-step program for that) I can still sniff out the “good” stuff.  I mean millions of dollars in gemstones, many which have recently been “on tour” all over the world for the viewing pleasure of the connoisseur, (not to rack up frequent flyer miles and enjoy their stay in a 5-star hotel) who may choose to place a bid.

The large, well lit chamber feels cavernous but not in the plush way that Tiffany’s does; more in the clinical way that the jewelry would feel if it was naked under a paper robe in the examining room of the doctor’s office.  The procedure (unintended medical analogy, LOL) to take an item out of the case is that after you have registered your identification (and probably given your first born as well as your D & B credentials) an item(s) will be removed from the case for your inspection.  Some items were taken to the back room and perhaps more lengthily perused by jewelers, leaving the case empty of several “ lots” at once, suggesting, at least to me, a jewelry heist. (Yeah, I should probably stop re-watching “Ocean’s Eleven”).  Interestingly, the Christie’s representative who handles your baubles, cataloging and appraising them in your home (shout-out to the lovely Jennifer Rosenthal who is amazing in every way) is not actually allowed to transport them to Christie’s without an armed courier as there have been past robberies where employees had been watched and then targeted by thieves.  In the room was a mix of jewelers (who often buy or buy back one of their own pieces) as well as individual collectors.

diamond earrings

As with anything, provenance is of utmost importance in fine jewelry collecting.  I was immediately struck by the inclusion (bad word for precious stones, HA) of two extremely similar ruby and diamond invisibly set flower brooches and the difference in their innate values simply because one was signed Van Cleef & Arpels and the other was Aletto Brothers.  The Aletto Brothers pin was of a better true ruby color (VCA was of a purplish hue), was bigger and bolder in every way yet it fetched slightly more than half of the VCA piece!  If you are worried about investment or resale value I guess it pays to splurge for the “name” if you can swing it.  Actually, I was told that the words “mystery setting” (there are no visible prongs) is registered to Van Cleef and can’t be used by another jeweler, so there you have it.

On the actual day of the sale, upon arrival I was escorted to a private viewing room on the 2nd floor where, disappointingly enough, we could only view the auction unfolding on a relatively modest sized TV screen.  The rooms are furnished nicely with comfortable chairs, couches, bar and snacks as well as a large inside window which would look out into the auction room however we were on the opposite side of the day’s sale and the window was black.  The first hour or so was relatively quiet as some of the lesser pieces didn’t sell but when the more expensive lots began to appear the room quickly became more populated and livelier.

Rahul Kadakia head of Jewelry at Christies

I settled in to watch on the monitor and was immediately taken with auctioneer and Christie’s jewelry department head Rahul Kadakia.  I cannot begin to fathom the ability to multi-task that must be necessary in order to survey the floor, go to the people manning the phones, as well as the internet while consulting your own roster of pre-auction bids and somehow keep it all straight, not lose your cool and be charming all at the same time.  I, on the other hand, am still trying to master texting and walking (textwalking?) and if you throw gum chewing into the mix, I’m out!  It was apparent that Kadakia also had time for theatrics giving our assembled party near collective heart failure as a piece that was estimated at a particular price seemed to be falling well below its estimate while his hammer loomed large just ever so slightly off of the landing pad!  It seemed an eternity passed (it was probably 20 seconds) until finally the hammer was pulled away and the bidding resumed in full force propelling the emerald brooch well into its estimated sweet spot. I needed a drink after that!

Ruby and diamond bracelet by Graff

As a seller, watching the auction was exactly like viewing a horse race that you bet on.  I found myself on the edge of my chair, rooting on more bids, (there were actual fist pumps involved, I’m embarrassed to admit) and saying things like “come on, come on” while waving my hands as if to elicit a new burst of energy in the room and more raised paddles. In the end, the collection sold for exactly what was expected with some pieces going surprisingly higher than anticipated while others struggled to reach their minimum estimates. Speaking of paddles, I realized that a particular paddle number had purchased quite a few items and am interested to find out if that number represents a jeweler or a large collector.  I guess you always are curious about the home “your children” (or in this case “stepchildren”) are going to.

What I’ve learned is that the jewelry market, like all markets, is cyclical.  Right now, large diamonds (20 carats) of great quality (D color, VVS1 clarity, by known jewelers (Harry Winston) are in demand; large pearls are not.  Since pearls are being routinely produced, even large sized ones can be cultured, they are not the valuable commodity that they once were and odds are if you bought pearls back in the day, sadly they are not worth a fraction of what you paid for them.  As I mentioned before, certain jewelry houses have all the cachet and right now David Webb appears to be having a huge resurgence.  People are still collecting or adding to their collection of enamel animal head bracelets, rings and the gold and diamond necklaces, earrings and cuffs are highly covetable. Always make sure a piece carries the stamp or signature of the jewelry house as this is something that will be looked for even if it has begun to wear off. The novelty items also did well for instance a gold and diamond evening bag and a pair of men’s cuff links matching the invisibly set ruby brooch both went over their estimate however we’re talking about items that were not the big ticket items of the sale

One thing to be careful with is coral as the lighter color variation has been placed on the CITES list (United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) an organization which founded in 1975 which has placed a ban on ivory and more recently on the white flecked species of coral.  Christie’s as well as other auction houses, has had to become vigilant in policing the acceptance of these materials into their sales because if a piece is identified by CITES it will be seized and neither the seller nor the house will be able to seek reimbursement for the loss.


Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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