When jewels from a notable private collection come up for auction, a frenetic buzz of excitement ensues. As long as auction houses have existed, so too have auctions featuring property from the estates of prominent figures.
The world’s largest auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, date back to the 18th century. Initially, Christie’s rose to fame selling fine artworks, while rival Sotheby’s traces its roots to the rare book business. Over time, both houses expanded into other luxury auction markets, eventually coming to also specialize in jewels and rare gemstones.
Historically, jewelry was simply one element of much larger estate auctions. Christie’s first sale of fine jewelry came in the aftermath of the French Revolution when, in 1795, it auctioned the magnificent jewels of Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s mistress. The sale realized £8,791 ($1.3 million today), which was the record for the most expensive jewelry collection sold at auction for nearly two centuries.
From Sotheby’s historic sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewelry in 1987 to Christie’s recent auction of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, there have been a number of private jewelry collections auctioned for in excess of $10 million. The collections include many of the most famous jewelry pieces ever created. Without further ado, I’ll present the ten most expensive jewelry collections ever sold at auction.
1. The Collection of Elizabeth Taylor: The Legendary Jewels – $137,235,575
Christie’s New York, December 13th & 14th, 2011
Known for her prodigious love affair with jewelry, Elizabeth Taylor amassed an astounding collection of jewels over her lifetime. This legendary collection, along with other personal possessions, was sold at Christie’s New York in December 2011. The two-day sale of 270 lots realized a staggering $156.8 million, with the jewelry portion accounting for $137.2 million of the total.
Shattering records left and right, the sale garnered worldwide attention with its sensational jewels by major jewelry houses, including Bulgari, David Webb, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, as well as specially commissioned pieces by JAR.
The sale was headlined by La Peregrina, a 16th century pearl necklace, which sold for $11,842,500. The necklace set two world auction records: for an historic pearl piece (obliterating the $2.5 million record set by La Regente at Christie’s Geneva sale in 2005) and for a pearl jewel more generally (surpassing the $7 million record paid for The Baroda Pearls at Christie’s New York sale in 2007).
Other notable highlights from the landmark sale include:
The Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, a 33.19 D-color, potentially Internally Flawless diamond that sold for $8,818,500 and set a record price per carat at $265,697.
The Taj Mahal Diamond, an Indian diamond and jade pendant necklace (attached to a matching ruby and gold chain designed for the piece by Cartier), was a gift from Richard Burton on Elizabeth Taylor’s 40th birthday. This historic jewel soared above its pre-sale estimate of $300,000-500,000 to an astounding hammer price of $8,818,500, representing a record price for any Indian jewel ever sold at auction.
The Bvlgari Emerald Suite, composed of wonderful matching emerald and diamond jewelry (lots 26-31) fetched a total of $24,799,000. Taylor acquired the suite between 1962 and 1967, selecting the majority of the jewels over many repeat trips to the Bvlgari boutique on the Via Condotti in Rome.
- An Emerald and Diamond Pendant Brooch, achieved $6,578,500, setting a record price for an emerald jewel, as well as the record for an emerald per carat at $280,000.
- An Emerald and Diamond Necklace, fetched $6,130,500.
- An Emerald and Diamond Bracelet, realized a total of $4,002,500.
- An Emerald and Diamond Ring, sold for $3,330,500.
- A Pair of Emerald and Diamond Ear Pendants, brought $3,218,500.
- An Emerald and Diamond Flower Brooch, achieved $1,538,500.
The Bulgari Sapphire Sautoir, set with a magnificent sugarloaf cabochon sapphire of 52.72 carats sold for $5,906,500. This bold Art Deco-style sautoir was a gift from Richard Burton again for Elizabeth Taylor’s 40th birthday in 1972.
The Richard Burton Ruby and Diamond Ring, of 8.24 carats, by Van Cleef & Arpels, was a Christmas gift from Richard Burton in 1968. Burton had promised to buy his wife a special ruby, with perfect red color (“But it has to be perfect”, he warned at the time). Four years after making the promise, he tucked a small box into the bottom of Elizabeth’s Christmas stocking – so small that she missed it when opening her gifts. This ring sold for $4,226,500, setting a record for a ruby per carat at $512,925.
2. The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor – $50.3 million
Sotheby’s Geneva, April 2nd & 3rd, 1987
In April 1987, the two-day sale of the jewels of the Duchess of Windsor at Sotheby’s would forever change the jewelry auction business. An international celebrity and fashion icon, the Duchess, or Wallis Simpson as she was once known, had famously – and somewhat scandalously – lured King Edward of England away from his throne in favor of marrying her. Throughout their 35-year marriage, the Duke showered his wife with custom made jewels from the world’s major jewelry houses.
The remarkable collection of just over 300 pieces included iconic creations by Cartier, Suzanne Belperron and Van Cleef & Arpels, many of which are one of a kind jewels that defined the Duchess’s unique and fashion-forward sense of style. With bidders from 24 countries, notable buyers of the her jewels included Elizabeth Taylor, the Cartier Museum, Calvin Klein and jeweler Laurence Graff.
According to Christie’s, the highest sum previously achieved at an auction for a private collection jewelry was $8.09 million- for the collection of Florence Gould, the widow of railway magnate Frank Gould.
To give you an idea of the bidding frenzy that pushed prices higher and higher at the Duchess of Windsor sale, here are a few of the highlights:
- A Van Cleef & Arpels diamond and ruby feather brooch estimated at $112,000 fetched a staggering $806,000
- A diamond and ruby necklace by Cartier sold for $2,603,308
- An 18 karat gold and gem-set cigarette case inscribed “David from Wallis Christmas 1935,” with an etched map tracing a joint holiday tour of Europe, sold for $266,000, almost 100 times its appraised value.
- The Duchess’s 19.77-carat emerald engagement ring by Cartier sold for $2.1 million (4.5 times its estimate).
- A pair of yellow diamond lapel clips, weighing 40 and 52 carats, achieved four times their estimated price for a total of $2,273,000 (the winning bidder was Laurence Graff).
- The flawless Winston diamond weighing 31.26 carats sold for $3,122,746, a 378 percent inflation of its estimated worth.
- A 206-carat sapphire pendant sold for $350,000
- A Cartier amethyst, turquoise and diamond bib necklace sold for a total of $373,996
- A suite of blue chalcedony, sapphire and diamond jewels by Suzanne Belperron: the ear clips sold for $88,000 at Sotheby’s Geneva “The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor” sale in 1987, and more recently sold at Christie’s New York in 2004 for $54,970; the necklace sold for $183,000 at Sotheby’s in 1987 and later for $119,500 at Christie’s in 2004; and the pair of matching bangle bracelets originally old for $146,000 in 1987 at Sotheby’s and then were resold at auction for $117,110 in 2004 at Christie’s.
- The custom-made onyx and diamond panther bracelet from Cartier sold for five times its estimate for a total of $1.27 million.
- A matching Cartier sapphire and diamond panther clip earned $933,000, or seven times its estimate.
- Elizabeth Taylor bought the diamond clip designed as the plumes and crown of the Prince of Wales for $623,327. The clip sold again for $1,314,500 at Christie’s New York sale of Taylor’s collection of Legendary Jewels in December 2011.
- A natural pearl necklace with diamonds made by Cartier, and formerly belonging to Queen Mary, was purchased by Calvin Klein for $733,333 in 1987 – a record for natural pearls at the time. Two decades later, the Kleins sold the necklace at Sotheby’s for a sale price of $3,625,000.
In 2010, twenty-three years after the landmark auction, Sotheby’s regrouped 20 items from the original sale into a second auction, Exceptional Jewels and Precious Objects Formerly in the Collection of The Duchess of Windsor, the sale achieved a total of $12.5 million. The ‘White Glove Sale’, in which 100% was sold by lot and 100% sold by value, included four of the Duchess’s most iconic Cartier jewels: the exceptional ‘Panther Bracelet’ (sold for $7 million), the ‘Flamingo Clip’ ($2.7 million), the ‘Cross Bracelet’ ($935,786) and the ‘Heart Brooch’ ($319.451).
And most recently, Sotheby’s auctioned yet another group of jewels and precious objects celebrating the lives and tastes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The December 2013 sale of assorted pieces earned a respectable $1.02 million at Sotheby’s London, led by a sapphire bracelet, by Cartier, circa 1945, that achieved $377,697.
3. Jewels for Hope: The Collection of Mrs. Lily Safra – $37,924,551
Christie’s Geneva, May 14th, 2012
With all the profits from the sale benefiting 32 charitable institutions, the 70-lot sale of jewels from the collection of Mrs. Lily Safra marked another historic auction of the 21st century. The incredible collection included a group of 18 jewels by JAR; the JAR collection alone brought in $11,473,920 and became the most important private-owner collection of JAR jewels ever sold at auction.
Formerly in the collection of Luz Mila Patiño, Countess du Boisrouvray, the sale’s top lot was a 32.08-carat Burmese ruby and diamond ring, by Chaumet, sold for $6,742,440, renamed “The Hope Ruby”.
Setting another record was the auction catalog’s cover star, a ruby Camellia brooch by JAR (made in 2003), which sold for a total of $4,319,591 – a world record price for a JAR piece sold at auction. The JAR Camellia was followed by yet another flower jewel by JAR, a tourmaline and diamond flower brooch, by JAR (made in 1982), which fetched $1,272,245.
Another highlight, not by JAR, was a Belle Epoque diamond and emerald ‘Egalantine’ necklace, by Cartier, circa 1906, that sold for $1,168,653.
Though the entire sale consisted of highlights, one last jewel of note from the sale is an emerald and diamond necklace that fetched a total of $1,129,806.
4. The Royal House Sale – $31,360,932
Christie’s Geneva, November 14th, 2006
Composed of 317 extraordinary lots, the magnificent collection of jewelry and watches, from an anonymous royal house included an exquisite selection of natural pearls and diamonds as well as stylish jewels and watches created by the world’s major jewelers. With 100 percent sold by lot and by value, the remarkable sale earned a total of $31.3 million, the largest single owner jewelry sale worldwide since the Duchess of Windsor’s 1987 sale.
The star lot of the sale was “The Gulf Pearl Parure”, a unique and magnificent natural pearl and diamond parure, by Harry Winston, which sold for $4,189,165. The opulent parure comprises a total of 193 natural pearls of which 128 weigh a total of almost 1,300 grans (325 carats) and 166 diamonds of which 66 weigh a total of almost 160 carats.
Other sale highlights include:
- A highly important diamond bracelet, by Gerard, featuring a 29.01-carat diamond of D color and VVS2 clarity, sold for $1,513,024.
- A spectacular diamond set and a pair of ear pendants, by Gerard, and a diamond ring, by Van Cleef & Arpels fetched a total of $1,467,666.
- A magnificent and highly important natural pearl and diamond parure, by Gerard, including an exceptional button-shaped natural pearl and diamond eternity ring, sold for $1,467,666. The total number of natural pearls in the parure is 721.
5. The Magnificent Jewels of Luz Milo Patiño, Countess du Boisrouvray – $31.2 million
Sotheby’s New York, October 26th, 1989
The breathtaking collection of jewels belonged to the late Count and Countess Guy du Boisrouvray and were inherited by their daughter, the Countess Albina Boisrouvray. The collection included exquisite rubies, diamonds, pearls, emeralds and sapphires of the finest cuts and quality, as well as her other inherited family possessions, ranging from pre-Columbian gold artifacts to gorgeous antique furniture, silver, Faberge carved animals, tableware and artwork. The jewels sold for $31.2 million, an auction record at the time for any single-owner sale of jewelry in the United States and second to the 1987 Windsor sale.
The leading lot of the sale was a 32.08-carat Burmese ruby and diamond ring by Chaumet that sold for $4.62 million, a world auction record for any colored stone at the time. The ring recently came up for auction again in 2012 at Christie’s Geneva “Jewels for Hope: The Collection of Mrs. Lily Safra” sale for $6,736,750.
Another highlight, the jewel gracing the catalog’s cover, was a sapphire-and-diamond necklace which sold for $3.52 million, setting auction records at the time for a necklace and for a single lot of sapphires. Several jewels sold for over $1 million: $3,080,000 for a diamond and ruby necklace; $3,080,000 for a diamond and emerald necklace made in 1937 by Cartier of London; a ruby and diamond necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels of New York knocked down for $1,705,000; and a pair of diamond pendant ear clips went for $1,430,000.
6. Jewels from the Personal Collection of Princess Salimah Aga Khan – $27,682,601
Christie’s Geneva, November 13th, 1995
Among the great jewelry collections of the late 20th century, the jewels of Princess Salimah Aga Khan hit the auction block in 1995 following her divorce from His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan. The regal beauty, a former model, commissioned dazzling suites from the world’s finest jewelry houses, including Boucheron, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels. The collection was comprised of over two hundred and fifty pieces of important jewelry, which Princess Salimah inherited from her grandmothers and fabulous pieces which she received as gifts. With 100 percent of the lots sold, the sale took in a total of $27,682,601.
The sale’s starring jewel, the “Begum Blue,” a 13.78-carat deep-blue heart-shaped diamond set in a diamond necklace valued at $7 million, went for $7,790,708 to diamond king Laurence Graff.
Other highlights from the sale included:
- A 78.86-carat unmounted pear-shaped diamond of D-color and VS1-clarity sold for $4,268,529.
- A suite of emerald and diamond jewelry by Cartier fetched $2,523,575. The suite was comprised of:
- A lavaliere necklace, designed as a graduated marquise-cut diamond line set with three cabochon emeralds to the front, one weighing 29.01 carats, suspending two detachable marquise-cut diamond tassels, each with an emerald drop terminal weighing approximately 51.5 and 51.9 carats
- A clip brooch set with an emerald weighing 36.21 carats
- A pair of ear-pendants each set with two cabochon emeralds and two emerald drops weighing approximately 26.1 and 27.5 carats
- A ring set with an emerald weighing 20.33 carats en suite
- A suite of impressive emerald and diamond jewelry, by Van Cleef & Arpels sold for $662,290 and was composed of:
- A pendant sautoir, the detachable pendant designed as a fluted emerald bead and diamond collet tiered cluster suspending a series of tassels of similar design to the fluted emerald bead and circular-cut diamond cluster necklace with circular-cut diamond and diamond collet quatrefoil spacers
- A pair of ear-pendants
- A suite of important diamond and yellow diamond jewelry, by Boucheron, sold for $633,207 and was comprised of a choker necklace, the front section designed as a pavé-set yellow diamond, circular-cut and pear-shaped diamond cartouche, the centre with a briolette-cut diamond to the pear-shaped, circular and briolette-cut diamond two-row flexible necklace suspending a graduated diamond briolette fringe, with a pair of earclips en suite.
7. Magnificent Jewels from the Collection of Ellen Barkin – $20,369,200
Christie’s New York, October 10th, 2006
Following an abrupt divorce to financier Ronald Perelman in early 2006, Hollywood actress Ellen Barkin exposed their lavish marriage by putting up for auction her extravagant jewels from Perelman. More than 100 pieces were sold at Christie’s for a total of $20 million, with 100 percent sold by lot and by value. That figure placed the sale among the top four private jewelry auctions ever worldwide at the time.
Having successfully purged her jewelry box of unwanted memories, the superb collection of jewels included 17 pieces by JAR. Among the JAR jewels in the sale, and its top lot, was a 22.76-carat elongated oval-cut diamond ‘Thread” ring, which sold for $1,808,000.
A pair of diamond bangles, by JAR, sold for $1,136,000, well above their $500,000 high estimate. The bracelets are each set with a colorless or faint pink cushion-cut diamond.
Another now famous JAR jewel, which has since reappeared and sold at auction for $650,500 at Christie’s in 2010, is a pair of imperial topaz, ruby and diamond ear pendants, by JAR, which sold for $710,400 in the Barkin sale, soaring way above its conservative $80,000 high estimate.
Ellen Barkin’s collection also included jewels of notable provenance, including a pair of emerald coronet bangles made for the Duchess of Windsor, which sold for $86,400, and an emerald necklace that once belonged to Doris Duke, which fetched a final price of $553,600 (the Doris Duke necklace had sold for $589,900 when Christie’s New York auctioned the late heiress’s collection of important jewelry in 2004).
Made more famous by the ‘Sex and the City’ movie, Barkin’s exceptional diamond ‘Garendia’ ring, by JAR, sold for $486,400, well beyond its $150,000 high estimate. Currently, the ring can be viewed at the Met’s ‘Jewels by JAR’ exhibition.
Christie’s Geneva, June 13th, 2006
With jewelry spanning the life of Princess Margaret, this historic auction sold a collection of jewels of important and historic provenance. Alongside the jewelry, a collection of rare Fabergé works was included in the sale, including the sale’s top lot: a Russian Jeweled Two-Color Gold-Mounted Guilloche Enamelled Silver Clock, marked Faberge with the Imperial Warrant, Moscow, 1896-1908, with scratched inventory numbers 28288 and 361802. The Imperial clock sold for $2,281,600, almost $1 million more than its $1,472,000 high estimate.
Other sale highlights include:
- Queen Mary’s Diamond Riviere, one of Princess Margaret’s favorite jewels, the historically important diamond necklace sold for $1,828,224, almost quadruple its high estimate of $552,000.
- The ‘Poltimore Tiara’ was originally made in 1870 by Garrard for Lady Poltimore, the wife of the second Baron Poltimore and Treasurer to Queen Victoria’s household 1872-74. Sold by public auction in 1959 for 5,500 GBP, It was acquired that same year before the official announcement by H.M. Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother on 26th February 1960 of the engagement of H.R.H. The Princess Margaret to Mr Antony Armstrong-Jones. The tiara sold for $1,704,576, more than four times its high estimate of $368,000.
- An Art Deco Pearl and Diamond Necklace, given by H.M. Queen Mary to her granddaughter, H.R.H. The Princess Margaret for the 18th Birthday, sold for $509,312, well above its conservative high estimate of $36,800. According to the Lot Notes, The Princess was particularly fond of these pearls and is pictured wearing them in many famous portraits from 1948 onwards, including her sittings for Baron and Cecil Beaton for her 19th, 20th and 21st birthdays.
- A Diamond Rose Brooch, by Cartier, made by Cartier London in 1938, sold for $282,624, soundly more than its $36,800 high estimate. H.R.H. The Princess Margaret wore this brooch to the Coronation of her sister H.M. Queen Elizabeth II on 2nd June 1953 at Westminster Abbey.
9. Magnificent Jewels from the Collection of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman – $15,541,188
Sotheby’s New York, December 5th, 2012
As a socialite, collector, museum patron, and wife of Charles Wrightsman, Jayne Wrightsman mastered the art of collecting along with her late husband, a successful oil executive. Together they amassed an exceptional collection of European paintings and decorative arts, earning recognition as important art collectors on par with J.P. Morgan and Henry Frick.
Known as one of the last remaining grande dames of a bygone era, Mrs. Wrightsman is one of the undisputed leaders of New York society. Initially using art as a means to break into society, Mrs. Wrightsman’s reputation for style undoubtedly goes hand in hand with her love of and expertise in French decorative arts, spurring the growth of her incredible collection now a part of the Met’s permanent collection. A dear friend of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, she served as the First Lady’s mentor during the 1961-63 restoration of the White House, attesting to her impeccable taste and knowledge in the area.
Whereas her appreciation and understanding of French decorative arts and European paintings remains indisputable, her exquisite eye for jewelry has only recently enjoyed the public spotlight with Sothbey’s Magnificent Jewels from the Collection of Mrs. Charles Wrightsman sale in New York on December 5th, 2012. Between the one-of-a-kind JAR pieces and impressive Verdura jewels, her talent for selecting some of the finest jewelry from the best jewelers in the world is astounding. Bulgari, Cartier, Suzanne Belperron, Van Cleef & Arpels are among the talented list of designers whose jewels comprise her highly coveted collection.
The sale totaled $15,541,188, well in excess of its $9 million high estimate, with a very strong 95.2 percent sold by lot. Leading the sale highlights was a Natural Pearl and Diamond Corsage Ornament, circa 1910, which sold for $2,042,500 – almost double its high estimate of $1.2 million.
Another piece exemplifying the strong market for natural pearls, the corsage ornament was followed by an exquisite natural gray pearl and diamond brooch, which fetched more than triple its high estimate of $600,000 with a final sale price of $1,874,500.
Other highlights include:
- A silver-topped gold and diamond bow brooch, circa 1850, formerly in the collections of Grand Duchess Elena Vladimirovna and HRH Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, sold for $842,500, more than double its high estimate of $300,000.
- An emerald, diamond and enamel rosary, German, late 17th century, sold for $842,500, more than triple its high estimate of $250,000. The historic rosary’s provenance hails from the Saxon Royal Family.
- A briolette diamond ring, by JAR, featuring a 10.28-carat briolette diamond suspended from a diamond band, sold for $566,500, double its low estimate of $250,000.
10. Jewels from the Princely Collection of Thurn und Taxis – $13.7 million
Sotheby’s Geneva, November 17th, 1992
After marrying the man who was said to be Germany’s richest aristocrat, her distant cousin Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, the young Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis made a name for herself in the 1980s with her wild hair and equally outrageous outfits. Soon, she came to be known as the “Punk Princess” and “Princess TNT, the dynamite socialite.”
However, the good times came to a end when her husband, 33 years her senior, died in 1990 and Gloria had to act to preserve the family fortune from debt and inheritance taxes. Luckily, she had an incredible collection of jewels, silver, art and other near-priceless objects to put up for auction, which she did in November 1992 at Sotheby’s.
While the more than 300 items auctioned constituted only a tiny percentage of Princess Gloria’s property, the sale – which in total earned more than $20 million – proved a great achievement for Sotheby’s. Among the notable and rare pieces, her jewelry included a pearl and diamond tiara that was commissioned in 1853 by Napoleon III for his bride, Empress Eugenie, and worn by Princess Gloria at her wedding to Johannes von Thurn und Taxis. The historic tiara sold for 935,000 Deutsche Marks ($649,537) to the Louvre Museum in Paris where it remains today.
Other jewels sold at the auction included:
- A rare 18th century diamond Golden Fleece bracelet, which sold more recently at Christie’s in 2001 of $168,858.
- An Emerald and Diamond Brooch, which was sold again in 2013 at Christie’s for $782,873.
- A diamond belt of the Golden Fleece