In December Christie’s will auction the jewellery and couture collections of screen legend Elizabeth Taylor. As John Lyttle discovered, the event promises to be one of this century’s most important auctions.
Roddy McDowall and diamonds were Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s best friends.
A one-time child star, just like her, McDowell saw Ms Elizabeth Hilton-Wilder-Todd-Fisher-Burton-Burton-Warner-Fortensky through eight marriages, seven husbands and recurrent struggles with pills, obesity, booze, and some really bad movies.
Diamonds as big as the Ritz kept MGM’s most beautiful creation sparkling fiercely and forever in the global spotlight, even as she began her plunge down the box office rankings in the late Sixties. The lady truly had a sorcerer’s understanding of the physics of fame: light attracts light and combusts into multi-media heat.
While other studio sirens of her generation (Turner, Gardner, etc.) faded from the front pages into supporting parts and celebrity’s very own version of Purgatory – prime time television! – Taylor did not. One way she retained her star power was by adding more of the monster rocks that still glitter in the public’s memory and annals of smart PR to her already considerable array of jewellery (including the Cartier diamond-and-ruby set that third husband and movie producer Mike Todd presented to his then-wife while she was enjoying a swim in a tiara).
Let us count the carats. Fifth and sixth spouse Richard Burton blew US$305,000 on a 33.19 Krupp diamond ring in 1968. “A nice piece of ice”, said Elizabeth. “Vulgar”, retorted Princess Margaret, before asking whether she might slip on the Harry Winston dazzler and take it out for a spin.
Arguably the world’s most famous stone for arguably the world’s most famous woman, the Taylor-Burton Diamond hit the front pages again a year later, all US$1 million-plus and 69.42 pear-shaped carats of it. “I told Richard it was too big, even for me”, Elizabeth would remember years later in her charming and often tongue-in-cheek best seller, My Love Affair with Jewellery. “So we had Cartier design a necklace.”
Speaking of necklaces… The same year, a certain 321-carat Burmese sapphire pendant of exceptional clarity stole international headlines. As Burton mock-moaned to a journalist at the time, “The only word that woman knows in Italian is Bulgari.”
“My favourite little shop on the Via Condotti!” that woman agreed. Those were the days. They couldn’t last. The Taylor-Burton Diamond went for $5 million in 1978, following her second divorce from Burton. The proceeds were donated to a medical centre in Botswana.
But other show-stopping baubles – the Van Cleef and Arpels Daisy Necklace, that tiara for lounging around the Hollywood pool, the Bulgari floral Emerald Tremblant Brooch, her favourite boutique diamond chandelier earrings – are all present and glittering in the international tour-cum-auction trailer that celebrates the late actress, humanitarian and Aids activist’s obsessively chronicled 79-year life.
Organised by Christie’s, who are charged with selling this queen’s ransom for various charities, the tour begins its royal progress in Moscow this September, before moving on to London, Los Angeles, Dubai, Geneva, Paris, and – hooray – Hong Kong. Exorbitant bids were reportedly already on the table in all those places a mere 24 hours after Taylor succumbed to congestive heart failure on March 23. The tour winds up in New York in early December with a special ten-day exhibition, followed by four days of auctions at the Rockefeller Centre. Some very lucky women will receive Christmas presents beyond their wildest dreams.
It will be the most significant super-rich event of its kind since the Duchess of Windsor’s treasure trove went under the hammer at Sotheby’s in 1987, 214 dazzling pieces that established a then world record of US$53.5 million. Indeed, Taylor herself attended and outbid Prince Charles to win one of her most celebrated later purchases, the diamond plume Prince of Wales brooch she would often wear for fundraising duties. “I bought it for sentimental reasons”, Taylor said. “She was an old and dear friend. I just wanted to hold on to a bit of her that while longer.”
How much for a bit of the exotic Liz allure? The sky’s the limit with an Aladdin’s Cave of loot to choose from. The two Best Actress Oscars (for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) are out: the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts retains ownership after death.
Yet there is movie memorabilia galore, hanger after hanger of gaudy Valentino, Versace and Gianfranco Ferré haute couture, armloads of glitz-heavy accessories.
(Elizabeth loved silk Chanel evening clutches with matching size ten shoes), some important furniture and, more interestingly, a thoughtful, idiosyncratic room-by-Bel Air-room romp through twentieth-century decorative arts. Or, putting it another way, Elizabeth Taylor’s taste was perfection in everything except her wardrobe…
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