Discover more from Dearest
A giant ruby, an aggressive monkey and Joanne Woodward's wedding dress
A real mixed bag this time around
Hi guys! By now you probably know I’m not a big “Magnificent Jewels” person. I know they’re the big flagship auction events with all the important gobstopper-sized gems, but I think they’re boring. They’re fun to view in person for the sparkle factor, but woooof: scrolling through the lots gets TEDIOUS. Row after row of white metal, white diamonds, boring ass Retro designs. It’s just not my thing. But if it’s your thing, have at it!!! I’m totally cool with that! We all like different stuff! So I’ll give you the rundown on last week’s Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales and try to hit on both the big fancy stuff and well as the weird dumb stuff I like.
Of the two biggies, the Christie’s Magnificent Jewels sale on Tuesday had the more interesting collection of items, at least to me. There were some legit antique diamond pieces, a circa 1900 René Lalique ring (above) featuring a woman’s face in carved glass surrounded by blue enameled poppies, and the iconic ‘Etoile de Mer’ starfish brooch by Salvador Dalí, which was being sold along with his original watercolor drawing.
The biggest ticket item was a pear-shaped brilliant-cut 126.76 carat diamond called the “Light of Peace” that sold for $13.6 million, a portion of which will be donated to USA for UNHCR, a nonprofit organization created in support of the UN Refugee Agency.
My personal favorite from the Christie’s sale was this “Hokusai Wave” brooch by Verdura, which frames a simple seashell in a swirl of sapphires, diamonds and platinum. It’s obviously inspired by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s über famous Under the Wave off Kanagawa woodblock print from around 1830–31.
Verdura — or, rather, Duke Fulco di Verdura — was the fun-loving child of wealthy aristocrats. Born in 1898 in Palermo, his society connections as a young man brought him into contact with Coco Chanel, and he soon left Italy to work for her in Paris. It was there that he discovered a talent for jewelry design, and he created some truly iconic pieces — including the two Maltese cross cuff bracelets that Chanel wore constantly. His style was enthusiastic — big and bold, with bright precious and semiprecious gems and interesting color combinations.
He moved on from Paris to Hollywood in 1934 — where his pieces were snapped up by the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Katherine Hepburn — and then opened a shop on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue (financed by his buddies Cole Porter and Vincent Astor!), where he also conquered the New York society crowd. He continued designing jewelry for decades, ﬁnally selling his business in 1973. (He died in 1978.) The company continues today and is now owned and run by Ward Landrigan, the former head of Sotheby’s US jewelry division, and his son Nico.
Christie’s doesn’t pinpoint a date for this brooch, but the Verdura timeline — which I highly recommend you scroll through for both the jewelry and the old photos — notes that in 1940, “Fulco purchases a collection of sea shells from the American Museum of Natural History in New York and sets them in gold with precious gems, charming New York society, including Millicent Rogers, Tallulah Bankhead and Betsey Whitney.”
It was Sotheby’s turn on Wednesday. Their two big sellers — the 55.22 carat cushion-cut Estrela de FURA ruby and the 10.57 carat Eternal Pink diamond — brought in $35 million EACH. Here’s the Estrela in both rough and finished form:
Mined in Mozambique by FURA Gems in 2022, it started out as a 101 carat rough stone and was cut down to 55.22 carats following “a series of studies to determine optimal weight, shape and cutting orientation” by various gem experts and 3D engineers.
Since the sale, I’ve been seeing rumblings of discontent among gem dealers in private groups about this particular result…some think it was a marketing stunt drummed up to raise the value of Mozambique rubies (as opposed to Burmese, which have traditionally been the ruby ideal) and also boost the FURA name. I have no idea — although it is certainly true that FURA got a TON of publicity out of Sotheby’s for this. But also, gem dealers are often discontented; that’s one of the things I love about them.
I had a whole thing written about the Eternal Pink diamond, but you’ve heard it all before — pink diamonds are super rare/formed by atomic level distress/yada yada yada I’m really tired today. This particular one has more of a purplish tone to it that Christie’s is calling “bubblegum,” but which makes it — at least in my opinion — slightly less attractive than the 11.15 carat Williamson Pink Star, which sold in October for $57.8 million ($24 million more than the Eternal Pink).
Ok, enough. On to my favorite piece from the auction:
Circa 1965, it’s a gold desk clock by David Webb, featuring a ruby-eyed monkey standing atop a cluster of crystals and holding a diamond-studded walnut with an inset dial. It has high-society provenance: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was a huge fan of Webb’s work and commissioned him to create special “gifts of state” for important guests of the White House. Other society matrons followed suit, and this piece was one of 36 one-off items created by Webb to be auctioned off at a 1966 charity event sponsored and attended by Kennedy and Wallis Simpson, the poisonous Duchess of Windsor. From there it became part of the collection of Constance Barber Mellon — one of the Mellon Bank Mellons, doncha know.
That’s all fine. I just like it because the monkey looks like it’s two seconds from ripping your face off.
Even better than Magnificent Jewels — the Joanne Woodward & Paul Newman auction is today! It’s at Sotheby’s New York. This is an auction you’ll want to scroll through for the sheer eclecticism of the collection — there are costumes and scripts and other items of their own film memorabilia, as well as pieces they bought together as devoted collectors of Americana.
Above is the actual wedding dress (and heels) worn by Joanne when she married Paul in 1958. It’s a champagne-colored silk crepe, cocktail-length ballet-style dress with fitted bodice, designed by Jax. The matching jacket has a rounded collar and covered buttons. Heels are by C.H. Baker. Estimate is $1,000 - $1,500 USD.
If the late 19th century Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements are your sweet spots — as they are mine — you will be RUINED by the Ann and Gordon Getty Collection: Temple of Wings auction at Christie’s New York on Wednesday. Featuring the contents of the Gettys’ Berkeley property (called Temple of Wings), it’s got allllll the big names in turn of the century decorative arts, including textiles by William Morris, ceramics by William de Morgan and paintings by Frederick, Lord Leighton and John William Waterhouse. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s famous 1895 painting A Coign of Vantage is also included, a masterpiece of his highly decorative, decadent style. It carries an estimate of $2,500,000 – $3,500,000; the highest in the sale.1
There’s also a fantastic collection of Tiffany Studios lamps — including the one above, the very rare circa 1900 “Butterfly” table lamp with a “Pepper” base. The lamp is estimated at $300,000 – $500,000, and the lot notes include excerpts from a charming letter written by the lamp’s designer, Clara Driscoll, who was head of the Tiffany Girls (a.k.a. the women’s glass-cutting department). In the letter, she tells her family about the evolution of her design:
“I described this to Mr. Tiffany while he was in Mr. Mitchell’s office sitting in front of the electric fan in Mr. Mitchell’s chair, waiting for him to come in, and looking as if life were a burden that he could not support much longer. But then he heard about the primroses, he braced up at once, seized a pencil and began to make pictures all over Mr. Mitchell’s clean blotter — talking to himself and to me, while the fan made his thick curls stand up around his bearded brow like a halo, after his fashion — “The lamp mutht be tall and thlim” (the words tall and slim being unnaturally lengthened while he drew long up and down lines to illustrate) “like the flowerth, and the shade — ” but every time he came to that he wavered off into such vague lines that you could scarcely distinguish them from the gray of the blotter, and then he would say — “well, work out your own idea — ” This is all very pleasant but the next thing is, to do it. I am so afraid I can’t rise to what will now be expected of me.”
I think she did ok.
If you would like to further torture yourself, there are two additional online Ann & Gordon Getty auctions: Aesthetic Decoration from Temple of Wings and Early Modern Design from Temple of Wings. Fair warning for my readers with a flair for drama: there are Fortuny evening capes in that second one.
There are some wonderful antique jewels in the Christie’s Jewels Online: The London Edit auction closing on Thursday, including this gorgeous Belle Epoque ruby and diamond brooch/plaque-de-cou. Circa 1900, it features old and rose-cut diamonds and circular cut rubies designed to resemble a cascade of fuchsias.
A plaque-de-cou, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is an ornament meant to be worn on a collier de chien, or dog collar-style necklace. This one is particularly large, so one would need to possess quite the long neck to wear it — click through to the lot to see it on a model.
One final note: I only found out about this exhibition late last week and immediately called to order the catalog since I can’t make it over there in time, BUT if you’re in England and can hop on a train to Salisbury, there’s a phenomenal exhibition opening this week at Woolley & Wallis: Robert Wallace Martin: Potter, Sculptor, Artist - An Exhibition. The exhibit celebrates the work of Robert Wallace — the eldest Martin brother and driving force behind their art pottery — and it features an extraordinary collection of his early historical vases, clocks, grotesques, face jugs and, of course, those famous Wally Birds. It’s free and runs from tomorrow to Thursday, June 22nd, so if you want to see it in person, you better get your skates on.
For those of us who can’t be there, Woolley & Wallis have posted a flipbook of the catalog. Check it out; the creatures within are almost certain to bring you joy.
Time to wrap things up, as I’m being visited by the Red Band of Email Length Limit again. I hope you all have a wonderful week free of apocalyptic weather events and marauding orcas. Drop me a line and say hi!
Ciao, M xx
Interesting random little tangent: A Coign of Vantage was once owned by Allen Funt, the creator of Candid Camera. Funt was a dedicated collector of Alma-Tadema, buying up his work in the 1960’s when the late 19th century style was DEEPLY out of fashion. (This was around the same time Andrew Lloyd Webber saw Flaming June in a London shop window for £50 and his grandmother refused to lend him the money to buy it, saying “I will not have Victorian junk in my flat.”)
Funt’s collecting was triggered by a snide art dealer, who told him Alma Tadema was the “worst painter of the 19th century.” Intrigued, Funt checked out AT’s work himself and liked it, eventually amassing a phenomenal collection that the Metropolitan Museum of Art later borrowed for a dedicated exhibition in 1972. Soon after, Funt discovered he’d been the victim of embezzlement — his accountant had stolen $1.2 million from him — and he sadly had to sell the lot. He was resigned but positive about the journey: “It's very satisfying,” he told the New York Times in 1973. “To me it's a story of the fickleness of taste and of my having guts to have an opinion. I like the idea of collecting the worst painter around and having the Met come to me to have it put on exhibit. I like that.”