The Collectability of Jewels with a Noble Provenance

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Throughout the ages, rulers and those in their close circle have sought the finest jewels. As their fortunes waned, some of their prized items came to the market attracting great interest. From Christie’s first fine jewelry sale in 1795 offering items from the sumptuous collection of Madame du Barry, King Louis XV’s mistress, to Sotheby’s Geneva landmark auction of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewelry in 1987, bejeweled pieces with a noble provenance have carried a premium among collectors. The sale of Madame du Barry’s jewels realized £8,791, the equivalent of $1.3 million today, and the Duchess of Windsor’s sale brought in $50.3 million, more than seven times the pre-sale estimate making it the highest value single jewelry collection sold, until it was finally surpassed in 2011 by the $144 million raised from the sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s collection at Christie’s New York. The late actress’ collection included many jewels with noble provenance such as the star lot, La Peregrina, a necklace that included a 16th century pear-shaped pearl that once belonged to King Philip II of Spain and Queen Mary I. Richard Burton bought the pearl for Taylor in 1969, reputedly paying $37,000, and had it mounted by Cartier on a diamond and ruby necklace. The necklace sold for $11,842,500, far beyond its pre-sale estimate of $2-3 million.

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“There is an element of romance and history, but I think provenance mostly gives confidence to the buyer that the jewel is of great quality and will maintain, perhaps even increase, its value over time,” says François Curiel, president of Christie’s Asia and a jewelry specialist.

Some of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels have since resurfaced at auctions and proved to be a good investment. In November 2010, 20 pieces from the 1987 sale were offered for sale at Sotheby’s London and brought in $12,413,146 in the “white glove sale”: 100% sold by lot and value. Amongst the pieces, an onyx and diamond panther bracelet by Cartier, circa 1952, sold for $7,036,874, more than double the pre-sale estimate, while a ruby, sapphire, emerald, citrine, and diamond flamingo brooch, designed by Jeanne Toussaint and mounted by Cartier, circa 1940, was purchased by Collection Cartier for $2,678,954. The brooch had been bought for $806,667 in 1987. Last December, Sotheby’s London again auctioned some of the jewels previously owned by the Duchess of Windsor and at the 1987 sale, along with some pieces that had not been offered previously.

Daniela Mascetti, senior director and international senior specialist at Sotheby’s Geneva, notes that the jewels had “performed extremely well in 1987,” and interest has remained constant ever since. “There have always been buyers out there because of the provenance,” she notes.

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Mascetti believes that beyond the enduring public fascination for one of the most captivating love stories of the 20th century, the jewels’ designs in themselves are always interesting. “When they were designed, these were ahead of their time. The Duchess was not a fashion follower, she was a trend setter.” Mascetti explains, “At the time, these pieces were in their own right quite extraordinary creations. They were manufactured by some of the best jewelers of the time—Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, would supply the best designer to a man who loved gemstones and art, and a woman who had an extremely sharp fashion sense. The result had been absolutely fabulous. The quality of the gemstones was in most cases matching the quality of the jewels.”

Curiel believes aristocratic provenance always adds a premium to jewelry. “Royal jewels will always hit the headlines because there are so few left in private hands. Most of them have either been lost or destroyed, due to wars and revolutions, or become part of the national treasures of each country, housed in museums,” Curiel says, pointing out that jewels from HRH Princess Margaret’s estate created a sensation when they were sold at Christie's London in 2006 for $17.7 million, while auctions of items from the Aga Khan’s family collection have also attracted huge interest over the years.

Jewels with a royal or aristocratic provenance, which appear on the market, mostly date from the 19th to early 20th century. Mascetti links this to the time when new gold mines were discovered in the United States and then South Africa in the 19th century; until then, the metal was so rare that it often had to be recycled to create new jewels that kept up with the fashions. “And let’s not talk about diamonds. Until the 1870s when mines were discovered in South Africa, diamonds were extremely rare and even royal houses had to unmount crowns and necklaces in order to create design for the new rulers,” she muses.

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Click here so see some of the noble jewels at auction this May.

For Mascetti one of the most fascinating jewels to come to auction recently was the Beau Sancy. Weighing 34.98 carats and worn by Marie de Medici in her crown at her coronation as Queen Consort of Henri IV in 1610, the modified pear double rose cut diamond was passed on from generation to generation in noble families throughout Europe and was eventually put up for auction by the Royal House of Prussia, netting $9,699,618, almost five times the pre-sale low estimate, in November 2012 at Sotheby’s Geneva.

Amongst the earliest “noble” jewelry pieces still in their original shapes sold at Christie’s have been pieces from the Russian Imperial collection, such as a diamond brooch set with a Colombian emerald of over 60 carats from the collection of Catherine the Great (1729-1796) and which sold for $1.6 million in 2010 in New York. In 2005, Sotheby’s sold a necklace with 27 large cushion-shaped diamonds that was also believed to have also been made for Catherine the Great. That piece raised $1.5 million.

According to Curiel, the Russian Imperial family and nobility probably had the most important and beautiful jewels in the world. “The collections of the Grand Duchess Vladimir (1854-1920) and the Youssoupoff family were exceptional,” he says, though adding aristocratic families throughout Europe had fabulous pieces. “Even in smaller kingdoms, like the Duchy of Württemberg, royal families were famous for their jewels, which included extraordinary Russian sapphires,” he explains.

Non-European royal jewels coming up at auction are even rarer. “We occasionally sell old Indian jewels, from the collections of the Maharajahs that go back to the 17th century,” Curiel says. A stunning diamond Sarpech (a turban ornament literally meaning head feather in Hindi) coming from a royal collection with 17 principal diamonds weighing a total of 152.64 carats realized $2,015,860 in 2010 at Christie’s Geneva in 2010. A diamond necklace created by René Boivin in 1935 for the late Empress Nam Ph'u'ong of Vietnam, Marie-Thérèse Nguyen Huu Thi Lan, was sold for $275,355 at that same sale.

Europe remains the base for the sale of aristocratic jewels, which are seen only rarely in New York and almost never in Hong Kong. “There is no consistent pattern, but noble jewels will appear on the market season after season, because their owners might need to sell for financial or inheritance reasons, and also because there are fewer and fewer occasions to wear them,” Curiel says.

Like any other jewelry, the basis of the value comes primarily from the stones. “To this, we add a premium for the provenance, which depends on how important and well known was the family to which the jewel belonged. Other factors such as signature, style, and condition also play a small part,” Curiel explains.

Crowns and tiaras or large brooches may carry a fabulous provenance, but are difficult to wear today and as such these pieces might attract the interest of museums rather than private collectors. The Louvre in Paris acquired an antique diamond bow brooch by François Kramer, circa 1855, which had belonged to Empress Eugénie (1826-1920), wife of Napoleon III. The purchase was negotiated via private treaty through Christie’s.

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Meanwhile earrings, necklaces, or smaller brooches can attract a broader interest because not only are they prestigious and often unique, they remain wearable. An emerald and diamond necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels, dated 1929, which had belonged to Princess Faiza of Egypt (1923-1994), soared to $4,203,848 in November 2013 at Christie's Geneva, well above its $2,721,089‑$3,809,524 estimate.

A brand name always adds value to a jewel, Curiel says, and amongst these earlier makers in demand are Boucheron, Chaumet, Fouquet, Mauboussin, and Mellerio in Paris, Garrard in London, Castellani in Rome, and Tiffany in New York. However most of their earlier jewels will not be signed, adds Mascetti. “Signing jewels is a 20th century habit. To confirm the provenance you would have to look through records, inventories,” she notes.

Bulgari, Cartier, and Fabergé also created many pieces for royalty and aristocratic families, from the 1870s, followed by Van Cleef & Arpels in the early 20th century. “Amongst these I would say that Chaumet, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels are the most appreciated still today. But in the end, provenance is the most important factor and many of the “noble” jewels, sold at auction, are unsigned, without this taking away from their value,” Curiel argues.

While most of the Royal and aristocratic jewels, which appear on the market today, are sold at auction, there are several jewelry stores in London and antique jewelry specialists, such as S.J. Phillips in London, Galerie J. Kugel in Paris, and A La Vieille Russie in New York that occasionally have in their possession a historical or royal jewel, which they might have purchased at auction or directly from owners or their estate.

Just occasionally, an item will ‘reappear’ in the most unexpected of ways like the bauble bought for scrap in the Midwest that recently turned out to be a $33 million Fabergé egg that Tsar Alexander III had given to his wife, Tsarina Maria Feodorovna as an 1887 Easter gift.

First published in Blouin Lifestyle Magazine