Last Saturday somehow the stars aligned and we managed to go to the London viewing of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, costumes and art at Christie’s. What can I really say about the most notoriously diamond hungry film star in the history of the world that hasn’t been said already ? This viewing was an once in a lifetime opportunity to see those items in person. And it was surely worth it.
The most prestigious gems were on show with an obvious highlight her 33.19 carat Elizabeth Taylor diamond ring (estimate $2.5m – 3.5m), which is exquisite. Such fire and brilliance but without looking as if it dropped off the sales rack of Claire’s (or any other cheap accessory shop). It’s simply mind boggling that she was wearing pretty much daily in the last 50 years. One’s eye can only imagine her washing the odd dish while wearing this rock.
Another major highlight was her 17 th century pearl that used to belong to Mary Queen of Scots, called La Peregrina (estimate $2m-3m). Which Burton acquired for her at auction against the Spanish Royal family. Taylor had it mounted in a necklace based on a painting of Mary in consultation with Cartier. Taylor was not just a collector of statement pieces, she was clearly very much in touch with the history of her gems and how they should be worn. Can’t imagine many film stars of today showing such a willingness to learn and such great taste at picking some of the most stunning jewels the world has ever seen.
Finally the ruby set by Cartier (estimate $750.000) that Mike Todd gave her as a gift while on holiday in the south of France was simply extraordinary, a red hot accumulation of rubies accented with the pure white heat of diamonds set in platinum. A fellow (very posh and of a certain age) visitor to the display did exclaim that rubies are very difficult to wear. But seeing them on their last owner, they just highlighted her great beauty and exuberance. The viewing also featured reportedly the only piece Taylor bought for herself, The Windsor Brooch (estimate $400.000-600.000), which Edward VIII had especially made by Cartier as a present for Wallis Simpson, in the shape of the feathery crest of the Prince of Wales. Taylor was allowed to make a copy by Simpson (the two were close friends) but refused the last minute, so when it went on sale she had to have it.
The display itself was elegant and simple, the colour palette dominated by the violet colour she adored. The rooms were furnished with large banners printed with photographs of Taylor accompanied by some of her famous aphorisms. The room of costumes and couture was totally over the top, as befitting the Dame. From early demure Dior ensembles to some show stopping red Valentino, to heavily embroidered Ferre to the cheeky Versace jacket with swarovski encrusted filmic faces of Elizabeth. All of them showed a woman on top of the glamour stakes that was not afraid to show off and to strut her stuff. No surprise there, she was a film star after all, not a carpenter.
One great surprise was the portion of her art collection that was on view and its selective nature. From some exquisite nudes by Augustus John, to a beautiful set of Vlaminck industrial landscapes. The fact that her parents were both art dealers must have informed some of her choices. The three main crowd pleasers on show were an Arles period Van Gogh that was brimming with sunshine and French provincialism (surely not a steal at the estimated £7m). A fantastic glowing landscape Pissarro (pere) with the rather conservative estimate of £900.000-1.2m. And a Warhol canvas on grey background of “Liz” a truly prime version of his famous series of portraits of Taylor based on a Richard Avedon photograph.
Also an oil on paper Self Portrait by Degas was penetrating and enchanting (yours for £350.00-450.000). A pretty late Renoir of a young woman wearing an oriental costume was nothing exceptional, but clearly carrying that signature made it worth £250.000! It was a shame that Christie’s did not make clear when she acquired each work…and not even the date of each painting was made. I do wonder if the six Augustus John paintings had anything to do with Richard Burton’s Welsh origins and their rather protracted and widely publicised romance that was a pivotal influence in her life. I may invest in the full catalogue when it becomes available just to get more information on their provenance and acquisition times. As this part of the sale is for me totally new and seemed to show Taylor in a totally new light.
For many this may have been a chance to gasp at the unbelievable jewels as some Elizabeth Taylor fetish that had to be seen. For me it was a fascinating journey in her taste in art, jewellery and clothing. A record of an extraordinary life that touched millions of people and yet had nothing everyday or simple about it. A life appropriate for one of the very last great divas of the US studio system. The tour continues till December where all her belongings will be sold at Christies New York, except for her paintings that will be dealt with by the London branch.
Here’s the Press Release
Here the auction site
Here is the set of photographs I took