The coronavirus quarantine has prompted boredom, impatience and aggravation. But it has clearly not dampened rich buyers’ love for jewelry — at least not judging from the success of recent online jewelry auctions.
Some of these buyers may well be moneyed housewives who have become online addicts during the pandemic. Some may be skittish about the stock market and want to put their money in jewels. And others are active professional women used to doing their own research and buying.
“In my experience, many of our private buyers are women who are successful in their own right and are passionate about jewelry,” said Nan Summerfield, the senior vice president and director of California for Doyle Auctions.
For devoted collectors, the quarantine may be an added incentive. “I am a jewelry alcoholic, especially when you can’t go out many places,” said Irina Maleeva, an actress who lives in Beverly Hills.
Maleeva, 60, likes working with the staff at Doyle, Bonhams and Heritage Auctions, and she enjoys bidding aggressively. “It is like when men play football,” she said. She is impatient to receive a Tiffany Angela Cummings gold rose-petal bracelet that she just bought online from Doyle for $5,312, during a May sale of jewelry that fetched the house $764,687 in total.
Doyle has chosen not to auction many of its more expensive jewels during the pandemic, but over the years Maleeva has bought other pieces including a multicolored white gold, moonstone, sapphire and diamond bracelet for $16,250.
“l like to wear things that have an impact,” she said.
Poised to pack considerable oomph is the Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet: a confection of sapphires, rubies and emeralds in a platinum setting of diamonds, onyx and enamel that Sotheby’s sold on April 28 to an undisclosed buyer for $1.34 million (including a 20% buyer’s fee), after listing an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000.
Sotheby’s has said that its online jewelry auctions have been surprisingly robust. The 12 online sales since March have generated $19.6 million well above estimates of $13 million to $18.1 million.
Tutti Frutti bracelets have done well for the house, with one selling three years ago in Hong Kong for $1.8 million, near its high estimate. Another owned by the late Evelyn Lauder, the former wife of Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder Companies, was sold for $2.165 million in December 2014, probably benefiting from the Lauder cachet.
“The prices in the recent sales were designed to be inviting,” said Catharine Becket, senior vice president and head of Sotheby’s “Magnificent Jewelry” division. “In decades of collections we know that conservative pricing yields the higher price and attracts more bidders.”
She added that 30% of the bidders at the auction were age 40 or under and a comparable percent were new to Sotheby’s.
The majority of pieces that Sotheby’s put up for sale at its April auction were under $20,000 because the house believes that buyers shopping in that price range are often what it calls “self-purchasers” — that is, bidders who don’t need to consult family members before they buy. But the house is now considering raising the lot values at coming auctions.
As for Christie’s, at an online auction that began June 16 and ends two weeks later, the house is auctioning a 28.86 carat flawless VVS1 white, emerald-cut diamond ring with an estimate of $1 million to $2 million.
Even if the diamond sells at the low estimate, it would eclipse Christie’s highest price for a work sold online: Richard Serra’s “Pamuk” painting, which went for $905,000 in 2014.
The decision to put the diamond up for auction is particularly interesting because it is not from one of the famous jewelers, although it does have a report from Gemological Institute of America evaluating its quality of the diamond using color, clarity, cut and other metrics.
Many pieces at the leading auction houses bear the pedigree of a Graff, Buccellati, Chopard or Harry Winston. Indeed, when Christie’s held its last jewel auction in late April, almost all of the first 25 pieces listed were from brand name designers: Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels and Graff, among others.
That approach may offer buyers a feeling of security that they are getting a pedigreed piece. Until now, in fact, the highest priced jewel sold at Christie’s online was a pair of ruby and diamond Graff hoop earrings that went for $187,000. But the earrings had been available to see live before the auction.
To make quarantined bidders more comfortable with pieces that they cannot see in person, auction houses are providing more guidance on the phone and online, with private Zoom viewings for major pieces and striving to make the online action livelier.
Summerfield said that Doyle used a live auctioneer at its two May online sales. Working in a closed space, a camera followed the auctioneer as she recognized bids placed by Doyle employees on behalf of clients.
To hold the attention of bidders, the auction house, which formerly assembled as many as 500 lots for an auction, has cut that number in half. “It was too many lots,” Summerfield said. “Now we are doing fewer lots and having more frequent auctions.”
Jewelry lovers are quickly adapting to not just bidding online, but also doing so without having seen the goods in the flesh.
Ellen Safir, who manages money for endowments and pensions, just bought a pair of diamond and platinum clip earrings in an online auction at Freeman’s, the Philadelphia auction house. She has already bought objects she has not seen in person, including an Art Deco-style bracelet from 1stdibs, the online marketplace.
“A jewelry auction is similar to the auction of any other high-priced thing,” said Safir, who is in her 70s. “The auction houses do a lot more than just having you click. They have Zoom meetings, and you get condition reports.”
A Beverly Hills doctor who requested anonymity because she is concerned about discussing jewelry in the current environment, said she has been buying online since eBay and continues to shop. She feels she is familiar enough with brands to know how to look for great copies of pieces even by designers like Bulgari. Recently she bought a pair of earrings from Doyle for $8,000 that were in the style of Van Cleef & Arpels.
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“In California we like you to think we don’t get dressed up,” she said. “But we wear jewelry to the gas station with our Lululemons.”
And some women are savvy comparative shoppers. When Donna Adams, a 48-year-old architectural designer, saw an elegant Chopard gold bangle watch that had been up for auction at Doyle, she knew she wanted it.
As Adams recalled it, she had seen the watch for sale on eBay for about $11,000 “You can’t just find that watch anywhere,” she said. “It is vintage. You can’t just go to a neighborhood jewelry store and look for it.”
Never mind that she would have no chance to see the watch. It had been put up for auction with a $2,000 to $3,000 estimate and had not sold. Adams quickly called the auction house and bought it for $3,400, including the buyer’s premium.
“If you find a piece you want and have no time to go shopping, then you buy it,” Adams said. She was fine with buying sight unseen because she had made purchases from eBay, and she followed brands she liked.
“I am all about design, and I was very comfortable that I knew what I was getting,” she said.
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