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Liz Taylor's Jewel-Dripping Collection On The Block

Celebrity auctions have become common, but once in a while there's an event that will make almost anyone stand up and take notice. After a world tour, the entire collection of Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry, clothing and memorabilia is on view starting Saturday at Christie's auction house in New York City.

After 10 days, there will be a four-day auction. Some 2,000 objects from the film star's life will be on the block, both at Christie's and online.

'Gutsy, Glamorous'

Behind a glass wall, an area has been decked out as if it were Taylor's walk-in closet. At least 80 handbags, out of more than 200, are arranged by color — one shelf violet going to purple, another various reds, another browns. Shoes and boots are on the floor; drawers are open with jewelry dripping out of them.

"Gutsy, glamorous; wish I'd met her," says Meredith Etherington-Smith, who curated the fashion part of this exhibit.

And why the faux closet? "Because that was what her house looked like," Etherington-Smith says. "She kept everything immaculately."

There are clothes from every designer you can think of, in perfect condition: a red velvet Valentino ball gown, a Dior organza jacket in white with delicate handmade flowers. There are also wild colors. In one corner there's what Etherington-Smith calls "a cast of kaftans," some in historic fabrics.

"A lot of them were made by Thea Porter," she says, "who used to go around the Middle East, finding fabrics, and then reassembling them as kaftans. The three heavily embroidered groups are antique Ottoman. So that was when Ms. Taylor was going through a sort of modified hippie phase."

A Girl's Best Friend

Most extraordinary is the jewelry: diamonds, sapphires, rubies. Many of them are gifts from the two of her seven husbands whom she loved most: actor Richard Burton, whom she married twice, and theater and film producer, Mike Todd.

Daphne Lingon, a senior vice president in the jewelry department of Christie's stands before a case filled with emeralds, almost all of them gifts from Burton. She points out a brooch of emeralds and diamonds.

"That was an engagement present in 1962 from Richard Burton," she says. "It was also worn when she married him in 1964, in Montreal on her yellow chiffon dress."

That yellow dress is only footsteps away.

There is also the 33-carat diamond ring, conservatively estimated to go for between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. Perhaps most amazing is the 16th-century La Peregrina, one of the most perfect, largest pear-shaped pearls in the world, found in paintings by Velasquez and once part of the crown jewels of Spain.

Thoroughly Curated

Rahul Kadakia is head of the jewelry department at Christie's. He says since the late 1700s Christie's has sold the greatest collections of jewels: from Doris Duke, Princess Margaret, the Queen of Italy, on and on.

"They are all great collections, but never have we seen a collection that is as complete and as curated as this one," he says.

There are the finest Burmese rubies, the finest diamonds, the finest Colombian emeralds, Kadakia says. Taylor, he says, was a great curator.

"It was not just the jewel, it was the design, it was the person who made the jewelry," Kadakia says. "You think of every great jewelry house in the world, she had something from all of them."

Officially, it is estimated that the auction will bring in around $50 million. Each item has been priced as if Taylor never owned it, though, so privately people are saying the $3.5 million diamond ring could go for $7 million and so forth. It's all on view for the next 10 days — more opulent than the tree at Rockefeller Center, 100 yards away.

"It's like going to a museum, really, isn't it? ... You just have to kind of take a step back," Etherington-Smith says.

All proceeds from the four-day auction will go to Taylor's estate, with a portion going to her AIDS Foundation.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career
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