Jewels expected to set Geneva auction records

Huge blue and pink diamonds, the star attractions at major jewel auctions in Geneva in the coming days, are expected to fetch tens of millions of dollars and possibly set new world records.

Jewels expected to set Geneva auction records
'In the Pink' diamond shown by model for Christie's. Photo: Niklas Hall'en AFP

The anticipated sales prices for the two stones are part of a trend that has seen the market for coloured diamonds explode, with values more than doubling over the last two decades.
“The biggest reason is the scarcity of these coloured diamonds,” explained Rahul Kadakia, the International Head of Jewellery at Christie's.
He said that 25 or 30 years ago, extraordinary coloured gemstones often earned strong prices at auction, “but they weren't quite making the prices they have been achieving in recent years.”
While classic white diamonds once made up the prize lot at jewel sales, now, according to Kadakia, “there is a little bit of softness in the white diamond market.”

 World record? 

The Sotheby's “fancy vivid” blue diamond, which goes under the hammer on Wednesday, has been tipped as a possible world record beater, with the auction house listing its projected sale price at between $35-$55 million.
The flawless “Blue Moon” stone was discovered in South Africa in January last year, and is the largest cushion-shaped stone in that category ever to appear at auction.
The head of Sotheby's international jewellery division, David Bennett, has called the Blue Moon “a simply sensational stone of perfect colour and purity.”
Sotheby's is aiming to beat its own record, set in November 2010 in Geneva, when a 24.78 carat pink diamond sold for $46 million.
Sotheby's rival Christie's puts its prized jewel up for sale on Tuesday at the plush Four Seasons des Bergues hotel.
The cushion-shaped stone, dubbed “In the Pink”, is estimated to sell for $23-28 million, but Kadakia told AFP the price could be even higher.
He noted that the world record price per carat for a pink diamond was set in December 2009 by Christie's in Hong Kong, when a five carat stone sold for more than $10 million.
If In the Pink, owned by an American family for the past 15 years, matches that per carat mark, it could fetch more than $32 million he said, noting that the jewel has been priced “well below what it is actually worth.”
Christie's said that only three pink stones classified by the Gemological Institute of America as “fancy” and weighing more than ten carats have been up for sale in 250 years.
The causes that turn a diamond pink remain something of a mystery, but some experts attribute the colouration to a simultaneous exposure to both heat and pressure.

Connery jewels 

Scottish actor Sean Connery is selling two jewels at Sotheby's next week, including a 15.4-carat pink and orange diamond, which could fetch above $2 million and a ring boasting 5.18 carats of diamond, with an estimated sale price of $250,000.
Among the other exceptional pieces set to go under the hammer is an emerald and diamond necklace designed by Harry Winston in 1959 and previously owned by the American socialite and jewellery collector Dolores Sherwood Bosshard.
Kadakia said buyers descending on Geneva ahead of the auctions are increasingly aware that, at the elite level, precious stones have proven to be sound investments.
“If you look at diamond prices, a diamond that was making $200,000 dollars a carat is now making $2 million dollars a carat. 

“That hasn't happened in other asset class, or any other investment,” he said.

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How Nazi-looted art is finding its way back to its owners

World War II ended almost 75 years ago, but works of art confiscated by the Nazis are still regularly unearthed by major auction houses, which contribute actively to their restitution.

How Nazi-looted art is finding its way back to its owners
A branch of Christie's auction house in Munich. Photo: DPA

French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir's “Esquisse de paysage (Deux femmes dans le jardin des Collettes a Cagnes),” which depicts two women in a garden, changed hands no less than seven times since German police seized it in September 1941. Four of those times were at public auction.

But it wasn't until 2013, when the painting was being considered for a sale at Christie's in New York and the auction house flagged it as suspicious, that a descendant of the original owner was located and ultimately had the work restituted, a word commonly used to describe returned works of art.

The auction house traced the work's ownership back to Alfred Weinberger, who had stored his art collection in a bank vault when he fled Paris at the war's outset.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI returned the painting – created in 1919, the same year Renoir died – to Weinberger's granddaughter Sylvie Sulitzer in September at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage. A combination of factors over the past 20 years – political, technological and generational – have facilitated the return of stolen pieces.

“Interest in the Nazi era spoliation of art only really became of international interest in the mid-nineties,” Christie's international restitution director Monica Dugot told AFP.

After years of inertia, 44 countries agreed in 1998 to the Washington Principles to find and, if possible, return works stolen by the Nazis.

SEE ALSO: Art reparation: Colonial ghosts haunt German and other European museums

Major auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's have also adapted and formed dedicated teams since the late 1990s.

“They play a very major role,” said Wesley Fisher, research director for the Claims Conference, a group created in 1951 whose tasks include working to return stolen possessions.

“There's a shifting generation. People who had these looted art works privately are passing away and their descendants then decide to sell the works.”

Lost art databases

The declassification of numerous documents, the rise of the internet and digitalization have all given access to exhaustive and essential information for museums, art dealers and auction houses.

The Art Loss Register and the ERR database of art objects plundered by the Nazis, based on archives kept by the fascist political party, are the most exhaustive repositories of information – but dozens of other resources exist. In Magdeburg, there is also a “Lost Art Database“, an online directory of confiscated art works. 

It has been operating since 1994 as part of a government agency which traces both Soviet-seized and Nazi-seized treasures.

Situated on a quiet, leafy bank of the Elbe River, the agency (the German Lost Art Foundation) is purposely situated in eastern Germany, where Soviet soldiers snatched the majority of art objects as so-called trophy art at the end of World War II.

In 2013, tax authorities famously found that a reclusive Munich man and son of a Nazi official had kept a World War II art collection of 1,500 stolen art pieces – many by the likes of Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner – in his apartment.

A team of German investigators consequently assembled an online exhibition of the masterpieces on the online database – a way, as with all major “lost art” finds, of tracking down the owners.

When the first 25 images were uploaded, the online database received 4.8 million views in 24 hours, according to the museum's director. People around the world clamoured to view the art, either to see if it had belonged to their ancestors or out of curiosity.

The works which were not claimed went on display in museums in Bern and Bonn in 2017.

Entrance to the Lost Art Gallery in Magdeburg. Photo: Rachel Stern

'Minimize the risk'

Sotheby's head of restitution Lucian Simmons said the auction house researches every work that comes through its hands and was created before 1945, be it a painting, furniture, silverware or carpet.

The goal is to “minimize the risk that Sotheby's accidentally sells an art work which was looted in World War II and never litigated back,” he added.

The laws vary between different countries. In Germany, the return of objects is no longer mandatory after 30 years under the civil code, while in France, works of arts cannot be taken from state collections.

“Auction houses generally do a better job than art dealers as a whole because auction houses have to advertise what they are selling and what they do is known publicly,” Fisher explained.

If there is any doubt as to a piece's origins, it is now standard practice for the auction house to keep it, regardless of whether the official owner agrees.

“For Sotheby's, this is not necessarily a legal issue. It's more of an ethical and a moral issue,” Simmons said.

“What I also have to explain is that even if the painting is theoretically clean under the law in one country, it doesn't mean that people will bid on it in an auction room if there's an outstanding World War II claim.”

But he stressed that litigation is “very rare” because Sotheby's actively tries to resolve such situations amicably and through negotiations.

However, some auction houses that refuse to sell a suspect work of art or return it to the collector who tasked them with selling it sometimes face competing claims — both from the official owner and the descendants of the original owner whose collection was confiscated.

In such cases, the auction houses turn to the authorities, as they did with the Renoir.

A source close to the matter said the collector ultimately gave in – insisting on his ownership could have led to legal proceedings.

“Auction houses are important and instrumental in finding just and fair solutions according to the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art,” said Imke Gielen, an attorney at specialized German law firm von Trott zu Solz Lammek.

“One has to assume that the majority of art works looted during the Nazi-period are today in private hands and will only become known if private holders consign them for sale.”

With the progressive disappearance of a generation of amateur post-war collectors, a large amount of paintings that could fall under this category are coming on the market, as seen in the recent fall auctions in New York.

“There are art dealers who prefer to keep the tradition of the art market, which is secrecy,” Fisher said, also referring to smaller auction houses.