Field Report: A Grad Student’s Perspective on Christie’s Magnificent Jewels Auction

David Richard Wistocki | 15 November 2019

After arriving in Geneva from the US on Tuesday I attended Christie’s Magnificent Jewels auction at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues. Because of my travel schedule, I arrived about an hour after the auction officially started and found the entrance to the hotel surprisingly quiet and non-descript. There were no visible signs that were advertising the auction from the exterior. Only after walking through the hotel’s revolving door and turning right did I see a discrete “Christie’s” booth at the bottom of a strongly lit spiraling staircase with one lady behind the booth speaking with what appeared to be another member of the event staff. I proceeded to the booth and mentioned that I was there for the auction. Somewhat puzzled, she directed me up the staircase. I made my way up the staircase and was then unenthusiastically invited by another woman to walk through a metal detector. Oddly, I was not asked to take out any electronics from my pockets. The detector went off as I walked through but I was just as unenthusiastically waved into the hallway. The security procedure seemed oddly relaxed for what I anticipated would be a room full of some of the wealthiest people in the world bidding on some of the most expensive stones in the world. 

I proceeded into the whitewashed room and was frankly underwhelmed by the size of the room—I had anticipated a far larger ballroom lined with glass-covered pedestals displaying the gemstones. A quick survey of the room further surprised me. There only seemed to be three security guards for the entire group—one at the entrance and two at the front to the right of the auctioneer that seemed to be monitoring a lit case with an object I could not make out. Within the inlets surrounding the room were foam-cored stock photos of gems, wines, and exotic real estate that seemed as lackadaisically thought-out as the security was vigilant. Lining the left and right side of a central set of chairs facing the auctioneer were white booths with people on phones. I assumed these to be auction monitors who were noting down the winners but as it turned out these were representatives of bidders communicating throughout the auction with the true remote bidders via phone. Observing that bidders were placing bids online via the three flat-screen televisions in the room, I could not reason on my own why a bidder would choose to send a representative to be in person on their behalf instead of participating online themselves; the excuse of lacking technological proficiency did not seem sufficient. 

Generally, the most active participants in the auction appeared to be those operating in absentia and phoned-in through their respective representatives situated behind the white booths surrounding the room—one-on-one bidding battles seemed to occur several times in the ninety minutes I was there disproportionately between bidders through the phones (rather than bidders in the room). The most active online bidders seemed to be from Russia, Singapore, the Czech Republic, and Hong Kong. I assume there is a good reason why online bidders were identified by their country, but I am not aware of it. 

The overall atmosphere of the room seemed to be collegial. Standing near the back entrance of the room, I saw people regularly exchange nods, shake hands, and give hugs that were reminiscent of the Florida country clubs I frequent in my DJ work. Most people seemed to know one another; it felt more like a social event than an auction. Outside of French, I overheard a fair amount of English, Arabic, and a few other languages I could not make out. Judging by the many yamakas there appeared to be a large Jewish contingent in attendance. The attire of the participants surprisingly ranged from athletic shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt to three-piece suits and ties.

Except for the periodic bid battle between phone-holding white-booth representatives, the auctions seemed fairly casual and routine to most in the room without much regard for the millions of dollars being spent. Several auctions of “Kashmiri” sapphires caught my attention—I was not aware that Kashmir was a mining region—and a quick Google search explained that the extremely rare sapphires had been extracted in the eighteenth century from a mine in Kashmir. They rarely show up in the gemstone market for even the houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Conveniently, the auctioneer’s introductory script of the sapphires’ Kashmiri origins skipped over the tumultuous conflict that the region experiences today. 

Due to either my jet lag or the room’s increasing temperature—or both—I left the room and headed out of the hotel back home. During the walk back I was bombarded with questions. Why do people attend the auctions? Why buy anything? Are they seen as speculative investments, non-monetary stores of wealth for high-net-worth individuals, unregulated means of money-laundering, or something else? Is there a requirement to disclose the origin of the funds used before the transaction is finalized? Are the gemstones new pieces of jewelry, or are they all pieces being resold from private owners? 

The day after the auction I received an email with the results of the auction. At least 55 items sold above their appraisal value. The highest multiple of the higher appraisal range value (3.5x) was realized for a gold cigarette case from Kyiv in the early 1900s ($4,000 vs. $14,375). Except for the cigarette case, nearly all of the items sold at higher than their appraisal value included diamonds in some way. At least 10 items sold under their lower appraisal range value with the lowest being for a black and white photograph of the Maharani of Patiala Ubhalwale ($1,500 vs. $4,000). The highest-priced item was a colored diamond ring by Moussaieff that sold for $11,625,000 to bring the total auction sales to $55,263,250. The entire lot list of sold items can be accessed here.

Author: GEN