Those little laminated tags were a delightful testament to the sense of humor and unusual unselfconsciousness possessed by one of the world’s most relentlessly scrutinized women.
“I can’t remember a day when I wasn’t famous,” Taylor once said, but perhaps because she was virtually born into it, she wore her celebrity as casually as she did her stupendous baubles. That 33-carat diamond ring, once called the Krupp and later named after its new owner (and which sold for an eye-popping $8.8 million), was an everyday piece for a woman whose everyday life had been tabloid fodder since childhood.
The cheeky luggage tags also attested to her exuberant acquisitiveness, although the contents of the Vuitton trunks — and indeed the trunks themselves — are hers no more, of course. Taylor died in March at age 79, defying a general impression of immortality gained through the numerous marriages, the multiple scrapes with death, the half-century-plus of movie fame and the later years of eccentricity.
Her closets, meanwhile, went on an extravagant tour worthy of the onetime widow of Mike Todd, producer of “Around the World in 80 Days.” Beginning in September, Christie’s sent the Taylor goods on a globe-trotting series of exhibitions: in Moscow, London, Paris, Dubai, Geneva, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and finally New York.
The New York exhibition alone was seen by more than 25,000 visitors, who came to ogle the jewels and the ancillary items, including Taylor’s three Oscars (on view, though not for sale) and costumes from some of her more fabled flops, like “X, Y and Zee” (crazy Edna O’Brien-based psychodrama), “A Little Night Music” (worst movie musical ever) and “Boom!” (Possibly the worst movie ever — but fabulous!)
The auction company profited mightily from the publicity this global gawk-fest inspired. The first night of the auction racked up $115.9 million, more than doubling the record set for a private jewelry collection, previously held by no less a celebrated 20th-century clotheshorse and bauble aficionado than the Duchess of Windsor, whose effects netted about $50 million in 1987.
By the time two more rounds of jewelry had been sold, a record for any jewelry auction had been set: $132 million.
The exuberant tone was set when the bidding for the first item of the Tuesday evening sale, a comparatively bling-free gold charm bracelet spritzed with a few minor gems, rocketed well north of the estimate, $25,000 to $35,000. When the gavel hit the wood, the bracelet had sold for $326,500.
The estimates, which proved to be laughably, almost perversely low, were apparently derived only from the intrinsic value of the metals and minerals involved. The crucial but impossible-to-quantify factor of stardust was not included in the equation.
Proving that the extravagantly rich are not immune to the charms of secondhand celebrity, the bidding maintained a giddy pace through the night. To cite just one memorable example, the famous La Peregrina pearl, dangling from a necklace of pearls, diamonds and rubies by Cartier, caused ripples of murmurs and applause when it sold for $11.8 million, almost four times the estimate of $3 million.
Previously in the possession of Spanish kings and queens before being swiped by Napoleon’s brother Joseph during his brief reign over the country, it lost a little weight in its complicated trajectory through the subsequent centuries (the pearl “might have been ‘skinned’ and polished to bring back its superb natural luster,” the catalog informs) before it was given to Taylor by Richard Burton for her 37th birthday.
The mood remained tingly with excitement whenever a major gem came up for sale, despite an absence of boldface names seated in the auction room itself. I didn’t recognize a single socialite, or even a “Real Housewife.” Elderly ladies in track suits and New Balance trainers sat alongside sleek-suited hedge-fund types and their gum-chewing, processed-looking wives. A woman in a spangly backless dress paraded up and down in the front row, although I didn’t see her flapping a paddle.
Actually, most of the best-dressed people in the room were the cadres of Christie’s employees, in eveningwear in honor of the occasion, a relative rarity in auction rooms today. Scurrying about to pound out news releases as record after record was set, or standing around the periphery of the room pointing out the paddle-wavers to the evening’s two auctioneers, they constituted a small, extremely well-appointed army in service to the super-rich.
Charles Isherwood is a theater critic for The New York Times.