Jan 10

Auction Shows Elizabeth Taylor’s Star Still Shines

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.


Jan 10

Diamond Crackdown in Mozambique Leaves Smugglers Behind

Mr. Phiri and his fellow diamond smugglers had gotten into an argument with the soldier because, for the second consecutive night, he had directed them to a patch of the rich fields where there were no diamonds to be mined. And so they refused to pay him a bribe for allowing them onto the fields, in an area known as Marange. The soldier threatened force.

“If you want to shoot, shoot,” Mr. Phiri recalled barking at the soldier. “But I’m not paying.”

Mr. Phiri and his comrades walked away unharmed, but in more than three months he has not dared return to the fields, an acknowledgment of the increasing dangers for the black-market miners who once dominated an area that may be one of the world’s most lucrative diamond troves.

Ever since President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe began to tighten his grip about three years ago on the mines in Marange, where security forces and companies with ties to him are mining at least hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stones, the illicit diamond business here has all but dried up. Border towns like this one have become echoes of what they once were.

In November, an international coalition created to prevent the trade of rough diamonds that fuel conflict approved the unlimited export of stones from Marange, giving Mr. Mugabe even more incentive to consolidate the diamond wealth, primarily for himself and his allies, according to human rights groups and Western officials.

Now the people in these diamond towns, who have made their living smuggling stones from Marange since the fields were first tapped more than five years ago, say that the dangers presented by Mr. Mugabe’s forces and private security teams make it far too risky for them to sneak through the barbed-wire fences patrolled by soldiers, police officers and private security guards with attack dogs.

The result for places like this sleepy village of dirt roads, as well as for Manica, a more developed border town several hours north, has been a stripping of what little vibrancy and economic activity they had, legal or otherwise. Here in Espungabera, tucked in rolling green mountains, former smugglers have been left with little to do. The one nightclub in town has closed, and people pass their days playing snooker at one of several taverns.

“It has become a ghost city since last year,” said Ibraimo Mereia, 27, who made his last trip to Marange in April.

In the town of Manica, the days of foreign buyers and traders openly haggling over stones and inspecting them at local restaurants and businesses have given way to empty dining rooms. Former diamond smugglers can now be found plunging into deep holes, smeared with red clay, as they pan for gold on the edges of town.

The reduction in smuggling is the product of more than a security crackdown at Marange itself, Mozambican authorities said. After a meeting over the summer with Zimbabwean security officials, local authorities introduced measures to rein in the practice from the Mozambican side, said Belmiro Mutadiua, a spokesman for the provincial police of Manica, which is about the size of West Virginia and includes Espungabera.

Local authorities have increased the number of border guards and are training new ones, Mr. Mutadiua said. They also are relying more heavily on informants and doing intelligence work. Although he could not give an exact figure, Mr. Mutadiua said that the police had intercepted more shipments of minerals and stones than last year, including diamonds, emeralds and quartz.

Naturally, many here may not see the evaporation of their underground industry as a good thing.

More than half of Mozambique’s adults are below the poverty line, and the country is one of the 20 poorest in the world, according to Unicef. Many people survive on subsistence farming. The country’s mineral wealth — gold, copper and iron — is largely untapped. The narrow shoulders of busy highways are full of people walking miles for water from wells or food from fields. People nonchalantly balance bundles of branches, stuffed bags or other items on their heads as they walk.

But the police cannot worry about whether smuggling helped the economy, Mr. Mutadiua said.

“The smuggling of precious stones is illegal,” he said. “We are just doing our job.”