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The Amazing Art of Auctioneering
Q&A with Benoit Repellin, Head of Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewel Sales

Geneva / Paris
June, 2021

There has been a surge in the sale of fine jewels in these pandemic times, but the record-breaking sale price ever for a tiara touched $1,633,891 at a recent Sotheby’s Geneva auction. Given that this was no ordinary tiara, yet it takes the skill of a fine auctioneer to keep the bidding process exciting. Last month, Sotheby’s Geneva sale of Magnificent Jewels and Noble Jewels: Part I totalled $56 million, with participation from 38 countries. Estelle Arielle Bouchet spoke with the key man in charge at this auction, Benoit Repellin, Director – Head of Magnificent Jewels Sales, Specialist, Auctioneer – Geneva, who shares in detail the many aspects of what drives such sales and figures.

Estelle Arielle Bouchet : You are at the Head of Magnificent Jewel Sales for the illustrious  Sotheby’s Auctions House, please share which assessment criteria validate the appellation of  “Magnificent Jewel”? Is there a hierarchy in these criteria as signature, history, rarity or eventually others?

Benoit Repellin: We have two types of jewellery auctions which fall under the titles “Fine Jewels” and “Magnificent Jewels”. Our Magnificent Jewels auctions happen twice a year in each main selling location: New York, Hong Kong and Geneva. Geneva is the flagship of our Magnificent Jewels sales in Europe. Our Fine Jewels sales are held in the three locations already mentioned and also in Paris, London and Milan.

When a specialist values a jewel, he looks indeed at different criteria and characteristics. I usually say that there are three main criteria: Nature, Art and Provenance.

“Nature” meaning the quality of the stones used in the jewellery piece. The diamonds are studied according to the “4 Cs”: Cut, Colour, Clarity and Carat weight. For coloured stones, the origin of the gem and the absence of treatment are very important to determine the value.

Then “Art” would refer to the quality of the jewel itself, the craftmanship, the date, the era of the jewel, the maker, the signature.

Finally “Provenance” is the history of the piece: who were the previous owners? An important or famous provenance can impact greatly the final price at auction. Sotheby’s inaugurated the “Noble Jewels” sales in 2007, which are part of our “Magnificent Jewels” auctions in Geneva twice a year – mid-May and mid-November. An aristocratic provenance can attract clients, collectors and


connoisseurs who are paying attention to the provenance and history of a piece. Since the start of these auctions almost 15 years ago, these noble jewels sale have performed extremely well, with over 94% of the jewels offered sold, and 80% of the lots sold achieving prices beyond the pre-sale high estimate.

When we have determined the estimate of the jewel, we decide which sale the jewel would best perform. Sotheby’s, as an auction house, is acting on behalf of the seller and tries to achieve the best final price for the client. A piece with an important provenance, with an interesting signature, an iconic design, an important gemstone would be featured in a “Magnificent Jewels” sale. There is also a matter of estimates, pieces over 50,000 USD would be considered for a Magnificent Jewels sale, but it is not a rule, some pieces below this value would perform better in a magnificent sale, and others above this mark would be better suited to a Fine Jewels sale.

Through your own experience which law dominates this category of Auctions, the one of the Market or the one of the emotion? Or eventually both?
There is no rule at auction to determine the reason for a purchase! Each client has their own motive and reason to buy a piece. But indeed, the market can determine the final price; clients who are looking for an investment or a “good buy” will consider the previous results at auction, the prices of the diamonds, the quality of the item, the “resell” value. But there is also, as you mentioned, an important emotional factor. If a client is looking for a gift for a special occasion, if there is a bidding battle and once one starts, it is difficult to stop! Or when there is an interesting provenance, the emotion very often takes over the intrinsic value. A jewel is one of the most personal objects someone owns. The owner wears it, on their skin, close to their heart. There is often a meaning, it reminds the wearer a precious souvenir, an important moment, a beloved one. Jewels are often said to “reflect the soul”, and clients understand this emotional part.

According to you, which anecdotes or examples could illustrate this previous question ?

There are a lot of examples which could illustrate this statement. Sometimes, one needs to start the bidding for the price to go to the sky. Clients can wait to see if there is competition on a lot and if several clients are bidding, then a “battle” can start and end on a very high note. Statistics show that each additional client entering the bidding competition can drive the price up by 20%. Provenance, as I mentioned, is also a great factor to generate competition during the auction. The sale of the Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family in November 2018 in Geneva is the perfect illustration of the importance of the provenance. The auction was a “white glove” sale, which means 100% of the lots offered were sold. The top lot was a natural pearl and diamond pendant which belonged to Queen Marie-Antoinette, the most famous queen of France and probably even of the world. The estimate was between 1 and 2 million USD and it sold after a wonderful and fascinating bidding battle for 36 million USD, setting a world auction record price for a pearl jewel and an antique jewel. The previous record for a pearl jewel was set by the Peregrina, from the Royal Spanish Collection and then the collection of Elizabeth Taylor, that sold for 11.8 million USD. The provenance of the Queen of France has surpassed the famous Hollywood star!

 In terms of investment is it more relevant to buy a modern piece or a vintage one ?

Modern pieces or antique ones have different appeal. A client can decide to go for exceptional gemstones, coloured diamonds, D Flawless diamonds for example, and for these categories, most of the pieces appearing on the market are modern jewels. But there is, with no doubt, an attraction and a premium for signed vintage pieces. An important Cartier Art Deco pendant dated 1927 and from a Indian noble collection or a fine ruby and diamond brooch by Chaumet from a year later will definitely catch the eye of the collectors.

More and more, jewellery is also considered as a collectible category, the same way as paintings, sculpture, and other fine art. Traditionally, the Hong Kong sales offered modern pieces, exceptional gemstones and jadeite, and Europe was the place where vintage and historic jewellery collections were offered for sale. But we now see an interest on the evolution of the jewels, the history of jewellery, the brands, etc., coming from all around the world. Some Asian clients are building very important jewellery collections illustrating the evolution of style, emphasizing the provenance and the jewellery Maisons. Last year, an exhibition called Awaken: Royal Jewellery Arts from Renaissance to the 20th Century took place at Shenzhen in China and showcased nearly 200 royal treasures and historic jewels.

The  actual pandemic does not seem to affect the results of the last Sotheby’s auctions  instead it reflects a huge interest for this kind of investment ? How do you explain that ?

High jewellery market is indeed very resilient, as seen in the past during previous Mondial crises. Diamonds, gemstones and jewels have always been considered as safe placement and investment. Sotheby’s had been increasingly moving towards a more digitalised format in recent years, and we were therefore ready to face the challenge despite the travel restrictions or the closed exhibition spaces. Our website has seen an increased number of connections and our new format has attracted a broader and younger audience.

How do you see the future and could you tell us about the coming auctions ?

As I mentioned before, we have our Magnificent Jewels sales in three main selling locations. The next one will be held in New York on 9 June, followed by Hong Kong in July and October, November in Geneva, and finally ending the year in New York in December.

Our Fine Jewels sales will take place in New York and London in June, Geneva and Paris in July, and we will have a thematic sale around Fauna and Flora jewellery in September in Geneva.

In the context we know what about the future of Jewellery market- or demand ?

I wish I knew how the market will evolve! But I can imagine constant demand and interest for jewellery and gemstones. The jewels have been collected and coveted for centuries, and even over thousands of years, so I don’t think the appeal of these works of art and wonder of nature will disappear any time soon.

All images courtsey Sotheby’s
Queen Nazli Collar – courtsey Van Cleef & Arpels

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