Going, Going, Gone: Where, What & How To Buy Jewellery At Auction

Words by Sophie Stevens

5 min read

Have you ever considered bidding for vintage jewels or one-off gems? Here, jewellery specialist at Sotheby’s Dubai, Sophie Stevens, offers her guide to browsing and bidding at a jewellery auction

Imagine turning up to your wedding donning a Fabergé tiara created in 1903 for a Prussian Crown Princess. Or offsetting a casual jeans and t-shirt outfit with a sapphire and diamond Art Deco bracelet crafted by Cartier in their Parisian workshops during the 1930s. These are the type of treasures that can be snapped up at auction houses around the globe, worlds apart from the offerings of retail stores (and often way below retail prices). 

Diamond tiara, attributed to Fabergé, circa 1903. Sold for US$ 434,346, Sotheby’s Geneva, 2019

Simply put, many of the jewels offered at auction are unique pieces, whether they’re from a bygone era and no longer made today, by modern designers who limit their collections, or set with some of the world’s rarest and most beautiful gemstones. So what are the key features to look for when browsing an auction sale? Below are just some of today’s best buys guaranteed to create a knockout jewellery collection. 

The CTF Pink Star, a 59.60-carat Fancy Vivid Pink diamond, a world auction record for any diamond or jewel, sold for US$ 71.2million, Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 2017

Coloured Diamonds
With the Gemological Institute of America estimating that only one in 10,000 diamonds boasts a fancy colour, coloured diamonds are amongst the rarest gems on the planet. Some are rarer than others; the impending closure of the Argyle mine in Australia, for example, has made pink diamonds particularly sought after, with the 59.60-carat CTF Pink Star diamond becoming the most expensive gem ever auctioned when it sold for $71.2million in 2017. 

The Sunrise Ruby, weighing 25.59 carats and mounted by Cartier, sold for $30.3million, Sotheby’s Geneva, 2015

Untreated Coloured Gemstones
The vast majority of coloured gems on the market today have been treated in some way to improve their colour and clarity. Untreated stones are therefore much rarer, with top quality rubies, sapphires and emeralds commanding some jaw-dropping prices at auction. In 2015, the Sunrise Ruby – a 25.59-carat unheated Burmese ruby mounted in a ring by Cartier – became the first coloured gemstone to break the $1million per carat mark at auction, when it sold for $30.3million.

jewellery at auction

Selection of jewels by Salvador Dalí, sold at Sotheby’s New York, 2019

Artist Jewels
Bridging the gap between the art and jewellery worlds are pieces by artists and designers such as Pablo Picasso and Charles de Temple. In December 2019 Sotheby’s New York featured a group of mind-bending jewels by surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who first began designing jewellery in 1941, which all fetched beyond their high estimates at the auction.

jewellery at auction

Gem-set and diamond “Zip” necklace and earring demi-parure by Van Cleef & Arpels, 1950s, sold for US$ 506,554, Sotheby’s Geneva, 2018

Signed Vintage Jewellery
Classic jewels by the top houses including Cartier, Bulgari and Harry Winston are heavily sought after – particularly pieces from key historical periods such as the Art Deco or Retro eras. Many of these designs are replicated by the Maisons today, so original vintage jewels such as a 1950s “Zip” necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels, or one of the first Cartier “Love” bracelets created by Aldo Cipullo in 1970, demonstrate ultimate collector know-how.

jewellery at auction

Gold and malachite “Alhambra” sautoir by Van Cleef & Arpels, sold for US$ 18,500, Sotheby’s Geneva, 2020

Contemporary Designs
In addition to ongoing popular collections from the leading jewellery houses (think Van Cleef’s Alhambra or Boucheron’s Serpent Bohème), one-of-a-kind jewels from the worlds most exclusive contemporary designers occasionally find their way to auction. Jewellers including Joel Arthur Rosenthal (JAR) and Cindy Chao combine stunning design with technical savoir-faire in pieces set to become the heirlooms of tomorrow. 

jewellery at auction

Natural pearl and diamond pendant, formerly in the collection of Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, sold for US$ 36.2million, Sotheby’s Geneva, 2018

Sometimes we are lucky enough to know the story behind the jewels appearing at auction, which were once owned by some of the greatest collectors in history. While jewels with royal provenance can command a princely price tag (Marie Antoinette’s natural pearl pendant fetched a cool $36.2million in 2019), auctions can also offer pieces from noble dynasties, prominent philanthropic families, and celebrity owners. 

Top tips for buying jewellery at auction…

Don’t be shy: While there are jewels and gems that sell for millions of dollars, Sotheby’s range of live and online sales offer jewellery for a range of budgets, with pieces starting from as little as $1,000. 

Browse and try: Every auction is listed on Sotheby’s website a few weeks before the sale begins, with printed and PDF catalogues available alongside full condition reports. Live auctions have a pre-sale exhibition where pieces can be seen and tried on, often taking place in Sotheby’s international galleries (including Dubai).

Ask questions: Sotheby’s jewellery specialists are amongst the most experienced in the world and are on hand to advise clients about any pieces in the auctions and how to take part.

Bid: Once you have registered with Sotheby’s, bidding can be done in a number of ways from wherever you are in the world. If you cannot attend the auction in person, bids can be submitted online, over the telephone, or by leaving an absentee bid (the highest amount you would be willing to pay for a piece).  

Read Next: How iconic watches become heirloom investments 

Main image: Photographed by Luis Monteiro and styled by Natascha Hawke | For MOJEH 72