“Hey buddy, you need some help? Some directions?” a hustler outside a diamond district boutique asked a slightly disoriented man last Friday morning. The man, who had just exited the Rockefeller Center subway stop, blinked in the winter sun and shook his head, apparently not in the mood to buy any diamonds.
For that reason, among others, he was different from the crowd at Christie’s, which that same morning swarmed the auction house’s exhibition halls for a press-and-buyers only viewing of the Elizabeth Taylor jewelry collection. The place was jam-packed, and not with journalists.
Ever walked by Tiffany’s this time of year? It was like that, but for the galatically wealthy. The bulk of the most impressive, and expensive, jewelry was confined to three of Christie’s ground-floor galleries, and at any given time one third of any case you examined was empty, cleared away by a specialist with a jewelry drawer, who might discretely place a catalogue on top of half-million dollar necklace.
And somehow those rooms were endearing! On-hand experts told stories. This is the set of bizarrely oriental ear pendants that Richard Burton bought her for becoming a grandmother. The pearl at the center of this necklace was discovered in 1582 and owned by eight kings of Spain. These earrings were originally costume jewelry until Mike Todd, as a surprise, had them remade in real diamond.
These rooms also contained dresses, among them the two she wore when she married Richard Burton. One was a breezy yellow number, and the other green with single feathers attached by strips of leather. How quirky, for a wedding! What a free spirit!
Until you visited the upstairs galleries dedicated to her clothing and realized that she just dressed like that all the time. (It’s a chicken-and-egg situation as to whether or not all grandparents are trying to dress like Elizabeth Taylor or if Elizabeth Taylor simply started dressing like a grandparent very early in her life—regardless, the place looked like a pricey boutique in Boca Raton.) The Transom’s guide, the tactful young press representative Gabriel, pointed to an outfit and told us the designer was “obviously, very into turbans.” The most endearing attraction up there was a huge pile of Louis Vuitton luggage, each with a Taylor-penned three-by-five index card labeling it “Mine,” which is really only so endearing. They threw everything else into a room near the exit. Tackier Jacko gifts, New Age crystals, her Oscars—the works. It was worth visiting for a poster of Bob Dylan, signed in purple ink, that began “To Liz, sweetheart, dream angel, queen of the world” and flirted in verse for a paragraph before ending “keep your spirits up darling/ life is not a grandstand play/ I won’t divide myself up in too many pieces/ you won’t let me/ Love forever, Bob.” (Maybe he wasn’t kidding in “I Shall Be Free” when he fantasized, “I make love to Elizabeth Taylor …Catch hell from Richard Burton!”)
We were shown out by a four-foot quote from Andy Warhol painted on the wall: “Ohhhh, Elizabeth Taylor, ohhhh. She is so glamorous.”
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