Sentiment in the auction sector is upbeat ahead of the spring sales as the big houses plan to offer a wide variety of jewels and are benefiting from Hong Kong’s reopening.
A record-breaking ruby, the “most significant” pink diamond ever, and a collection amassed over years by an Austrian billionaire are expected to bring in strong prices at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. After a mixed autumn, market participants are cautiously optimistic that the April, May and June events will mark a rebirth of the bidding frenzies the industry enjoyed in the past.
“I think the opening of Hong Kong will have a positive effect,” says Jean Ghika, global director of jewelry for Bonhams. “We certainly saw that with our [recent] sale when we exhibited in Hong Kong. We had a huge amount of interest, and I think we had the highest registration that we’ve ever had for our New York auction.”
The renewed attraction for the auction scene follows a challenging second half of 2022, when a number of big-ticket items — such as the 5.53-carat blue from De Beers that Sotheby’s Geneva offered for $15 million in November — didn’t sell. Others just barely eked past their low estimates. At the time, experts chalked it up to two major factors: the closure of Hong Kong, where many of the buyers of these big stones are located, and market fatigue caused by a number of similar items hitting the block in succession.
Breaking the rut
During the fall auctions, three large blue diamonds from De Beers’ eight-piece collection went up for sale, as did a trifecta of fancy-pink diamonds above 10 carats. While the first of each color scored well above high estimates, the stones that followed fell flat, leading some in the industry to believe that presenting too many similar stones devalues them in buyers’ eyes, as it makes them appear less rare.
“We have more attractive merchandise prepared for [the upcoming Sotheby’s Hong Kong] event,” explains Wenhao Yu, chairman of jewelry and watches for Asia at Sotheby’s. “This auction is not one that we’ve been preparing for one week, or for two months. We have actually been preparing for this reopening for three years.”
For the spring auctions, the houses are adding variety, as well as featuring pieces that are returning to the auction block after making a huge splash in their first go-round.
In April, Sotheby’s Hong Kong will highlight the Pink Dawn, a 10.05-carat, fancy-vivid purplish-pink diamond ring with a high estimate of more than $21 million. The Algeiba Star, a 133-carat, vivid-yellow diamond necklace, has an upper price tag of $9 million.
The headline of the June New York sale is a 10.57-carat diamond that Sotheby’s calls the “most significant” pink ever to come to auction. The Eternal Pink is expected to go for more than $35 million and rival the per-carat price of the Williamson Pink Star, which sold for more than $57 million.
Meanwhile, Christie’s will present the estate of Austrian billionaire and art collector Heidi Horten at its Geneva sale in May. That group includes the Sunrise Ruby, a 25.59-carat, pigeon’s blood Burmese ruby ring by Cartier, which Sotheby’s previously sold for a record $30.4 million in Geneva in 2015. The complete collection Horten amassed includes 700 pieces estimated to fetch more than $150 million, eclipsing the next-highest collection by about $50 million.
Regardless of the jewelry offered, Quig Bruning, head of jewelry for the Americas at Sotheby’s, thinks the most important way to create interest and get people buying is to make sure the pieces don’t appear repetitive.
“I think that a lot of the focus this season is going to be on some significant color coming to the market,” he notes. “Our expectation is that there are major pieces that we are expecting to do quite well. The biggest thing with presenting these really important stones and jewels is that whatever they do, the market creates ways of differentiating them.”
Open for business
The long-term closure of Hong Kong’s borders has also taken a toll, as many of the buyers for large, fancy-color diamonds and special pieces come from mainland China and have been unable to travel to the municipality to see the stones.
“I think it’s important to note that the past few viewings in Hong Kong have not had any international visitors,” says Jonathan Abram, director at colored-diamond dealer Ronald Abram. “Now that Hong Kong has opened up, people are able to travel here, so that should create a lot more buzz and allow people to view the pieces in person, which makes a huge difference.”
Bruning agrees, noting that Hong Kong has historically been seen as the “nexus” of the jewelry trade in the Far East. The three-year closure of the municipality therefore impacted other Asian markets such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Korea.
“The reopening has to [make a big difference to demand],” he says. “What that specific difference is going to be, I’m not sure, but just the fact that there’s the availability and the openness to travel there is going to play a major role. We are certainly expecting that there is going to be much more engagement in the Far East, and that openness should lend itself to more people coming, more people viewing. And our hope is certainly that that will then translate to more transactions.”
However, Harsh Maheshwari, executive director of colored-stone dealer Kunming Diamonds, feels it’s possibly too early to see strong results given people are just starting to get back into the swing of things.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot of interest and inquiries, and a lot of people have come to view stones, but as to how much conversion we’re going to see, and if anything offered will break records, I’m not sure,” he states. “I do believe that it’s still going to take some time…but we will definitely see some really, really good interest, and sentiment is going to be positive, that’s for sure.”
While the others acknowledge this month’s Hong Kong jewelry fairs drew more interest than actual sales, they don’t think that trend will be reflected at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Yu believes the traffic at the shows was a positive sign of what’s to come, and notes that the company’s Hong Kong Luxury Edit sale in February had strong results. Meanwhile, Abram doesn’t see inflation, the rate of sales at the jewelry fairs, or the fact that the municipality only recently reopened as impediments.
“The buying [at the fairs] wasn’t quite as good as pre-pandemic levels, but it was better than a year ago,” he explains. “So it’s a good start, and there is interest, and privates are showing up in Hong Kong looking for high-value items. While inflation makes a difference to the 1% that buy those larger-value items, it doesn’t matter enough that they wouldn’t go after something they’re interested in. I’m quite optimistic that sentiment will also carry over to Geneva and New York, across the board, for the entire auction season.”
Main image: The Sunrise Ruby (left); the Algeiba Star, the Eternal Pink and the Pink Dawn (right, top to bottom). (Sotheby’s/Christie’s)