Behind the Gavel: Meet Dianne Batista of Rago/Wright Auctions

The senior specialist and director of fine jewelry and watches talks about her evolution from art history student to in-house jewel expert.

December 5, 2023  |  Sonia Esther Soltani

When and how did you fall in love with jewelry?

I studied art history and thought I would become a fine-art specialist. However, I started at Christie’s in the jewelry department. I remember the moment precisely, when I was sitting at work sorting through a large assortment of jewelry that arrived as part of an estate and I picked up a piece of revivalist jewelry by [19th-century jeweler Carlo] Giuliano and was amazed at the enamel work, combined with the colored gems and artistry.

Then I picked up a piece of Castellani jewelry and was interested in the granulation and wirework. From then on, I knew I was in the right place. I love the idea of art in miniature and the combination of art and science (gemology). I am also intrigued by what we create from natural elements.

What was your first role as a jewelry expert in the auction world?

I started my jewelry career at Christie’s, where I rose up through the ranks during my 10 years there. When I left as a senior specialist, I wanted to explore other areas of the jewelry world — luxury brand retail and marketing especially.

Can you tell us more about your current role at Rago/Wright?

In 2019, with the merger of Rago and Wright auction houses, I joined as director of jewelry. We have since merged with LA Modern Auctions and Toomey & Co. to become a truly national brand. We had three jewelry auctions a year when I joined, and now we have at least 10. It’s a very exciting time. In addition, we have added watches. Our auctions are now curated with a focus on design for both jewelry and watches.

What have been the most memorable jewels or collections to bring to auction?

This is a difficult question, and I have been privileged to bring so many exceptional collections to auction. There are individual pieces that continue to bring a smile when I see them out in the world. A specific Tiffany yellow orchid brooch that now graces the cover of [the book] Bejewelled by Tiffany by Clare Phillips was one exciting discovery.

More recently, discovering pieces from the engraved gem collection of [Polish nobleman] Prince Poniatowski and offering a David Webb brooch gifted by [former Cosmopolitan editor] Helen Gurley Brown to Hearst editor Ellen Levine are this season’s highlights.

I love the idea of art in miniature and the combination of art and science (gemology). I am also intrigued by what we create from natural elements.

Who have been your role models?

Early in my career, I was guided by a few old-world New York City diamond and jewelry dealers. They were generous in their teachings and welcoming me into their world, which can be a mystery for many. I think of them often and try to pass on that generosity of teaching.

How do you see the auction world evolving in terms of collectors and opportunities?

Auctions have changed tremendously. The digital age has brought more and more people into the market, and the offerings have diversified. At Rago/Wright, we chapter our auctions and love offering artist jewelry and studio art jewelry along with fine-jewelry houses [like] Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, Buccellati, etc. I think we need to continue to welcome new and young buyers and offer our expertise in the field of collecting and repurposing jewelry.

Is there a piece of jewelry you wish you could have bought from all the ones you handled?

There is not one specific piece. In each auction, there are two or three pieces that really speak to me. I enjoy living with them for a couple of months and then seeing them off to new homes. [From the November 29 Holiday Jewels & Luxury] auction, the Angela Cummings bracelet, the Helen Gurley Brown David Webb brooch, and the Burle Marx aquamarine ring suit me!

What advice would you give someone interested in an auction career?

Don’t be shy. Meet the specialists, attend the viewings, ask questions and find a mentor. Read, read, read. Becoming a graduate gemologist is a start, but learning about the history and periods of jewelry design and the makers is extremely important.

Main image: (from left) Dianne Batista; David Webb brooch with sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds. (Rago/Wright Auctions)

This article is from the November-December 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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