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Bejeweled History

For a Century, Van Cleef & Arpels Has Been Creating Distinctive Jewelry for the Rich and Famous
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

It was a simple little brooch made of sapphires and diamonds, arranged to symbolize the flag of Argentina, but it had a unique provenance: it was originally owned by Eva Perón, the charismatic wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón and a political force herself. Its estimated presale value was $80,000 to $120,000, but what was it worth as a piece of history, a relic of a bygone era? On April 6, 1998, the spectators at Christie's auction house in New York soon found out.

The onlookers could tell that something was afoot. How else to explain a regiment of Spanish-language television cameras arrayed along one wall of the auction gallery? All eyes were riveted to a striking blonde who arrived with an entourage just before the lot went on the block. She was all business--and she wanted that brooch.

But it soon became apparent that she had competition. Matching her, bid for bid, was an invisible telephone bidder. The scene resembled a tennis match: first the audience looked toward the blonde as she offered a bid, then its attention shifted to the telephone to wait for the counteroffer.

The presale estimate went by in a flash. After $500,000, it began to get interesting. Who would give in?

The bidding went past $600,000, then $700,000, then $800,000. Who was this anonymous bidder giving the blonde such a run for her money?

The crowd was on the blonde's side and groaned in unison every time the phone bidder upped the ante by another $20,000. When the invisible bidder offered $900,000, the blonde had had enough. Before her entourage knew what was happening, she was on her feet and, with an angry toss of her head, had stormed out of the gallery. The price for the brooch, including buyer's premium, was $992,500.

Who was willing to spend that kind of money for a piece of jewelry that represented Argentine history? Clearly, only two people had the desire to push the price of the brooch through the stratosphere.

There was the underbidder, Susana Gimenez, a top TV star in Argentina, who had flown from Buenos Aires specifically for the sale. And there was the successful bidder, who, according to the auction house, was a "private American male collector of historical objects."

Though Christie's has stood by this identification since the sale, last April, it never really made much sense. The person who played the role of purchaser of the brooch is the most fitting candidate: Madonna, onetime portrayer of Eva Perón in Evita, the film about her brief, theatrical life.

But perhaps the real winner was not Madonna but the maker of the brooch, Van Cleef & Arpels of New York. This little piece of jeweled history exemplified two of the famous firm's strengths: its mastery of the invisible-setting technique and its relationship with the most famous people of the day.


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