MANHATTAN (CN) – Three trustees tasked with selling off Elizabeth Taylor’s prized jewels took Christie’s to court Thursday, accusing the storied auction house of fumbling the sale of one diamond worth $8.8 million and keeping the proceeds of a $2.9 million Bulgari ring.
Barbara Berkowitz, Timothy Mendelson and Quinn Tivey say they entered into the consignment agreement with Christie’s shortly after Taylor’s death on March 23, 2011.
Taylor’s passion for jewelry was legendary, and the complaint notes that the two-part sale of her collection — in New York in December 2011 and in London the following February — attracted buyers from around the world.
Among various gems, clothing and artwork up for sale were an emerald and diamond ring by Bulgari and a diamond pendant called the “Taj Mahal,” said to have been bought at Cartier by the actor Richard Burton and given to Taylor on her 40th birthday in 1972.
Though Christie’s sold the Taj Mahal necklace for nearly $9 million, the May 11 complaint in Manhattan Supreme Court stems from Christie’s efforts to cancel the sale.
Insisting that Christie’s voided the sale unreasonably, the trustees have refused to return the proceeds. They say the diamond’s anonymous buyer has balked because the diamond did not previously belong to Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor from the 1600s.
But the trustees note that the description of the diamond in the catalogue used only the words “Indian diamond” to avoid any confusion.
If representatives of Christie’s went beyond that language while discussing the diamond’s history in public appearances, the trustees say “these additional representations did not change the binding nature of the conditions of sale.”
The trustees note that such statements were outside their control, but that “Christie’s took no responsibility for its role in causing the cancellation of the sale.”
“Despite facing no credible threat of legal liability, Christie’s nonetheless rescinded the sale of the diamond,” the complaint states. “In doing so, Christie’s not only deviated from its usual business practices and its own established policies, but it violated its obligations to the trust, all in an effort to appease the buyer, an important client of Christie’s.”
A representative for Christie’s meanwhile disputed the trust’s claims.
“Both parties believe the other owes them money as a result of the auction,” the spokesperson said. “We have been discussing this matter for some time, and the trust apparently decided to cease discussions and instead pursued legal action without notice. Christie’s believes it is unfortunate that this issue cannot be resolved through mediation, especially given the success of the sale held for the trust’s benefit.”
Another section of Thursday’s complaint accuses Christie’s of using the Bulgari ring “to strong-arm the trust” into cooperating with the return of the Taj Mahal diamond.
“After misleading the trust for months about the status of the Bulgari ring, Christie’s finally admitted that it had received payment for the sale of the Bulgari Ring, $2,900,000 of which was owed the trust,” the complaint states. “Christie’s, however, refused to pay the trust’s share from the sale of the Bulgari ring unless the trust refunded the proceeds from the sale of the diamond.”
The trustees say their consignment agreement plainly requires Christie’s to remit payment for the Bulgari ring. Instead, according to the complaint, “Christie’s has intentionally and inappropriately held hostage the money owed to the trust for the Bulgari ring in an effort to increase its leverage in the dispute over the Diamond.”
Christie’s sold at least five more items at auction but failed to remit payment to the trust, the complaint states. Those items are a Ciner necklace set, Girandole ear clips, a tulle evening gown, a Vicky Tiel caftan and a Valentino bag.
The complaint also accuses Christie’s of failing to remit payment from the sale of the exhibition tickets, specialty catalogs, or the 27 copies of a Taylor memoir that she had signed before her death.
Demanding an accounting and punitive damages, the trustees allege conversion, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. They are represented by Philip Robben with Kelley Drye & Warren.