Lisa Hubbard held the gavel in her hand at Sotheby’s in New York last November when the bidding for Bunny Mellon’s 9.75-carat fancy vivid blue diamond hit a record-breaking $25m.
Two bidders remained and were submitting their bids by phone. Ms Hubbard sensed the need for a change of pace. “We were in uncharted territory so I wanted to give them time to consider and to go up in more palatable increments.”
Ms Hubbard, chairman of North and South America for Sotheby’s international jewellery division, dropped the bid increases from $1m to $500,000 and — after a nail-biting 20 minutes — reached a final price of $32.6m, breaking two world records. It was the highest price paid for a blue diamond and, at $3.35m per carat, the record price per carat for any diamond. It also helped Sotheby’s set a company record of $603m in total jewellery sales for the third consecutive year.
Ms Hubbard’s calmness under pressure and ability to read her audience has developed over a long and varied career at the auction house. She joined in 1977, initially in catalogue production, before focusing on the jewellery department as an ideal place to learn her craft. “Jewellery was a place you could learn on the job,” she says.
After stints in New York and Los Angeles, she became the first woman auctioneer in Asia and the Middle East and has presided over the sales of private collections, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s in 1997.
On 21 April, she will be applying her experience to the sale of a 100.2-carat, D colour, internally flawless diamond at Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction in New York. She describes the rare, emerald-cut stone, which has a presale estimate of $19m-$25m, as a Manhattan-worthy “skyscraper of a rock”.
The soaring prices achieved by rare diamonds in recent years is, she says, a reflection of their objective investment value and an equally powerful, subjective response to their beauty.
She says: “A diamond is a tangible asset with a value that can be measured . . . But first and foremost it is an object of beauty. Do you need it? No. Do you want it? Yes of course.”
Ms Hubbard has witnessed dramatic changes to the auction room. Cross-bidding from one region to another was once unusual but today, thanks to the ease of access to information and the ability to bid by phone or online, this has become commonplace. “It’s a global sale place now,” she explains.
Magnificent Jewels is among the first auctions to be offered on the new Sotheby’s/eBay platform, which both companies hope will attract new customers.
Already fielding bidders in the room, on the phone and on Sotheby’s’ existing online bidding platform, Ms Hubbard says adding another channel does not change the auctioneer’s role much: “You just play to the camera as well as the room. I nudge them like I do the buyers I can see.”
While interested parties can view images and information wherever they are, the auctioneer says the considerable costs of sending lots on tour internationally still pays off: “It’s all about the play of light about the stone. Photography alone does not capture what it is truly there. People feel it when they see it, it speaks to them.”
Ms Hubbard divides her time between visiting clients and her offices in Los Angeles and New York. Travel drew her to Sotheby’s. After completing a masters degree in international relations at the University of Southern California, she says: “I looked around for something that would satisfy my wanderlust and, with 35 offices worldwide, it sounded interesting.”
In 1985, an offer from Sotheby’s’ head of Chinese works of art to sell a number of jadeite pieces prompted one of the most satisfying periods of her career. Determining that they would achieve the highest price if auctioned in China, where the stone is deeply revered, she organised the company’s first dedicated jadeite sale in Hong Kong: “It was the beginning of a great adventure for me.”
She went on to handle regular Hong Kong sales as the Asian market opened up in the 1980s before moving there and becoming the director of international jewels for the region from 1993-1997. Asia was not then the economic juggernaut it is today, and she was able to both work and take the time to get to know clients.
However, time is not a luxury afforded to people starting out today: “Now the stakes are so high, there’s no room for that experience. Young people need to hit the ground running.”
The jadeite set she sold at that first auction achieved $366,000, a good price at the time, but nothing compared with the $27.4m Cartier paid for the Hutton-Mdivani necklace at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last year. The sale broke the world auction record for any jadeite jewel and for any non-diamond jewel, its provenance adding considerable value Ms Hubbard says. Fashioned by the French house from jadeite beads believed to be from the Qing court, the necklace combines Chinese prestige with the captivating story of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, who received it as a wedding gift in 1933.
While the value of provenance is hard to calculate, it can add a great deal to the final sum if the person and the timing are right. “I was one of the auctioneers for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. There was intrinsic value in the items but it was really all about the provenance. We could have been selling scraps of paper.”
Ms Hubbard believes the challenge for jewellery auctions today is finding stones and jewels worthy of the growing audience of sophisticated collectors. With supplies dwindling for coloured diamonds, other coloured gems and natural pearls, prices will rise.
Jewellery is now displayed in museums, such as last year’s Cartier’s at Paris’s Grand Palais and JAR at the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibitions, and Ms Hubbard says another of her goals has been achieved: “I’ve spent most of my career trying to convince people that jewellery is wearable art. It is now getting the attention it deserves.”
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