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JEWELLERY

Geneva jeweller tracks stolen sapphire to US

When Geneva-based jeweller Ronny Totah received an offer last November to view a rare Kashmir sapphire set for auction with an asking price of up to $12 million, his jaw dropped.

Geneva jeweller tracks stolen sapphire to US
Missing sapphire was on a bracelet made by Cartier, the luxury brand owned by Geneva-based company Richemont. Photo: AFP

The large glimmering blue sapphire pictured in the prospective from the Phillips auction house was, he was convinced, a gem his company once owned before it was audaciously snatched from a Milan hotel nearly two decades earlier.
   
“I looked at the certificate, and I had this feeling. I said to myself: 'That's it. That's it',” he told AFP in an interview.
   
The story reads like the plot of a mystery novel, with a multitude of twists and turns, a second disappearance and an as yet unresolved ending centred around a New York pawn shop.
   
It all started in 1996, when the Horovitz & Totah (H&T) jewellers had offered for auction a Cartier bracelet bearing a stunning 65.16-carat unheated Kashmir sapphire with an unusual elongated cushion-cut.
   
On November 14th that year, days before the anticipated sale in Geneva focused exclusively on Cartier jewels, auction house Antiquorum displayed the pieces at the Four Seasons hotel in Milan.
   
According to Swiss daily Le Temps, more than 50 people were in the viewing room when the bracelet, the main attraction of the show, vanished.

 'A shock' 

“It was terrible,” Totah said.

“It is always a shock when you get robbed.”
   
H&T's insurers dished out the $1.8 million — the price they had expected to fetch at the time — and Totah and his colleagues put the uncomfortable incident behind them.
   
Until November 8th 2015, when he received an email from Phillips offering a Geneva viewing of a 59.57-carat Kashmir Sapphire ahead of an auction in New York.
   
Totah did not view the stone, but studied the certificate carefully.
   
Considering “there are basically no stones with this origin, weight and shape out there . . . it is “very, very, very probably” the stolen H&T sapphire, he said.
   
The fact that the gem in the prospectus was a little smaller than the one stolen 19 years earlier did not make Totah less suspicious, since jewel thieves will often file down a stone to alter its weight or shape.
   
He suggested the sapphire being offered by Phillips had been filed down to just under the 60-carat mark to make it less spectacular and noteworthy.
   
Renowned US gem expert Donald Palmieri agreed.
   
“The Stolen H&T Sapphire and the Subject Sapphire that Phillips intended to auction are much more likely than not to be one and the same stone, albeit after an apparent re-cutting or re-polishing,” he said in an affidavit.
   
He pointed out that in his 45-year career, “I have never seen evidence of a faceted Kashmir sapphire approaching or exceeding 60 carats in weight,” besides those “two” stones.
   
Soon after receiving the viewing invitation, Totah contacted Phillips to voice his suspicions, and also put in a call to his insurers, who had become the rightful owners of the stolen gem.
   
But when the insurers contacted Phillips, they learned that the auction house had withdrawn the sapphire from the sale, and sent it back to its alleged, undisclosed owner in New York.

 Pawn broker 

Worried the stone had vanished again, the insurers hired New York lawyer Owen Carragher to help track it down.
   
According to court filings, he determined that a company named Auction House 43, based in New York's diamond district, had presented the sapphire to Phillips for auction.
   
The firm is owned by a Boris Aronov, who also owns a number of other companies, including Modern Pawn Broker, listed at the same address.
   
Court filings indicate that the pawn broker received the sapphire and other jewels from a man named Rafael Koblence in 2011 as collateral for a $3.75-million loan.
   
Koblence, who according to Le Temps is in fact a business partner of Aronov, failed to repay the loan, offered at an annual interest rate of 60 percent — or more than $6,000 a day.
   
Modern Pawn foreclosed and said his collateral would be sold at auction, court documents showed.
   
Carragher obtained a court order on December 23 calling for Modern Pawn to turn over the sapphire for examination and blocking “the defendants from transferring, selling, altering or in any way disposing of” the stone.
   
Modern Pawn has until January 29th to oppose that order.
   
When an AFP reporter recently visited the small, brightly lit shop on a stretch of 47th Street lined with jewellery stores, staff politely declined to answer questions due to the ongoing lawsuit.

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JEWELLERY

Marie Antoinette pendant fetches $36 million, shattering estimate

A pearl and diamond pendant owned by Marie Antoinette before she was beheaded during the French Revolution sold for $36 million at an auction on Wednesday, shattering its pre-sale estimate of up to $2 million.

Marie Antoinette pendant fetches $36 million, shattering estimate
The pearl and diamond pendant were the centrepiece of Wednesday's auction. Photo: AFP

The Sotheby's auction at an ultra-luxurious hotel on the banks of Lake Geneva saw feverish bidding for a 10-piece collection owned by the ill-fated queen, featuring jewels unseen in public for two centuries.

The 10 items, which had been estimated to fetch a total of roughly $3 million, sold for a combined sum of nearly $43 million, Sotheby's said.

The 'Queen Marie Antoinette Pearl' (C) with other jewellery from the 'Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family' collection. Photo: AFP

A diamond brooch pegged to go for roughly $80,000 (70,000 euros) sold for $1.75 million, excluding fees, one of several pieces that brought in more than 20 times its estimated worth. 

But the highlight was the pendant featuring an oval diamond and drop-shaped pearl, which Sotheby's said went to an anonymous, private buyer, without giving further details.

Read also: 'Incomparable' $50-million pink diamond smashes record at Geneva auction

Sotheby's also said the pendant set a new record price for a pearl jewel sold at auction.

“Marie Antoinette's pendant is simply irreplaceable and the price it fetched is about far more than the gem itself,” Eddie LeVian, the chief executive of jewellers Le Vian, said in a statement.

“It captures everyone's imagination,” he added.

“This is the ultimate proof, if it were needed, that the world's ultra high net worth individuals love rare, natural fancy coloured diamond and pearls jewels as investments, and especially those with royal provenance.”

Journey through Europe

Marie Antoinette's treasures were the centrepieces of a sale featuring 100 jewels held by the Italian royal House of Bourbon-Parma. 

Sotheby's, which had billed the event as one of the most important royal jewellery auctions in history, said the night did not disappoint. 

The 100 lots earned a total of $53.1 million – compared to a pre-sale estimate of $4.2 million – a performance that bested a previous record set in 1987 when Sotheby's sold a collection of jewel's once held by the House of Windsor.  

Marie Antoinette, who historians say was reviled by much of the French public over her lavish spending in the midst of a national financial crisis, was guillotined in Paris in October 1793 at the age of 37. 

After her death, her jewels followed a winding path highlighting European power dynamics in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

According to accounts written by the queen's lady-in-waiting, Madame Campan, Marie Antoinette spent an entire evening in the Tuileries Palace wrapping all her diamonds, rubies and pearls in cotton and enclosing them in a wooden chest.

They were sent to Brussels, governed by her sister Archduchess Marie-Christine, before being sent on to the French queen's native Austria, and into the safe-keeping of her nephew, the emperor.

In 1792, the royal family was imprisoned in Paris. The king and queen were executed the next year, and their 10-year-old son died in captivity.

Only their daughter, Marie Therese of France, survived. She was sent to Austria in 1796, where she was given her mother's jewels.

She had no children herself, but passed on the treasures to her niece and adopted daughter, Louise of France, Duchess of Parma, who in turn left them to her son, Robert I (1848-1907), the last ruling Duke of Parma.

They have been privately owned by relatives ever since.

Read also: Nine top celebrity hotspots in Switzerland