Christie’s sued over blockbuster Elizabeth Taylor auction

Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor’s love affair with jewelry has turned sour.

The trustees of the legendary movie star’s estate have filed a lawsuit against Christie’s Auction House over what they say was “unreasonable, bad faith, and self-serving conduct” in its handling of the 2011 sale of her personal possessions.

In a lawsuit filed today with New York’s Supreme Court, the trustees — which include Taylor’s grandson, Quinn Tivey, her personal lawyer, Barbara Berkowitz, and her personal assistant, Timothy Mendelson — accuse the auction house of withholding money they say they are owed. In total, the sale fetched nearly $116 million, according to Christie’s auction data.

The primary dispute in the lawsuit concerns the sale of Taylor’s Taj Mahal diamond. A gift to Taylor from Richard Burton, the diamond sold for more than $8.8 million at the auction (according to Christie’s original catalog, it was only expected to fetch $300,000-$500,000). The suit claims that there was some doubt about whether the diamond was once owned by the Shah Jahan, which would make it considerably more valuable. Christie’s did not put in any of its literature that the diamond was owned by Jahan, but the trustees claims that Christie’s promoted the diamond as having that history in television appearances and at the auction itself.

The Taj Mahal diamond (credit: Christie’s)

The buyer of the diamond, whom the suit calls an “ongoing, highly valued customer of Christie’s,” discovered the diamond was not owned by Shah Jahan after the sale, and demanded his or her money back. The trustees claim that Christie’s had no legal reason to make the return but did anyway in order to appease this “VIP customer” and then asked the trustees to pay back their portion of the money ($7.9 million).

The trustees say they have not paid back that money, but that Christie’s is now withholding $2.9 million it owes them for the sale of another lot, an emerald and diamond ring by Bvlgari that sold for more than $3.3 million. In addition, they claim there are five other items from the sale that are now unaccounted for, which include a necklace and ear clips by Ciner, silver-plated Girandole ear clips, a pink tulle evening gown, a Vicky Tiel navy caftan, and a Valentino brown fur evening bag.

The emerald and diamond Bulgari ring (credit: Christie’s)

The trustees are also accusing the auction house of withholding proceeds from the sales of books, catalogs and exhibition tickets, which were supposed to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF).

Through a spokesperson, Christie’s confirmed that it has been discussing these issues with the trustees for a while and that the lawsuit was served “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.”

Attorneys for the trust declined to comment.