What You Need To Know About Jewellery Auctions

You might have heard of the jewellery auctioneer Bonhams and assumed it’s not for you. But auctions can be a clever, not to mention more sustainable, way to find unique jewellery – all of which has been vetted by some of the most-experienced experts in the field. Here, their expert team shares everything beginners need to know – plus, some juicy details about some of their most lucrative sales...

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Let’s start by understanding what Bonhams offers in terms of jewellery…

There are two types of sales at Bonhams – the regular, monthly ‘Knightsbridge Jewels’ sales, which feature lots with estimates ranging from £800-1,200 to £10,000-15,000, and our fine ‘London Jewels’ sales, where pieces are priced from £8,000-12,000 upwards. The latter takes place at our 101 New Bond Street HQ three times, annually. If you want to know what’s coming up, visit the auction calendar on our website to bookmark upcoming auctions, and sign up to receive our weekly email updates. 

What are the benefits of buying at auction?

Buying jewellery at auction can be a great alternative to retail. Prices are far more competitive for a start, and we cater to a larger range of budgets and a broader variety of tastes. Auctions have become a smart way to shop sustainably, too – our sales include antique jewellery from the 18th century and earlier, all the way to contemporary pieces by the likes of Cartier, Boodles and Tiffany.

What if you want to see something properly before taking the plunge?

Attending a pre-sale viewing is a great way to familiarise yourself with the pieces included in an auction. It’s the ideal opportunity to try on anything you’re interested in and consult a specialist in the field. We’re passionate about jewellery and can discuss everything – from the cut, colour, clarity and carat weight (the four Cs) of a diamond, to our opinions on pearls and coloured gemstones, and even the provenance of a specific period piece. 

Are there any good resources to help you research a piece before placing a bid?

The pieces we offer have already been rigorously vetted and researched by our specialists who are collectively very experienced and knowledgeable. But you can also speak to a specialist directly to find out more about any of the items and we also publish condition reports for everything, which are available on our auction pages. We also regularly publish collecting guides online which offer tips when it comes to collecting certain types of jewellery, like this recent guide on emeralds.

Do you have any tips for mastering the bidding process?

There are several ways to bid at auction – in the auction room where you raise your hand or paddle and engage directly with the auctioneer, via telephone where you will be talked through the process by a member of staff bidding on your behalf or you can leave your maximum bid beforehand and the auctioneer will execute it for you. You can also bid online in real time. We recommend setting a maximum figure and factoring in all the additional charges on top of the hammer price, including the buyer’s premium and tax. 

How has the pandemic changed the way auctions and bidding work?

It’s definitely accelerated the digitalisation of our auctions. For example, you can now bid online on a single lot in any Bonhams auction – roughly translated, you no longer have to go into the auction room or bid over the phone. We’ve seen a huge uptake in clients bidding online as they’ve realised how easy the process is. We recommend downloading the Bonhams app, which is the quickest and simplest way to register and bid online. 

What determines the price of a piece?

There are a number of factors we take into account when valuing something. These include the maker, the age of the piece, the quality and if there’s a particular provenance. In addition, a specialist will take the intrinsic value of the component parts into consideration. Age can sometimes determine the value, but there are other factors that also come into play, for example the quality and condition and whether the piece is signed by the maker. Sometimes, its provenance can also generate huge interest and add value to a certain piece.

Which pieces tend to command the highest prices?

In addition to antique and 20th century jewellery, contemporary pieces from the most recognisable collections by Bulgari, Boucheron, Boodles, Cartier, Tiffany and Van Cleef & Arpels are in high demand. In some cases, a designer name can be extremely important, and, in others, the addition of a maker’s mark or signature can double the value.

Are flaws always a bad thing?

As trained gemmologists, we usually find ‘flaws’ or any naturally occurring inclusions fascinating. They tell the history of the stone’s crystal formation and can form part of its character. They’re also useful identifying features – for example, they can provide indications of whether the stone is of natural origin and where it was originally mined. 

Are there any current trends worth looking out for?

There’s definitely been a revival in interest in colour, generally – specifically, coloured diamonds and coloured gemstones. We’re seeing particularly strong prices for coloured diamonds. There’s also a renewed appreciation for coloured gemstones, particularly if they’re exceptional quality. A fantastic example is the fine 10.04 carats Colombian emerald and diamond ring, by Bulgari in our London Jewels sale on 28th April. We’re also seeing interest in more unusual, coloured gemstones increasing, such as spinel. The landmark sale of the Hope Spinel in 2015 remains the world record price for a spinel at auction ($27,992 per carat). 

What are some of the other impressive sales you’ve seen recently?

In 2013, a sensational Fancy Deep-Blue diamond, weighing 5.30 carats, realised £6.2million ($1.8million per carat) at auction. This rare and precious gem attracted spirited bidding from around the world via 25 telephone lines, all competing against a packed-to-capacity sales room. A ring designed by the legendary British jeweller, Andrew Grima, set with a step-cut Fancy Grayish-Blue diamond also achieved £1.4million in 2015. Weighing 2.97 carats, the sale set a new world record price per carat for a Fancy Grayish-Blue diamond, as well as a new world record for a Grima jewel at auction. Also, we were honoured to sell a magnificent Fancy Pink diamond for £2,228,750 ($583,551 per carat) in 2018. It’s extremely rare to see a pink diamond weighing over 5.00 carats on the market, and it set a new world record per carat for a Fancy Pink diamond.

While we have you, we’ve heard you also hold dedicated handbags auctions… what designs or pieces tend to hold their value best?

The so-called ‘holy trinity’ design houses are Hermès, Chanel and Louis Vuitton – in that order. And then there are certain handbags that hold their value the best: the Hermès Kelly (launched during the early 20thth century), the Hermès Birkin (launched in 1984), the Chanel Classic 2.55 Flap bag (launched in 1955) and the Louis Vuitton Noe. 

These bags have been popular for generations, so they never go out of fashion. They also enjoy the biggest price hikes in the ‘primary’ market, meaning they keep their value better than limited edition pieces. At the same time, limited pieces such as artist collaborations, e.g. between Takashi Murakami and Louis Vuitton, have become increasingly collectible.

Are auctions only for vintage pieces, or do new pieces qualify, too? 

The majority of the items sold in our designer fashion and handbag auctions date from about the last 30 years or so, but many items are almost brand new. Generally speaking, the market is strongest for current pieces in great condition, however some vintage items can create a huge buzz – for example 1990s Chanel is fetching huge amounts at auction right now.  

What pieces create the biggest buzz? 

Handbags by Hermès such as the classic Kelly, Birkin and Constance bags regularly fetch five or even six figures at auction. They all have enduring style and are always popular and, in the case of the Kelly and Birkin, are not readily available to buy new. A stunning Matt Geranium Alligator Birkin 35 by Hermès achieved £25,062 in July last year. 

Tell us about some of your most exciting handbag sales…​

This year, we had an online sale dedicated entirely to Chanel. The sale featured over 200 items, 150 of which came from one single collector. The UK-based buyer had moved house and needed to streamline her incredible collection, which included handbags, costume jewellery and ready-to-wear fashion. Most of the items had never been worn, and all bought within the last 10 years or so – a truly stunning collection. A highlight from the sale was this Chanel Python Boy bag, which sold for just under £9,000.  

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