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Elizabeth Taylor's 'crown jewels of Hollywood' dazzle on display

By Laura Allsop, CNN
September 24, 2011 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor was a notorious collector of extravagant jewelry.
Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor was a notorious collector of extravagant jewelry.
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Elizabeth Taylor's life in jewels
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Highlights from Elizabeth Taylor's extensive jewelry collection on display at Christie's in London
  • Dazzling gems include 33.19-carat diamond, a present from Richard Burton to Taylor
  • Collection known as the "crown jewels of Hollywood"
  • Jewels may cause bidding frenzy in the salesroom, say Christie's

London (CNN) -- Though she may have had numerous husbands and lovers, Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor had one enduring love: jewelry.

Her dazzling collection of jewels, many of which were given to her as presents by husbands including Richard Burton and Mike Todd, were referred to Friday in London by Jonathan Rendell, Deputy Chairman of Christie's Americas, as "the crown jewels of Hollywood."

Fans of the screen idol can now ogle highlights from her extensive jewelry collection, along with a selection of her haute couture dresses by designers including Chanel and Christian Dior, and paintings by artists such as Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, at Christie's auction house in London.

They are being exhibited there as part of a world tour that will culminate in a series of high-profile sales at Christie's in New York in December.

Elizabeth Taylor's jewels in London

Taylor's jewel collection has been valued in excess of $30 million, according to the auction house.

Keith Penton, head of the jewelry department at Christie's in London, said that Taylor's taste in jewels was "extraordinarily refined. She really understood her gemstones ([and)she had a passion for design and workmanship, quite a rare combination."

She grew up surrounded by beautiful things and was always drawn to jewelry as a young girl
Nancy Schoenberger, co-author of the book "Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century."

And not only do they speak of her infamous and tempestuous romance with actor Richard Burton, he said, the jewels come with their own dramatic histories -- such as a 50-carat pearl known as "La Peregrina," given to her by Burton in 1969, that was once part of the crown jewels of Spain.

It was mounted onto a specially commissioned diamond and ruby Cartier necklace and is estimated to fetch between $2 million and $3 million at auction in December.

There is also the Taj Mahal diamond pendant necklace, which Burton gave her on her 40th birthday in 1972 and which had been a gift from the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to his wife in the 17th century.

"If a jewel had a historic provenance, they were particularly enamored," said Penton of the pair's taste in gems.

According to Nancy Schoenberger, co-author of the book "Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century," Taylor developed a taste for jewels from a young age.

"Her father was an art and antiques dealer," Schoenberger explained.

She really understood her gemstones, she had a passion for design and workmanship, quite a rare combination
Keith Penton, head of the jewelry department at Christie's, London

"She grew up surrounded by beautiful things and was always drawn to jewelry as a young girl," she said.

But it wasn't until Taylor's marriage to film and Broadway producer Mike Todd that her passion for collecting serious jewels took hold, Schoenberger said.

Todd, her third husband, bought Taylor a 29.4-carat diamond ring as well as a diamond tiara, which she wore to the 1957 Academy Awards.

Schoenberger believes that when Richard Burton bought Taylor the 33.19-carat Krupp Diamond ring in 1968 -- possibly the star piece in the exhibition at Christie's, estimated to fetch between $2.5 million and $3.5 million -- he was trying to out-do Mike Todd, who had died unexpectedly just over a year into his marriage with Taylor.

"I think that was a big deal for Richard, to buy her a diamond as big as Mike Todd's. And he liked showing that the son of a Welsh coal-miner could buy his lady love these extravagant jewels," she said.

Penton believes that the collection will induce feverish bidding in the salesroom, for the quality of the collection but also for their added Hollywood glamor.

"Judging from past sales, which have never been as spectacular as this one -- I think the sky's the limit," he said.

The actress, who died this year aged 79, eulogized her love of gems in her 2002 memoir, "My Love Affair With Jewelry."

In it, she wrote: "I never, never thought of my jewelry as trophies. I'm here to take care of them and to love them. When I die and they go off to auction I hope whoever buys them gives them a really good home."

At a press conference on Friday, Rendell of Christie's said that the collection reveals "one of the great characters, this was one of the great stars, this was someone who understood her contract with the public."

Penton agreed and said, "Looking at the couture, you can see that she was not a very large lady but obviously with the hair, with the presence, with the glamor, it all added up to something very fabulous."

In memory of the actress's life-long devotion to humanitarian causes, a portion of profits generated by admissions, events and select publications related to the sales will be donated to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), which she set up in 1991.

"Highlights from the Collection of Elizabeth Taylor" is on public display at Christie's, London, on 24, 25 and 26 September, after which it will travel to Los Angeles, Dubai, Geneva, Paris, Hong Kong and finally, New York.

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