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Liz Taylor's jewelry prices outstrip estimates

By the CNN Wire Staff
December 14, 2011 -- Updated 1032 GMT (1832 HKT)
La Peregrina, a Cartier necklace from the Elizabeth Taylor collection, sits on display at Christie's Auction House in New York.
La Peregrina, a Cartier necklace from the Elizabeth Taylor collection, sits on display at Christie's Auction House in New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Elizabeth Taylor diamond fetches $8.8 million
  • 50-carat "La Peregrina" pearl goes for $11.8 million
  • Its value had been estimated at $2 million to $3 million

New York (CNN) -- The actress' appearances on the silver screen transformed men with hearts of stone into quivering masses during Hollywood's Golden Age. On Tuesday night, the simple fact that they were once worn by Elizabeth Taylor transformed the silver, the stones and the gold themselves -- into fortunes.

If the prices commanded by Christie's auction house are any indication, the British-American actress' luster appears to have rubbed off on the jewels she once wore.

The items in her collection rocketed far beyond their original estimates. For example, the 50-carat pearl known as La Peregrina, given to her in 1969 by actor Richard Burton and once part of the crown jewels of Spain, went for $11.8 million, which Christie's said was the highest recorded price ever of pearl jewelry sold at auction. Its value had been estimated at $2 million to $3 million.

The pearl was mounted onto a specially commissioned diamond-and-ruby Cartier necklace.

A diamond tiara given to Taylor by her husband, Mike Todd, estimated at $80,000 pre-auction brought in a surprising $4.2 million.

The Taj Mahal, an Indian diamond and jade pendant sold for $8.8 million. Its initial estimate was a range of $300,000 - $500,000. An emerald and diamond necklace went for $6.1 million.

And the sale of the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond fetched $8.8 million more, capping a spectacular night of bidding that included other jewelry.

The auction continues through Friday with sales of clothing and film memorabilia.

More than 400 people filled the bidder seats and more than a dozen Christie's staffers were on the phone with buyers. Before the bidding started, the auction house played a two-minute video showing clips from some of Taylor's movies, including "Giant," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

Also included was an undated clip showing the actress clad in a white swimsuit at poolside, her head wrapped in a towel, bidding for jewelry by phone.

"It's now $120,000," says an unidentified male voice from the other end of the line. "Do you want me to bid?"

"Yes!" says Taylor, holding a cigarette, then leaning into the speakerphone. "Darling, it sounds like things that are really desirable are going to go for 10 times what expected, right?"

"That's the way it works," a male voice responds from the other end of the line.

"Holy cow!" she says.

At that, the Christie's audience breaks into laughter and applause.

Her dazzling collection of jewels, many of which were given to her as presents by husbands, were referred to in September -- as the auction was being planned -- by Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie's Americas, as "the crown jewels of Hollywood."

Keith Penton, head of the jewelry department at Christie's, said then 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."

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

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

But it wasn't until Taylor's marriage to Todd that her passion for collecting serious jewels took hold, Schoenberger said in September.

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

Schoenberger believes that when 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.

The actress, who died this year at age 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."

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.

CNN's Joe Vaccarello contributed to this report

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