November 17, 2014

The Amazing Jewels of Mrs. Bunny Mellon

Back in New York the auction season is in full swing with records being set almost daily.  One of the major events of the year is Sotheby's dispersal of the Estate of Mrs. Paul Mellon who died in March 2014 at the age of 103.

Mrs. Mellon, generally known as "Bunny", was one of the last of a generation of very wealthy, very genteel, society ladies.  Born Rachel Lowe Lambert in Princeton, NJ, she was the grand daughter of the inventor of Listerine and the daughter of the president of the Gillette Safety Razor Company and founder of the pharmaceutical concern Warner Lambert.  As the saying goes, money begets money, and in 1948 she became the second wife of banking heir, art collector and horse breeder Paul Mellon.

Paul and Bunny Mellon lived a charmed life with homes in New York, Cape Cod, Paris, Antigua and a massive horse farm in Upperville, Virginia.  The couple mingled with the cream of American and international society and amassed a remarkable collection of art and antiques, much of which was donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  Although never formally trained, Mrs. Mellon was a renowned horticulturalist and designed gardens for her own properties and for close friends like Jacqueline Kennedy and Hubert de Givenchy.

Paul Mellon died in 1999 and now with the passing of his widow the contents of the townhouse in New York, the beach residence in Antigua and the 4,000 acre Oak Spring Farms in Virginia will go on the auction block.  Sotheby's New York has already sold the masterworks of the art collection, including the two magnificent Rothkos that fetched over $75 million, but the bulk of the estate will go under the hammer next week.  Beside the usual potpourri of furniture, china, books, decorations, silver, linens and other household items befitting a person of her social stature, is Mrs Mellon's extraordinary collection of jewels and that is what I would like to focus on here.

The catalogue for this section of the sale is the thickness of a telephone book (remember those?!) and offers 267 lots of jewelry and objects of vertu including gold compacts, cigarette cases, snuff boxes and designer handbags with monogrammed clasps in gold and semi-precious stones.  The sale will be offered in two parts beginning with an evening session on November 20, 2014.  Here are some of the highlights:

Lot # 8 is a 14K gold, platinum, diamond and ruby brooch in the form of an espalier apple tree like the ones Mrs. Mellon had growing in her garden.  It was made by Verdura circa 1950 and features leaves set in diamonds and 26 ruby bead apples.  This charming but diminutive piece has the seemingly reasonable estimate of $2,500-$3,500.

One of the more whimsical items is Lot # 27, an 18K gold, rock crystal and enamel charm bracelet.   Made in France circa 1935, the linked bracelet features six charms on the theme of cocktails.  With a martini glass, an ice cube, a bottle of gin, a bottle of vermouth, a lemon twist and a shaker that opens to reveal a devil, it has all the ingredients to exceed its $10,000-$15,000 estimate!

Lot # 36 is an exquisite gold and diamond "Rivière" necklace by Cartier.  The 29 old-European cut diamonds are graduated in size and held together with a round fancy deep yellow 4.2 carat diamond as the clasp.  It was made in 1948 and features 111 carats of white diamonds.  This important piece has an equally important estimate of $1.25-$1.5 million.

The most expensive lot in the sale is this "Magnificent and rare" fancy vivid blue diamond pendant.  Mounted in platinum, this pear shaped, internally flawless diamond weighs 9.75 carats.  Lot # 37 is truly in the "if you have to ask..." category with an estimate of $10-$15 million.

For the well-dressed table, this gold, enamel and gem-set ornament of a nearly life-sized pomegranate should be just the ticket.  Made by Verdura, the brightly colored enamel skin is offset with numerous ruby, pink tourmaline and citrine seeds with the stem and leaf set with garnets and colored diamonds.  Lot # 39 carries an estimate of $10,000-$15,000.

This little gold box continues the nature theme of Mrs. Mellon's collection.  Lot # 42 is an 18K tri-colored gold box decorated with overlapping oak leaves.  One colored diamond encrusted leaf decorates the lid while the interior holds a single white diamond set leaf.  It is another custom piece by Verdura and is estimated at $15,000-$20,000.

I'm going to leave you with one final bauble from Bunny Mellon's jewelry box.  This charming white gold and diamond set brooch is a sweet little rabbit with a ruby eye and a ruby and emerald carrot in his garden.  Lot # 128 seems like a bargain at $1,000-$2,000 but who knows what the power of its late, famous owner will have on the hammer price.  The sale of Mrs. Paul Mellon's extensive Estate wraps up on November 23rd.

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