The King Tut–Inspired Gemstones Even Museums Can't Afford
It couldn't have been easy to stand out among all the flapper fringe of the Roaring 20s, but Linda Lee Porter, wife of the iconic Broadway composer Cole Porter, pulled it off with a single belt buckle.
Mrs. Porter commissioned Cartier to create a scarab-beetle-shaped buckle brooch (it's on the far right in the image above) inspired by the ancient Egyptian treasures unearthed with King Tutankhamen's tomb three years earlier, in 1923. Unlike costume-jewelry copycats, and even fine pieces imitating the loot from the boy king's tomb, hers was made from actual ancient Egyptian artifacts—namely, faience (glazed ceramic, often blue-green) culled from Louis Cartier's collection. For good measure, Cartier set it with diamonds and sapphires in the fresh art-deco style of the time.
Vogue raved about the statement piece in a 1927 article titled "Paris Jewellery," calling it an "unusual buckle in deep lapis-blue." A year later, at a party thrown by gossip columnist Elsa Maxwell, Mrs. Porter was "admired for a sapphire blue satin dress designed especially to show off a huge lapis blue scarab set with two old faience turquoise wings," according to a 1967 biography of her husband.
Eighty-eight years later, The Brooch is back. And at just five inches of ancient Egyptian realness, it's on sale for an estimated $1 million (but likely more) by noted Fifth Avenue jewelry and gemstone dealer Lee Siegelson. While he declined to reveal the price, citing the privacy of his clients, he confirms that comparable pieces can command seven-figure price tags.
"The very greatest examples of art deco Egyptian Revival will sell for well over a million," Siegelson told VF.com. "The right piece will sell for many millions."
This is the price one pays to wear a remnant of ancient Egypt, a civilization that has fascinated everyone from Napoleon, who invaded it, in 1798, to Steve Martin, who "funkified" the pharaoh on S.N.L., to the Bangles, who walked like Egyptians in the 80s. Today, owning a piece of the action is the ultimate in "Egyptomania."
The reverence for ancient Egyptian culture "never really fades away," said Carol Elkins, senior vice president of the jewelry department at Sotheby's. "From early on, most people are exposed to the concept of the pyramids and Egyptian figures. It goes deep."
And while anyone—any very rich one, anyway—can slip into modern-day Cartier and emerge triumphant with a red box, the real thrill of the chase for collectors, dealers, and auction houses is finding the extraordinarily rare pieces made immediately following the discovery of King Tut's tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon in 1923.
It was the biggest, splashiest news of the time: "Tut-ankh-amen's Inner Tomb Is Opened, Revealing Undreamed of Splendors," enthused the cover of The New York Times. The ensuing all-Egypt-everything "Tut-mania" inspired the likes of Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels to design innovative jewelry that mixed Egyptian influences (faience, hieroglyphics, engravings of the feline goddess Mau) with the geometry and bold colors of the art-deco era, "creating something greater than each of the parts," according to Siegelson. "These jewels unite two incredible movements in art, that of art deco and Egyptian Revival. Both are desirable and the few pieces that fall into both categories are even more so." One of those is Mrs. Porter's brooch, which also incorporates real Egyptian antiquities, making it one of the most valuable pieces in the genre.
Indeed, almost a century later, this refined mash-up, known as art deco Egyptian Revival jewelry, is among the most unique, and most highly-coveted in the modern market—and is priced to match. Many are considered masterpieces of the jewelry canon, but few land beneath the glass at the Met or even smaller museums. Instead, Egyptian Revival pieces are often purchased by private collectors with massive budgets and highly developed tastes.
"I wish museums had the money to afford to buy them," said jewelry historian Janet Zapata, who has curated several exhibitions, including "Tiffany: 150 Years of Gems and Jewelry" at the American Museum of Natural History. Many don't allocate large chunks of their endowments to jewelry, although some, like the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the Newark Museum in New Jersey, are exceptions.
"When they come up at auction, it's a feeding frenzy. You get the prices later, and you think, 'Oh my God, I thought we had hit the top. But we were nowhere near the top,'" said Zapata. "You can equate it with the art world and the way the value of a really great Picasso or Monet has continued to increase."
Though it's not always considered high art (unfairly relegated, like fashion, to a lower rung), the demand is almost equally high for Egyptian Revival pieces. To land a Van Cleef & Arpels pictorial bracelet, a flat bracelet designed between 1923 and 1925 with sphinxes, scarabs, and lotus flowers, for example, Zapata said "a million dollars would be the low-end."
But even for those with the budget, acquiring jewels from this era is a heady battle. "You have to compete," said Elkins, an Egyptian Revival jewelry enthusiast. "It's not as though there's an estimate and they just sell on the estimate. There's usually quite an amount of spirited bidding."
Elkins presided over a 2013 Sotheby's auction that included art deco Egyptian Revival jewelry, including a fan-shaped Cartier brooch featuring the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet made of real ancient faience, against a sky of diamond stars. It sold for just over $1 million (over three times the low-end of the pre-auction estimate of $300,000).
The brooch was a highlight of that over $60 million auction, in large part because of the rarity with which Egyptian-revival pieces appear on the market. There were only a finite number made in the 1920s, "limited by the availability of the ancient treasures around," according to a Sotheby's article. There may be as few as 150 pieces in total.
Mrs. Porter's buckle brooch, for example, is one of only three known scarabs created by Cartier, according to Siegelson. The other two are not for sale—they're in the Cartier Collection and have been loaned to museums, including the Denver Art Museum. The $1 million fan brooch auctioned by Sotheby's, Elkins said, was one of only two made by Cartier in that style. Art deco Egyptian Revival jewels are so rare, "it would be almost unthinkable to see more than one or two sales in a year," said Siegelson.
"These pieces are so beautiful and unusual that . . . once purchased [by a private collector], they stay in a family for a lifetime and often for many lifetimes. If seen on the market once, they may not return again."
Another majestic Sekhmet brooch, this one gifted to Iya, Lady Abdy, a statuesque Russian socialite who lived in Paris in the 1920s, remained in her family for the better part of a century. Her husband, a British noble, purchased it directly from Cartier at the height of the art deco Egyptian Revival; it didn't surface again until 2013, when her family decided to sell it. It fetched a cool $845,000 at auction at Sotheby's.
The whereabouts of the sister of the Cartier fan brooch that sold for $1 million in 2013 were unknown for decades before it "came out of the woodwork," according to Elkins, just weeks before being auctioned by Sotheby's in 2007 for $601,000.
Just how these highly coveted pieces happen to pop up is shrouded in mystery. Elkins said she could not reveal anything more about the consignor or how Sotheby's acquired the long-gone fan brooch. And when VF.com pressed Siegelson for how he acquired the scarab belt-buckle brooch, and an accompanying Egyptian Revival black-enamel-and-diamond bracelet for sale along with it, he said only: "We never kiss and tell."
Outreach can work both ways, with dealers approaching clients with precious pieces and vice versa. Once the pieces do change hands, they may be shadow boxed and displayed like art in a collector's home. Or they may even be worn, as they were intended. "Somebody might wear something rare like this to a museum opening, but they're not going to be flashy about it," said Zapata.
The ultimate in precious gems often attracts a customer almost as refined; someone, who like the jewelry itself, is a throwback to a more cultivated era. "It takes a certain sophistication to understand it," Zapata noted. Most high-end customers today buy contemporary pieces from Cartier or Van Cleef, bearing sizable rubies or Hope Diamond–esque sapphires. "If you're going to spend a few million dollars on a piece of jewelry," she continued, "I think people want something to show for it."
-- Sent from my Linux system.