Many an eagle-eyed treasure hunter have prowled the piles of flea market junk, combing for trinkets with more to them than meets the eye. How often is there a diamond in the rough amongst all those rhinestones?
More often than one might think, according to leading experts who spoke to The Daily Beast. However, it takes a certain amount of hands-on experience and a trained eye to find quality worthy of Antiques Roadshow at your next garage sale.
Our first story of a fortuitous find comes from Bonham’s auction house in 2017. A woman in Ohio paid $8 for a brooch at a garage sale, and then gave it to her daughter to wear to church. Her daughter promptly stashed it in the bottom of her handbag, where it sat untouched for months. Upon a chance visit to her jeweler, the daughter produced the brooch, and her jeweler had the pleasure of informing her that the diamonds set in the piece were genuine.
Further investigation from the Gemological Institute of America revealed that the three main stones set in the piece were each of superior quality: A old mine-cut 1.39 carat, D-color, VS1 clarity diamond at the top; a 1.5 carat rectangular Colombian emerald in the center; and an oval, 0.6 carat Burmese ruby at the bottom. Of course, when the circa 1900 brooch came up for auction at Bonham’s the estimate was a bit north of $8, set at $20,000-$30,000. It ultimately sold for $26,000.
When this Daily Beast author handled the piece at the public viewing in New York, it was easy to see how the brooch could have been overlooked. It was fairly small, and if it were sufficiently more grimey, and mixed in amongst other lesser costume jewels, one might not take a second glance.
However, the best practice is always to flip a piece over and check out the technical construction. This brooch had white metal set on top of yellow gold, an indicator of a measured choice to have the diamonds blend in with the tone of the metal. There was also a double-pronged clasp on the back, a typical mechanism of jewelry from around the turn of the century. Always check for stamps of any sort—18K, PLAT, maker’s marks, hallmarks, or serial numbers—as they can point toward known designers and jewelry houses that just haven’t been identified by busy auction houses yet.
The second story comes from Sotheby’s auction house in London. In the Fine Jewels sale this past summer, a diamond came up for auction that had been purchased for £10 at a boot sale in the 1980s. The owner had purchased the ring for fun, thinking the large and roughly cut diamond was just a costume piece made of crystal or glass. She wore it for pleasure for years, until recently, when she took it into Sotheby’s to see if it had any value.
The stone had a carat weight of 26.29 carats, (about the size of a peppermint) and was deemed an I color stone with VVS2 clarity grade from the Gemological Institute of America. VVS2 stands for very, very slightly included. An inclusion is a miniscule defect in the diamond that can only be seen with a microscope at this level. Of course, the best clarity grade is Flawless, and then Internally Flawless, and then VVS1 and VVS2. The GIA’s clarity grades are very important, and for a stone this large to have a VVS2 grade is amazing.
Sotheby’s Junior Cataloguer, Samuel Hug, spoke to The Daily Beast about the diamond from the boot sale. When asked about the potential history of the stone, Hug said that “the setting of the stone had screws at the back, meaning it could be removed from the surrounding ring mount. It was normal at the time for jewels to be versatile, and central motifs or principal stones transferable between different settings. It’s possible that this stone was also worn as a brooch, or perhaps even as the centrepiece of a spectacular tiara or rivière necklace. Who knows what amazing pieces it appeared in!”
The stone was appraised by Sotheby’s in London for £250,000-£350,000 but sold for £656,750. A very good return on an investment of £10 out of the trunk of a car.
How easily would it be for someone to overlook a genuine diamond this large for over 30 years? Hug says, “Large diamonds like this are very rare indeed, and if you haven’t handled one of this size before (which of course the vast majority of us haven’t), then it would be very reasonable to assume that it was glass or another diamond simulant. The seller of this piece also made this very reasonable assumption, wore it occasionally for fun as you would with any piece of costume jewellery, and just kept it in a drawer the rest of the time! Years down the line she was going through her jewels, and started wondering a bit about it. That eventually led her to contact Kristian, our head of department, who immediately spotted that it was something special.”
Sometimes lost things don’t turn up at auction at all, but lay dormant for years until someone discovers them. The story of the Hamster Diamond is one where the jewel acted as a time capsule, hidden under the floorboards of a house for decades. Simon Teakle, a jeweler from Greenwich, Connecticut, spoke to The Daily Beast about the diamond, and details the story here: “The Hamster Diamond was originally purchased in Paris in 1910, but before the owner could gift it to his intended, he lost it in a game of cards. The Duke who won the ring never got to enjoy it though, because he also lost it during one of his infamous house parties. Everyone assumed the ring was stolen during the revelry, but time would reveal a different story. In 1990, the Duke’s great granddaughter was looking for her lost hamster and uncovered the ring under the floorboards. As it had never been worn, the ring is essentially like new!”
The final and most important story of lost-and-found gems comes not in form of a single gemstone, but the most sought-after holy grail of lost jeweled artifacts: the Fabergé egg.
Fabergé eggs have a long history, but the short version is that they were jeweled objects commissioned by the Imperial Court of Russia for the Empress Maria Feodorovna by the Tsar Alexander III, once a year on their anniversary, which happened to coincide with Easter. The eggs usually had a surprise, or a mechanism of some sort ingeniously devised by the jeweler Carl Fabergé and his team. The earlier eggs were slightly simpler, which included a ridged golden egg that held a clock. Spanning the years 1885 to 1916, there were only 50 Fabergé eggs made for the Russian court, and after the revolution of 1917, there were eight unaccounted-for eggs out in the world.
This particular Fabergé egg happens to be the Third Imperial Easter Egg from 1887. It is mentioned in ledgers and appears in a 1902 photograph when the egg was on display during an exhibition. This image, paired with the information from the ledger allowed scholars to know the egg contained a clock inscribed with the name “Vacheron Constantin.” After being seized in 1917, the egg was recorded in 1922. After that, researchers in 2011 discovered that the egg had mysteriously made its way to America, however, without its infamous provenance. In 1964 it was sold at an auction by Parke Bernet for $2,450, unsigned. From there, it was most recently purchased for $14,000 for the price of its scrap gold. This is where the story gets interesting.
The owners had paid the base value calculated for its intrinsic materials, and had sat on the piece until they figured out what to do with it. One day, curious, the owner googled the name upon the clock inside the egg, “Vacheron Constantin” and “Egg,” and he came up with an article published by renowned Fabergé scholars and London antique dealers, Wartski. At this point, I’m sure beads of sweat would be pin-pricking the owner’s spine.
One harried email and an overnight flight later, the owner was shoving photos of the egg in the hands of Kiernan McCarthy of Wartski, a leading scholar on lost Fabergé.
McCarthy made his way to Chicago, and drove for hours into the heartland of the American Midwest. Arriving at the owner’s home, he entered the kitchen and saw the golden Fabergé egg sitting on the counter next to a cupcake. Upon informing the owner that the egg was indeed a lost Fabergé egg worth millions, the owner fainted, and then promptly carved McCarthy’s name into the wooden stool he sat upon, in order to demarcate the day and person who had changed his life forever.
Wartski purchased the egg for 20 million pounds on behalf of a Fabergé collector, and the media blitz began. The egg was on exhibition for a time at the Bond Street shop of Wartski.
How many of the other seven missing eggs will ever surface, if they have indeed escaped the scrap gold pile? Thomas Holman, also a director at Wartski, spoke to The Daily Beast to talk about his techniques for looking for treasures out in the world.
When Holman was much younger, he loved spending hours traversing the rows and aisles of flea markets, hunting for jewelry he knew was quality. He recalled for The Daily Beast his first big find: “The first thing I discovered was a little gold sunburst brooch set with tiny seed pearls circa 1890. It was in a display case nestled between a small pile of Pokémon cards and a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. I was very young at the time and still remember how excited I was to have found it.”
His luck didn’t end there. Shortly after buying his first book on Fabergé, he found a rosewood cigarette case with gold mounts by Carl Fabergé. Holman took it into Wartksi to be authenticated where he met his future colleagues for the first time.
Does one need to be a studied scholar of decorative arts and jewelry to be able to spot these treasures hidden in plain sight? Thomas Holman of Wartski says, “It is crucial that you have a passion for history and for objects. That is what fuels you when you’ve been to hundreds of fairs in the freezing cold and not found anything. It also fuels you to read and learn more. I think you can learn a great deal, but the passion has to be there. I also think it is important to like puzzles, as often the answers are not where you’d expect them to be.”
Samuel Hug of Sotheby’s warns to come prepared if you are truly on the prowl for the tiny details that might pay off your mortgage: “Bring a loupe! Giant diamonds aside, jewellery tends to be on the small side, and it’s the details that really matter. Many of the main clues to the quality or authenticity of a piece of jewellery reveal themselves under 10x magnification or more, so it’s best to be equipped!”