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Anatomy of an auction

A peek inside a Skinner jewelry sale

You don’t need to be rich to have fun at a jewelry auction — although it certainly helps. Even if you don’t win that spectacular strand of pearls or are outbid on the earrings your wife would have loved (sigh), attending a preview and sale is quite an education, not to mention entertaining. You might find yourself sitting next to a 79-year-old woman determined to buy herself a treat for her upcoming birthday, a mother bidding while her teenage son takes notes on his iPad, or a mysterious stranger who never removes her floor-length mink coat and sunglasses.

But the people you really want to meet are the staff at the auction preview. On designated days and times before the sale, the public is free to peruse irresistible gems, try them on, and get an expert’s take on the quality and condition of the pieces. There’s a preview today and tomorrow at Skinner in Boston, as the prominent local auction house is holding one of its four yearly fine jewelry sales on Tuesday.

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Victoria Bratberg, a gemologist and Skinner’s director of fine jewelry, has spent the past several months meeting with various consignors who wish to part with a wide range of covetable gems. She examines and researches the jewelry before adding it to the sale, learning a piece’s back story. “The auction world is definitely not boring,” says the soft-spoken Bratberg, “and the people who are selling are as interesting as the buyers.”

Gems come to Skinner in many different ways. Consignors may inherit jewelry that’s just not their style, get divorced and want to start fresh, need fast cash for one reason or another, or simply grow tired of certain pieces. That’s especially true of what Bratberg tellingly calls “grocery store jewelry,” or contemporary pieces purchased by the well-to-do as everyday wear, such as the pair of Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra earrings offered in Tuesday’s auction (pre-sale estimate: $3,500 to $4,500). Hermes bags and high-end men’s watches are also in this category. Those items are consistently popular at Skinner, along with Arts and Crafts pieces, which the auction house is known for, and natural pearl necklaces, timeless classics.

Other top sellers worldwide are anything from Cartier, Tiffany & Co., and Van Cleef & Arpels, all names that add value, especially for signed pieces. Top-tier items can be catnip to jewelry retailers, celebrities, and even museums like Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, when the piece has historical significance.

Also in demand these days are fine Art Deco pieces. Bratberg has especially high hopes for an “incredibly chic” Deco-era diamond ring by Cartier in Tuesday’s sale (it’s pictured on Page 7; the estimate is $80,000 minimum). And rubies, sapphires, and emeralds are also hot, she says. “Colored stones of top quality are currently bringing unbelievable prices,” says Bratberg, who compares the brilliant saturated color of a Burmese star ruby ring from Skinner’s December auction to those “sweet, giant candy rings I used to wear as a kid.” That piece went for $242,500 — more than 10 times the high estimate.

Why such a discrepancy? Estimates are based on many factors: the current worth of the stones and metals, knowledge of secondary markets (auctions and other suppliers), the beauty of the piece, and sometimes provenance. Values often go up when a previous owner is someone famous — from a just-divorced Hollywood actress like Ellen Barkin to notorious scofflaw Bernie Madoff. When jewels that belong to late actress Elizabeth Taylor or late Duchess of Windsor Wallis Simpson come up for auction, their names send prices soaring.

But there are other intangibles as well, such as trends in fashion. “I had something I really wanted, an octopus ring that was so over-the-top and awesome,” says Noelani Zervas, a 33-year-old Cambridge resident who blogs about fashion at mpchouchou.com. “Value-wise, the gemstones and gold, it was priced right,” she says of the pre-sale estimate, “but because of the design and big cocktail rings being so popular, it went for a lot more.”

Zervas didn’t get that particular ring, but she got a far more important one. When she and her husband were dating, she took him to a jewelry auction preview on a lark. “Gloria answered all our questions,” says Zervas, referring to Gloria Lieberman, who founded Skinner’s fine jewelry department in 1980. “It’s not what you think an auction house is. You’d think snooty and unapproachable, and they’re just the opposite.”

Zervas’s husband later surprised her with a stunning vintage diamond engagement ring he purchased through Skinner. “We both won,” she says. “I wanted an antique ring, something with a story. And my husband liked the idea the price was close to wholesale. You don’t have the mark-up of a store.”

That can be good for buyers but a shock to consigners, explains Bratberg. “In most cases, if it’s your first time selling a piece, you should know there’s a vast difference between the insurance appraisal for replacement value and what you can sell it for at auction. Jewelry isn’t like art. It’s not an investment. It’s a luxury item. It takes 75 years for something to maybe appreciate.”

There are exceptions, of course. Why do some pieces go so high over estimate? “It only takes two people,” says Bratberg. “I’ve seen two women bid against each other for a piece that ends up costing more than you’d pay if you just walked over to Tiffany’s and bought it at retail, but they just really want it.”

And since Skinner’s catalogs are available online, the auctions draw buyers from all over the world — and sometimes in the strangest places. One phone bidder was a gentleman in the bathtub (yes, he told the person taking bids over the phone), another a doctor in the operating room. But Bratberg’s favorite is the woman who was in labor at the hospital. “She was desperate for a piece, but they made her hang up the phone before it sold.” No, that’s not boring at all.

5 TIPS FOR BUYING JEWELRY AT AUCTION

ATTEND THE PREVIEW > Come to learn, even if you’re not ready to bid. “We’re happy to answer all questions,” says Victoria Bratberg, director of the fine jewelry department at Boston auction house Skinner.

ASK THE EXPERTS > If you are considering bidding on a piece, ask the knowledgeable staff about the quality, condition, design, and materials. Auction houses will also allow you to try on jewelry during the preview — important, because there are no returns if you have the winning bid.

PLAN YOUR BID > Whether you’re bidding live, via the Internet, or on the phone, come up with the amount you want to spend ahead of time. “It goes very quickly,” says Bratberg.

ACCOUNT FOR FEES > The winning bid is not the total price you pay. You’ll also owe sales tax, plus a buyer’s premium (22.5 percent if you bid online and 18.5 percent on the phone or live on amounts up to $200,000, dropping to 15 percent or 10 percent, respectively, over that amount).

“DISCOVER” A DEAL > If you want some real bargains, check out the lower-priced offerings that pop up in Skinner’s “Discovery” series of auctions throughout the year. Check the skinnerinc.com website for more information.

Tina Sutton collects mid-century modern paintings and sculptures and has bought many of her pieces at auctions. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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