Society / Fashion / Style / Shopping

What to Know About the Stunning Rarities of Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels Auction

Philanthropist and Socialite Marylou Whitney's Collection is a Worthy Headliner

BY // 12.01.20

A great piece of jewelry can instill confidence in the wearer — particularly if it belonged to someone as rare as the jewel itself. A perfect example is the glamorous Marylou Whitney, whose second husband of 34 years was Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney. The American socialite and philanthropist, who passed away in July 2019 at age 93, was a thoroughbred horse breeder known as the Queen of Saratoga. Her noble reign was marked by a dedication to women’s health and equine excellence that earned her the designation of First Lady of the Oaks by Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

002 Marylou Whitney with Cornelius Vanderbilt ‘Sonny’ Whitney
Marylou Whitney with Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney, courtesy of Sotheby’s

Her bold and unabashed sartorial style was equally iconic. On Wednesday, December 9, Sotheby’s offers significant highlights from Whitney’s collection in the Magnificent Jewels sale, including a 19th-century tiara, a carved emerald pendant by David Webb, and what may be the rarest find of all: a string of natural pearls (meaning each addition occurred spontaneously in the wild) purchased from Cartier in 1950.

“To get a strand with this size of natural pearls would take years and years to put together,” says Catharine Becket, head of sales for Magnificent Jewels Sales. “I haven’t handled a strand of this caliber since we sold pearls that once belonged to the Duchess of Windsor 10 years ago.”

However, it’s Whitney’s tiara — a delicate, naturalistic crown completely encrusted in diamonds and rubies — that will likely garner the most attention. It was purchased from Harry Winston in 1952, and is stated to be from the Collection of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. It’s also the greatest representation of Whitney’s personality. “She could certainly pull off a tiara, which is not something most people can do,” Becket says. “She was widely known to be a force of nature — someone who lit up the room. To wear something like that tiara or the David Webb ring takes confidence, and she had it in spades.”

Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction, led by the collections of Marylou Whitney, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha, and other private collections, Wednesday, December 9, in New York City; live online at 9 pm CST at sothebys.com.

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