Historic Taj Mahal Diamond at the Center of a Legal Dispute between the Elizabeth Taylor Trust and Christie’s

The historic “Taj Mahal diamond, one of the three inscribed diamonds dating back to the classic Mughal period of India (1556-1707), during which the Mughal Empire reached the peak of its power and glory, excelling in the arts, literature, architecture and building construction, and the Mughal court attained its greatest pomp and pageantry, have received international attention again after the heart-shaped, table-cut diamond mounted on a heart-shaped jade mount, fetched a record breaking US$8.8 million at a Christie’s New York auction, held on December 13, 2011. The “Taj Mahal” diamond and Jade Pendant Necklace was part of the most iconic jewels of the late Queen of Hollywood, Elizabeth Taylor, whose jewelry collection and other personal effects were auctioned by Christie’s New York on behalf of the Elizabeth Taylor Trust at the Rockefeller Plaza, on December 13 and 14, 2011 and realized a record-breaking total sale of US$183.5 million. All proceeds from this auction were to benefit the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, in keeping with the wishes of the late Hollywood legend.

The Taj Mahal Diamond and Jade Pendant  and Necklace
The Taj Mahal Diamond and Jade Pendant and Necklace

Out of all the gifts received by Elizabeth Taylor from Richard Burton, without any doubt the most outstanding gift, was the 17th-century Nur Jahan/Taj Mahal diamond and jade pendant necklace, which was given to her as a gift for her 40th birthday in 1972. The Taj Mahal diamond pendant, perhaps symbolized the true love and affection shown by Burton to his wife Liz Taylor, just as much as the same stone given as a gift by Emperor Shah Jahan to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal in the 17th-century, symbolized the Emperor’s true love and affection to his wife, who unfortunately died in 1631, while giving birth to her 14th child. The internationally renowned Taj Mahal that was built as a mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal, immortalized their great relationship. “I would have liked to buy her the [actual] Taj-Mahal,” Burton remarked, “but it would cost too much to transport. This diamond has so many carats, its almost a turnip!!

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Close-up of Taj Mahal Diamond and Jade Pendant
Close-up of Taj Mahal Diamond and Jade Pendant

The historical provenance of the pendant and necklace, that has a history of nearly 400 years, being associated with the lives of two great Mughal emperors and their favorite spouses, and the modern provenance of the pendant and necklace, being associated with the lives of two of the most renowned and respected Hollywood celebrities of modern time, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, no doubt had a significant bearing on the enhanced price of US$8.8 million realized by the historic diamond and pendant necklace, more than 17 times its upper estimate of US$500,000 and 29 times its lower estimate of US$300,000. At the time of the sale Christie’s withheld the identity of the successful bidder of the historic diamond.

Studio Publicity Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor
Studio Publicity Portrait of Elizabeth Taylor

Three years after the sale, the Taj Mahal diamond is again in the limelight, due to a controversy regarding its credentials. The anonymous buyer of the diamond has now disputed its credentials, alleging that the jewel hadn’t actually belonged to a Mughal emperor, and requested Christie’s to cancel the sale and refund his money. Christie’s cancelled the sale as requested by the anonymous buyer, and in turn demanded that the trustees of the Elizabeth Taylor Trust return the money paid for the necklace. The trustees refused to comply, claiming that the cancellation of the sale by Christie’s was in violation of its own policies and that Christie’s never guaranteed the diamond’s age or Mughal origins.

Studio Publicity Portrait of Richard Burton in the film Cleopatra
Studio Publicity Portrait of Richard Burton in the film Cleopatra

The bitter dispute has now led to a lawsuit filed by the trustees of Elizabeth Taylor’s estate against Christie’s for cancellation of the sale. The suit claimed that Christie’s cancellation was a violation of its own policies, and that the auction house never guaranteed the age of the diamond, but only described it as being of Indian origin. It further stated that Christie’s had demanded that the trustees return more than US$7 million it received from the sale, and alleged that Christie’s violated its agreement to auction off the estate and did so only to maintain good relations with a “VIP customer.” The trustees also claimed they haven’t received money for several other items from the late Elizabeth Taylor’s estate that were supposedly auctioned off by the company, including one of Taylor’s Bulgari rings worth nearly US$3 million. The suit further alleged that the company’s refusal to surrender the proceeds of the delayed sales to the trust was part of an effort to strong arm the trust into returning the sale proceeds of the diamond. The Trustees further claimed that the proceeds that have yet to be turned over had been earmarked for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

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A spokesperson for Christie’s said, “the auction house was pleased to create a landmark auction event on behalf of the Elizabeth Taylor Trust that produced over $183.5 million in proceeds for the beneficiaries of the Trust — the friends and family of Elizabeth Taylor.”

The statement added, “the auction house is seeking the return of a small portion of these proceeds due to the cancellation of a single item from that sale, and Christie’s looks forward to a speedy resolution of this matter.”

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