Does Failure of Largest Diamond at Auction Portend Larger Shift?

All that glitters fails to sell.

The 1,109-carat Lesedi La Rona is the largest gem-quality rough diamond discovered in over 100 years. Photography by Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Sotheby's.

It was supposed to soar, but instead it sank like a stone.

Sotheby’s used a host of superlatives to catalogue the Lesedi La Rona, the largest rough diamond found in more than 100 years, which it offered yesterday (June 29) in London with a hefty estimate of $71 million. But when bidding reached only to $61 million, it failed to sell.

There’s a much-touted art and collectibles theory that there are always enough so-called “trophy hunters” for the ultra-high-end of the auction market, no matter what the economic backdrop looks like. Does the failure of the diamond at auction—amid the latest round of Brexit-induced economic anxiety—reveal this as wishful thinking?

Financial writer James Stewart proposed just this in a well-researched article earlier this year in the New York Times. He called 2015 “an embarrassment of riches,” but noted several examples where the highest prices for benchmark assets—including a Park Avenue apartment, a Picasso painting, and a large diamond—had all come down in recent months.

According to Stewart: “[A]fter years of dizzying appreciation, the values of luxury assets are plateauing and in some cases plunging. Volumes have shrunk, prices are being cut and some auction lots are going unsold.” And that was before the uncertainty of last week’s referendum.

The tennis-ball-size Lesedi La Rona was found in a mine in Botswana this past November and is owned by Canadian company Lucara Diamond. “It stands to reason that the Lesedi La Rona, which means ‘our light’ in Botswana’s Tswana language, will be offered at a standalone sale,” according to Sotheby’s catalogue.

Jewelry division chairman David Bennett called it “the find of a lifetime,” adding that “no rough even remotely of this scale has ever been offered before at public auction.”

So what went wrong? In an emailed statement to artnet News, Sotheby’s said: “Though widely admired in the months preceding this evening’s auction, and despite having seen bidding in the salesroom, the Lesedi la Rona failed to reach its reserve price and consequently did not find a buyer tonight. Every aspect of tonight’s auction was unprecedented: no one alive today has ever seen a gem-quality rough diamond of this incredible scale; no rough diamond of importance has ever before been offered before at public auction; and no diamond—polished or rough—has ever been estimated at this price level. It has been a privilege to present the Lesedi la Rona around the world this spring, and the unique opportunity excited collectors throughout this process.”

Lucara released a statement from CEO and board president William Lamb, stating simply: “Lucara Diamond Corp reports that the Company will be retaining the exceptional 1,109 carat Type IIa Lesedi La Rona diamond as bidding did not meet the reserve price at the auction held this evening at Sotheby’s in London.”

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