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Why Sotheby’s Auction Failed, Part 2

October 12, 2016

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Moving on, this is more about the Lesedi la Rona diamond and why it failed to sell at Sotheby’s – see last week’s blog [Why Sotheby’s Auction Failed, Part 1] that was posted on October 5th.

In November 2015, just days before the discovery of the Lesedi diamond, Joseph Lau, a Hong Kong real estate tycoon, paid $48.5 million at Sotheby’s in Geneva for a 12.03-carat diamond. The night before Lau had paid $28.5 million at Christie’s for a 16-carat pink – or $77 million in two days for two diamonds.

FINDING A SUPER DIAMOND This is a complicated process so we’ll break it down in bullet points:

  • Diamond mills pound and smash up rock, sending the broken pieces through a tangle of chutes until they are reduced to a stream of heavy minerals
  • Only very dense minerals (diamonds) make it to the final conveyor and head for a bank of X-rays
  • Certain impurities cause diamonds to fluoresce under X-ray. When a photomultiplier detects a burst of fluorescence, it alerts a group of air jets that a diamond is coming
  • As the mineral grains fall off the end of the conveyor, the air jets blast the diamond from the stream; 95% of the diamonds are captured on the first pass, but ONLY diamonds as large as 1,100 carats go through ONE extra-powerful X-ray (XRT).
  • From the day the company turned it on, this machine did not say yes! to a single rock for five unbroken months. Then one November 2015 night it spotted the Lesedi hurtling through its X-ray beam and sent it tumbling down a chute to the recovery room, where flabbergasted sorters found it in the morning. Pretty exciting stuff!!

SELLING THE SUPER DIAMOND

Here are the competing narratives:

The diamantaires [experts in the cutting of diamonds into gems] say the value of the rough is its polished, final outcome and only they can say what it should be.

William Lamb, CEO of Lucara, the company that owns the Lesedi says an uncut diamond has an allure all its own. It’s unique, like a great painting, and should be thought of as a Picasso – and sold at auction. (I happen to agree with this scenario.)

One New York expert, Donald Palmieri, flew to Botswana to view the Lesedi and called it a “life-altering experience.” One of his associates, Halina Kaban, said, “I hope they never cut it.” (I almost fell off my chair when I read this – it was exactly what I thought when I saw the Lesedi.)

Lesedi la Rona: The rough 1,109 carats diamond

Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

THE VENOMOUS BACKLASH BEGINS

The author, Matthew Hart, reports: “Even before I had seen the diamond, I had heard dealers put it down. It was no secret that the diamond trade was trash-talking the Lesedi. The street was awash in poisonous gossip. I had always thought that the diamond itself would silence such talk. But no – at the auction these people had William Lamb at their mercy.”

THE CONCLUSION

The high-end diamond game is played on a very small field by a very few players. So it matters when people such as billionaire Laurence Graff say, “It’s just not how it’s done. We don’t want to expose ourselves in public [at an auction]. We find it undesirable.” NOTE: Graff is 78 years old. Perhaps times are changing. Less than a month later, Lamb had an offer for the Lesedi La Rona that was well above the failed auction price.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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