Between 1915 and 1918, Christie’s in London held a series of annual charity auctions to benefit the work of the Red Cross, the world’s largest humanitarian network helping people affected by conflict and armed violence. Each auction was held over 10 to 15 days, and included a wealth of objects, from wines and furs to jewellery and porcelain, donated by members of the public in memory of soldiers who had lost their lives.
Intense public interest meant that good prices were achieved, and the sales raised a combined total of more than £320,000 (around £13.9 million today).
Among the most spectacular lots to be offered was the Red Cross Diamond, a 205-carat canary-yellow, cushion-shaped diamond with a pavilion faceted in the shape of a Maltese cross.
The Red Cross Diamond. A superb coloured diamond. Fancy intense yellow cushion modified brilliant-cut diamond of 205.07 carats. Size/dimensions: 33.83 x 33.80 x 24.91 mm. Sold for CHF 14,181,250 on 11 May 2022 at Christie’s in Geneva
‘The combination of the huge weight, intense yellow colour and the fact that the cross has been faceted inside makes it one of the rarest stones on Earth,’ explains François Curiel, chairman of Christie’s Europe and head of the Luxury department.
On 11 May the stone will be offered at Christie’s for the third time in just over 100 years, with a significant portion of the sale proceeds benefiting the International Committee of the Red Cross.
‘I am very proud and honoured to be involved in the sale of this diamond,’ says Curiel, adding that ‘the cause is even more poignant in the midst of current events.’
A newspaper report on the sale of the Red Cross Diamond at Christie’s in April 1918. Photo: © London Illustrated London News Group / Mary Evans Picture Library
The original rough stone, weighing around 375 carats, was unearthed in a De Beers-owned mine in South Africa in 1901. The diamond was first offered for sale by the Diamond Syndicate, now the Diamond Trading Company, on 10 April 1918, in aid of the British Red Cross and the Order of St John, which uses the Maltese cross as its symbol.
After a spirited bidding battle in the saleroom, the stone sold to London jeweller S. J. Phillips for a staggering £10,000 — the equivalent of about £600,000 today — which was more than triple the starting bid. It made the top price of the sale, which achieved a total of £50,000 (approximately £3 million today).
The stone came to Christie’s again in November 1973, this time in Geneva, and sold for CHF 1.8 million. ‘This is the third occasion on which Christie’s has presented this extraordinary diamond,’ says Curiel. ‘It is a tremendous honour.’
The Red Cross auctions at Christie’s in 1918 raised tremendous sums in support of the charity’s work. Photo: A. R. Coster / Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Christie’s and the Red Cross have a long history of partnership during humanitarian crises. In addition to the auctions held during the First World War, Christie’s staged the Red Cross Pearls sale in December 1918, to support the treatment and aftercare of the wounded.
The sale included 41 necklaces, scarf pins, brooches and rings fashioned from the 3,597 pearls donated to the Red Cross Pearl Appeal by people from all strata of British society. ‘If every pearl is a tear, may this one pearl represent only a tear of laughter,’ wrote one donor. Another sent a pearl ‘in memory of a pearl beyond all price already given — my only son’.
People queued around the block to see the jewels during the three-day exhibition at Christie’s in King Street, with many speculating on the price of the star lot: a necklace of 63 graduated pearls with a rose diamond clasp. Now known as the Red Cross Pearl Necklace, it was bought by a jeweller, Mr Carrington Smith, for £22,000 — the equivalent of around £1.3 million today.
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Other notable benefit events included the 1940 auction of donated jewellery from Great Britain’s royalty and aristocracy, and the 1986 auction in aid of the Red Cross Sudan Appeal. In 2018, Christie’s made a donation to the Red Cross in response to the wildfires in California, and in 2020 the company donated 500 of its Christie’s Education online courses to support the International Fundraising Committee of the British Red Cross.