Liz Taylor's 'Taj Mahal' diamond sparks Christie's auction house dispute

Heart-shaped diamond, symbol of infamously rocky Hollywood relationship, now subject of $7-million legal fight

It was once a symbol of love — a birthday gift from one movie icon to another.

Now Elizabeth Taylor's heart-shaped diamond known as the "Taj Mahal" is at the center of a legal squabble between the trustees of the glamorous actress' estate and Christie's auction house.

The diamond

The precious stone was given by her then-husband Richard Burton on her 40th birthday.

"I set out to buy the Taj Mahal for my wife's 40th birthday," Burton told reporters at a Budapest hotel in 1974, according to Times reports. "Finding it difficult to buy the Taj, I bought this diamond for her instead."

Burton told reporters Taylor gave the gift the once-over. "Elizabeth went over it with a magnifying glass.... She liked it."

Burton was known for lavishing her with priceless gems, including the behemoth Krupp diamond and a 25-carat heart-shaped pendant of diamonds and rubies.

The Taj Mahal was among an array of items in Taylor's immense collection of jewelry and other belongings that were sold by the New York auction house in 2011 and 2012.

The diamond pendant sold for more than $8 million to an anonymous buyer after Taylor died in 2011.

The dispute

The dispute focuses on an inscription on the piece that bears the name of a Mughal emperor's wife. The empire, which covered a swath of Southeast Asia, existed from the 16th to the mid-19th centuries.

Months after the diamond's sale, the buyer — who is known only to the auction house ­— demanded that the sale be canceled based on the buyer's contention that the stone was not from the Mughal period, according to the lawsuit filed by trustees of Taylor's estate.

Christie's agreed to cancel the sale even though the auction house had never guaranteed the age of the diamond, the lawsuit alleges. The diamond had been described only as being of Indian origin, the trustees contend.

$7-million battle

The auction house has demanded that Taylor's trust return more than $7 million it received from the sale, the lawsuit said. The trustees allege the auction house has violated its agreement to auction off the estate and did so only to appease a "VIP customer."

A Christie's spokesperson said in a statement that 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 says the suit involves the auction house "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."

An attorney representing the trustees declined to comment.

The lawsuit also alleges that Christie's has refused to return unsold items as part of an effort to strong-arm the trust into returning the sale proceeds of the diamond.

Also at issue

The trustees say the auction house also canceled the sales of other items (including a Bela Kadar painting, which sold for £7,000 in London); failed to account for some items sold at auction (including silver-plated ear clips, a pink tulle sequined evening gown and a Valentino bag); and failed to pay the trust for items sold at auction (including an emerald-and-diamond ring known as the "Bulgari Ring" worth nearly $3 million).

The trustees allege that other proceeds that have yet to be turned over had been earmarked for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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