Elizabeth Taylor and George Hamilton are sitting tête à tête and tan to tan in one of Manhattan's most elegant restaurants, glowing in the candlelight like opulent desserts, and every eye in the room is feasting on them. But it isn't Liz the uptown types are ogling. It isn't even the lady's dress (it matches her eyes) or what's sitting on her plate (roast chicken salad). It's what she's got on the front of her dress—and it isn't mayonnaise. It's a $623,000 whim wham, purchased by Liz during Sotheby's monster auction in Geneva that put the Duchess of Windsor's glittering gems up for grabs among the world's elite spenders.

The Queen of Diamonds' latest acquisition is a jeweled clip that replicates in yellow gold and diamonds the crown and feathered crest of the Prince of Wales. It's loaded with emotional meaning for Taylor, not only because she knew and admired the Duchess. The sparkling trinket had also dazzled and moved Richard Burton because of its symbolic celebration of his native land. Liz told Sotheby's in advance that she coveted the item and afterward admitted privately that she would have bid up to $700,000 to acquire it. She didn't have to, but nevertheless paid 30 times more than its estimated value. "I felt so guilty, it seems so indulgent," she explained. "I've never spent that much on myself before." Perhaps because she's always had a man to do it for her.

Last December, seven months after the Duchess of Windsor died at age 89, Nicholas Rayner, 49, the deft Brit who is director of the Geneva branch of Sotheby's, won the right to sell the bulk of the collection at public auction. He set in motion a shrewd plan to whip up worldwide Windsormania. Engraved invitations were sent to celebrated jewel buffs, Taylor among them. The Duchess' collection (valued at $7.5 million, it ultimately sold for an astonishing $50.3 million) was exhibited to long lines of jewelry junkies in three playgrounds of plutocracy: Palm Beach, New York and Geneva. The auction house conspicuously avoided a public showing in London—partly in deference to the royal family, which still knows Wallis Warfield Simpson as "that beastly woman," the American two-time divorcée who triggered the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936.

Many of the pieces up for sale were massive and today might seem vulgar, but in the 1940s and '50s, they registered grandeur, and Wallis wore them (as she wore everything) with panache. Like the great fashion houses, which catered to her passion for "skeletal chic," the leading jewelers (Cartier, Harry Winston, Van Cleef & Arpels) supplied her demand for mineral ostentation. By the time the Duke died, in 1972, she had accumulated one of the world's great collections of jewelry, a love story written in stone.

The RSVPs flooded in.

The April 2-3 auction, the most successful in Sotheby's history, lived up to its much-trumpeted expectations. "There was a tremendous demand for seats," recalled Rayner. "We had to make sure that we were getting serious bidders in that tent, not just penniless tourists looking for an exciting evening." So about 100 spots were kept open for last-minute contenders. In the end, a jabbering mob of some 1,200 megarich and lesser millionaires donned black-tie and crammed into an enormous red-and-white-striped tent set up on the banks of Lake Geneva.

Royalty was represented by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Maria del Pilar, the Duchess of Badajoz (the Infanta of Spain), Princess Firyal of Jordan, Prince and Princess Sadruddin Khan. Then there were dozens of dukes, earls, barons, sultans, sheiks and such. Ann Getty, Burton's widow Sally Hay, and Swiss steel magnate Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza were there, along with a couple of Rothschilds and Patinos and a small showbiz delegation headed by singer Shirley Bassey and divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson.

In the nearby Beau Rivage hotel, about 750 leftover fat cats milled around. About 500 more packed into Sotheby's in Manhattan, where notables such as Estée Lauder were connected to Geneva by telephone and satellite. The poor were also well represented: 200 journalists and 17 TV crews showed up to cover the event.

Seconds after the bidding opened, the gilded herd stampeded. "The atmosphere was electric," said Aline, the Countess Romanones, an old friend of the Duchess. "It was absolute lunacy," added one Sotheby's official. "Everything that had been touched by the Windsors turned to gold." Lot No. 1, an undistinguished set of diamond studs and cufflinks valued at a lowly $7,500, set off a spending frenzy on both sides of the Atlantic that drove the price to $328,000. Lot No. 2, a diamond clip, rocketed to $484,000—about 240 times its appraised worth. And so it went all day long. A diamond-and-ruby-paved brooch listed at $112,000 was chased all the way to $806,000. Wallis' engagement ring, carbuncled with a walnut-sized emerald, brought 4½ times its book value: $2.1 million. A pair of yellow diamond lapel clips were grabbed by the same British dealer, Laurence Graff, for four times their list price: $2,273,000.

Taylor, meanwhile, was pacing the patio of her Bel-Air mansion, a Salem in one hand and a phone in the other. The telephone, installed by Sotheby's, connected her directly to the company's Manhattan gallery, where a representative stood by to relay her bids via satellite to Geneva.

Then, at the end of Day One a ferocious transatlantic battle of bids was fought for the pride of the collection. The flawless, 31-carat Winston diamond, a rock the size of an ice cube, was sold to a terrified but triumphant Japanese businessman, Tsuneo Takagi, for $3,122,746, a 378 percent inflation of its estimated value. "He closed his eyes and went into meditation," said one eyewitness. "All of a sudden he took a deep breath, nodded his head and that was his signal he would meet the price. Everyone stood up and started applauding."

At the last thud of the gavel on Day Two, Rayner was "stupefied" by the runaway response. "We added on, say, 20 percent for romantic nostalgia, but it was no-holds-barred all the way," he said. "We had over 100 pre-sale bids in writing and not one was successful."

There was speculation in a London newspaper that Princess Diana was one of the losers. It was reported that she had her heart set on a diamond-and-onyx panther bracelet. But Queen Elizabeth reportedly vetoed the idea, fearing that the jewel would be a continual reminder of a royal scandal. Rayner confirmed that Garrard & Co. Ltd., jewelers by appointment to Buckingham Palace, bid unsuccessfully on several items. In any case, the envious Princess of Wales can drive to the Tower of London, whose agents made several minor purchases.

Mitchelson delivered his own excited postmortem. "It was the most incredible, gripping thing I've ever attended," said the palimony king. "Every socialite in the world wanted to own something that belonged to the Duchess of Windsor. People went crazy." Caught up in the delirium, Mitchelson picked up a 206-carat, $350,000 sapphire pendant for a client he all but admitted was Dynasty's Joan Collins and spent $600,000 for an amethyst necklace "in honor of my mother," who died several years ago. Mitchelson plans to keep the necklace in a shrine dedicated to her, but his wife, Marcella, will wear it occasionally.

Some Britons were less enthusiastic about the sumptuous sweepstakes. "Had the sale not been for charity," said the London Observer, "it would have been quite obscene. Sickening, in fact. A vulgar bid to throw money away in public." London's Daily Mail, on the other hand, cunningly piggybacked the proceedings by buying four of the less imposing items in the collection and offering them to its readers as prizes in a contest designed to boost circulation.

One touching tale emerged from the mercenary melee. Ray Paton, 48, a Cockney and Cambridgeshire real-estate developer whose wife, Joan, had suffered a mysterious facial paralysis, took her to the auction and spent $11,260 on a set of cultured-pearl studs—just to thank her for fighting so hard to get better. "We have this feeling that we are bringing something back-to England that rightfully belongs here," said Ray. "That they're coming home."

After Sotheby's deducts its 10 percent fee, $45,277,000 will go to the Institut Pasteur, which has become France's leading center for AIDS research. The sum has tentatively been assigned for the construction of a new facility for the study of AIDS, cancer and the retroviruses. That fact would surely have surprised the Duchess. "She did not, as has been reported, leave the bequest to AIDS research," said Suzanne Blum, the Windsors' Paris attorney who drew up the will in 1972, before the Duchess slipped into senile dementia. "At that time, we hadn't heard of AIDS." Still, by an ironical twist of destiny, the Windsors may do more for humanity in death than ever they did in life.

After handily winning the Battle of Geneva and a shimmering prize, Liz briskly moved on to her next project: the creation and promotion of a new perfume called Elizabeth Taylor's Passion. (Prices start at $25 for Eau de Toilette, but for $165, the customer gets one ounce of perfume with "hints of Gardenia gently combed into Jasmine and trimmed in Rose," plus an alluring vial designed around the geometric theme of a diamond.) Having called high tea in Manhattan recently for a few women magazine editors, Liz held forth on her diet, her tan and, naturally, her fragrance. "They wanted me to call it Divine Extravagance," Liz said. "I told them that was awful." But on this day the subject of diamonds could not be avoided. "Could you run upstairs," Taylor whispered to an assistant. "I left my ring on the sink."

A guest took up the theme. "Miss Taylor, you seem to love jewels so much," she said.

Liz grinned. "No," she sweetly corrected. "They love me!"

Written by Brad Darrach, reported by Tom Cunneff, Eleanor Hoover, David Wallace and the London, Paris and Geneva bureaus

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Eleanor Hoover,
  • David Wallace.