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cultural capital

Jewelry Shopping With Ellen Barkin

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Bejewelled Barkin at the Vanity Fair Oscars party.Photo: Patrick McMullan

"They're gold and emerald cuffs that were the Duchess of Windsor's," Ellen Barkin says in her sexy rasp on the audio guide for her jewelry auction. "I wore them in a very relaxed way," she adds. They're estimated to sell for up to $80,000.

If you've been craving Wallis Simpson's bijoux, you should get moving quickly. The Christie's auction of jewels Ron Perelman gave Barkin during their soon-to-be-former marriage began moments ago, and the final public preview this afternoon drew everyone from a woman in purple running shorts to suburban matrons to a 54-year-old anonymous collector from Manhattan who brought his "acquisition adviser" and had specific plans to bid, though he wouldn't say on what. "I'm interested in the provenance," he sniffed. "I find it pretty fascinating who owned what and whether they had a happy life. That reflects in the jewelry."

His verdict on Barkin?

"I think she did famously. She had great taste. It's a very personalized collection, one of the most important ones that I've seen in the 21st century. If she had held on to this stuff, it would have had the same appeal as the Duchess of Windsor's."

The exhibition's JAR room, dedicated to the most rarefied part of the collection (JAR, a Parisian jeweler, makes only a dozen or so extremely, extremely expensive pieces a year) was dim, barely lit; mini Christie's flashlights on key chains sat in a bowl by the entrance. The jewelry was presented on black fabric draped on classical busts painted black.

"Do you know why they're doing this dark thing?" asked Helen Harris, a retired English professor from Stony Brook, Long Island. "Is it just for drama?" Probably. Harris comes to Christie's often — " I bought the ring I'm wearing here. I almost had a heart attack, but I love this kind of thing" — but she did not plan to bid today. "It's the outrageousness of what her husband gave her," she said, explaining why she stopped by. "And I like her," she added. "I think she's a good actress. Good, not great."

She examined a diamond JAR ring in the shape of a gardenia, estimated to go for $100,000 to $150,000. "The gardenia ring is, I think, an astounding ring, and probably one of the most spectacular things in the collection," Barkin explains in her audio tour. "It takes up three of my fingers … I wore that ring casually as well. I know that's a little hard to believe. I wouldn't wear it in the daytime to go pick my kids up at school. But I would wear it out to dinner to a casual restaurant, with a suit or a black skirt and a sweater." Harris couldn't have felt more differently. "Wouldn't you be scared to wear this stuff?" she asked. "I'd want to walk around with a guy with a gun."

A blonde with puckered lips and a green alligator bag tried on several JAR pieces — in the main room, with regular lighting. A family from Long Island — the Levine girls, they call themselves — clucked over a Van Cleef & Arpels bracelet and leafed through the collection book, which featured photos of a jewel-bedecked Barkin surrounded by her famous friends (Julianne Moore, a Huvane or two). The buzz was all about Perelman and whether Barkin got to keep any of her spoils.

"They're unusual, and I think they're so numerous for one person," a Bronxville lady muttered. "And for a young person!" added her Manhattan friend. "Usually you have to be older to have this much." Both women wore black tops, winter white slacks, and serious jewelry; it turns out they had once worked at Christie's themselves. "A lady in my building saw us today, and she said, 'You must go to see it,'" Manhattan said. They admitted they didn't really know much about Barkin. "Is that her?" they said, pointing to an enormous portrait of the actress wearing enormous false eyelashes and even more enormous diamond earrings.

"We're on an excursion," Bronxville added (ladies like these don't give their real names). "It's fun, you know. I'm satisfied to look."

The Levine girls, not so much. They gathered around a showcase, where a Christie's employee was busy showing them a 30-carat diamond ring valued at $1 million. "Is that an engagement ring?" Robin Levine joked. "Friendship ring," the employee replied dryly. "How long were they friends?" Levine wanted to know. "Five years."

Her sister Dale Finkelstein had already visited the jewels once before, with her husband; this time she brought her mother and sister. "In case the husband didn't get it, maybe the mother would," mom Levine, Carol, said. They all tried on the 30-carat ring; no takers.

Robin pointed out another bauble that Perelman was rumored to have given Barkin just weeks before he asked for a divorce.

"Imagine how angry he is," she said. She paused. "I think he's available now."

Melena Ryzik

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