World-Famous Stone Highlights Collection of Opals in June Natural History Auction at Bonhams & Butterfields

. March 26, 2008

International fine arts auctioneers Bonhams & Butterfields will offer in its June 22, 2008 sale of Natural History perhaps the most famous and recognizable opal in the world. Dubbed the “Flame Queen,” the legendary stone highlights the core of an opal collection on offer this summer in the auctioneer’s first simulcast Natural History sale in seven years – bidding from the San Francisco and Los Angeles salesrooms expected to be competitive.

Extraordinary not only for its large size (263.18-carats), but also for its unusual shape and color pattern, the “Flame Queen” is one of only a handful of large museum-quality opals known to man, even fewer have ever been offered at public auction. The “Flame Queen” is oval in shape with a flat central dome surrounded by a blue-green band – lending it the appearance of a fried egg.

Known to aficionados around the globe, The “Flame Queen” could bring as much as $250,000, sought after by collectors and connoisseurs alike. It is one of the most prominent examples of the eye-of-opal effect, which is created when an opal in-fills a cavity. A truly magnificent stone, the “Flame Queen” possesses the ability to change color when viewed from different angles.

According to Bonhams & Butterfields’ consulting gemologist Claudia Florian, the “Flame Queen” opal was discovered in 1914 at the Bald Hill Workings in Lightning Ridge, Australia by three partners: Jack Phillips, Walter Bradley and Joe Hegarty. Speculating at Lighting Ridge was a risky venture and these miners had begun working the land after another miner had abandoned his plot to fight in WWI.

After completing a tunnel 30-feet down, traditionally “opal level,” the dig appeared worthless to Hegarty. The clay revealed none of the telltale color that indicates the presence of gemstones. Hegarty and Bradley then attempted to redirect the digging vertically –a dangerous endeavor that could result in a collapse of the entire site.

Almost 35-feet below the surface, in a 2 _-foot wide tunnel, Bradley, suffering from lack of ventilation and light, discovered an opal formation known informally as a “great nobby” otherwise described as an opal nodule—a ball that is clay-like in composition filled with opal producing material. He signaled his crew to hoist him up to examine the stone in daylight.

Bradley was the most skilled lapidary of the three partners and was therefore responsible to polish and cut the rough stone. His labors produced a brilliant red-domed raised center surrounded by a strong expanse of green-blue border. Exhausted and broke, the miners sold the stone in 1914 to a gem buyer for a reported £93. At Auction in 2008, the “Flame Queen” is estimated to bring $150,000-250,000 on June 22 at Bonhams & Butterfields. Its historic provenance should add some further appeal to an already aesthetic piece—it was on display in London at the coronation of King George VI in 1934.

Also on offer within the opal section of the June sale is a huge 1,397-carat free-form polished “light” opal found in 2001 in a relatively new opal field on a Lambina cattle station not far from the region of Mintabie in a remote part of South Australia. Opal from this renowned location is referred to usually as “Lambina opal”– and this particular specimen is classed as “light opal” as it is better quality than the more common “white opal”. This is a category between white and crystal opal in value. Stones of this size, with play-of-color on both sides and without fractures, are very rare. It is estimated to bring $20,000-30,000 at auction.

The Australian localities of Andamooka, White Cliffs and Koroit are also represented with examples of matrix opal (estimate $2/3,000), an opal “pineapple” (est. $40/50,000), and a pure black opal-filled Yowah nut (a type of nodule—estimated to bring $65/80,000). But perhaps the most astounding lot is an opalized pleiosaur jawbone fragment—truly gemmy in appearance with brilliant flashes of play-of-fire beneath its surface, this example from Coober Pedy, which is expected to fetch $25,000-30,000. Also from Coober Pedy are examples of opalized clams, both individuals suitable for mounting as jewelry, or an entire “plate” of opalized clams.

Rounding out the section of opals are selections of unmounted stones and jewelry from other localities such as Mexico, Brazil, and the far less frequent domestic examples stemming from Louisiana, Oregon and Nevada.

As long-time pioneers of Natural History sales, Bonhams & Butterfields, with the guidance of Thomas Lindgren and Claudia Florian G.J.G, has expanded the collecting area’s strict association with million-year old remnants of plant and animal life or rough mineral specimens, to include rare and unique objects d’art, exquisite jewelry and wearable gemstones as well as exceptional décor. Auction previews open to the public June 13-15 in Los Angeles and continue in San Francisco June 20-22, daily from 10am-5pm until the start of the auction. The illustrated catalog will be available online in the weeks preceding the sale at www.bonhams.com/us.

Category: Auction News

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