Christie's to sell drug-smuggler's $1m jewels

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IN AN unprecedented arrangement, Christie's will be openly selling diamonds today that have been seized from a convicted drug smuggler, after being hired to do so by United States Customs.

The collection of 33 coloured diamonds will go under the hammer at the spring jewellery sale in New York. The previous owner, Stephen Jenks, is a former drugs smuggler who recently served time and now makes a living mowing lawns in Florida.

US Customs acquired the stones in 1994, the year Jenks, 46, was apprehended after an 18-year manhunt. Jenks was charged with smuggling pounds 55,000 of marijuana into the US between 1978 and 1982.

He entered into a plea bargain that earned him a reduced prison sentence of three years that he has already served. But as part of the deal, he had to forfeit his collection of diamonds to the government.

Customs is used to auctioning off less valuable items seized from criminals, from stereos to cars. But this marks the first time that it has ever approached an international auction house to do the job.

The estimated sale price for all 33 stones is $400,000-$500,000 (pounds 238,000- pounds 297,000). Probably, however, they will go for much more. "The quality is of an extremely high standard," says British auctioneer Simon Teakle, who heads the Christie's jewellery department in New York and will be auctioneer at the sale. "I would be disappointed if we didn't get closer to a million."

Mr Teakle admits he was "taken aback" when US Customs contacted him about the jewels. He sent a colleague to take a look and a deal was reached on selling them just before Christmas.

For US Customs, the sale is an unusual opportunity to publicise its "Asset Forfeiture Fund", created by Congress in 1992. The fund is fed by the sale of assets seized by the different agencies of the US Treasury, including Customs, and is disbursed to pay for crime prevention. Money raised at Christie's today will go to programmes combating drugs.

As for Christie's, all pre-sale publicity is welcome. Because the vendor of these stones is the US government, not Jenks, or a dealer, there is no reason for buyers to be worried about their shady history. "It might even tickle imaginations a bit," says Mr Teakle.

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