Mitzi Perdue Decided to Auction Her Emerald Engagement Ring to Support Ukraine

mitzi purdue auction emerald ring
Why Mitzi Purdue Is Auctioning Her Engagement RingDesign by Michael Stillwell

Mitzi Perdue wanted to do something special to help Ukraine.

So, in a remarkable decision, she is auctioning off her beloved emerald engagement ring, which was given to her by her late husband Frank Perdue. But it's no ordinary ring—the stone was found by treasure hunters off the coast of Florida, centuries after the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon, sunk in 1622.

In the 1960s, diver Mel Fisher and his team uncovered the Santa Margarita shipwreck off the coast of Florida, and in 1985, Fisher and the divers uncovered the main hull of the Atocha—and its remarkable treasure. Per Smithsonian Magazine, "In addition to 70 pounds of Colombian emeralds, the ship contained 180,000 silver coins, 24 tons of Bolivian silver, 125 gold bars and a collection of Venezuelan pearls." Other emeralds from the shipwreck were put up for auction in 2017.

The state of Florida tried to claim the valuables, but the Supreme Court ruled that the findings would remain with the treasure hunters. Frank Perdue had funded the exhibition, and had first claim to what was recovered. He donated many of the treasures to the Smithsonian Institution and Delaware Tech, but he turned one emerald into an engagement ring, which he used to propose to Mitzi with in 1988.

"My late husband was the most philanthropic person I ever knew, and I was certain that he'd be pleased with this use of his gift," Perdue tells Town & Country.

mitzi perdue engagement ring
Mitzi and Frank Purdue after their engagement at the Plaza Hotel, 1988.Mitzi Perdue

When she was thinking about putting the ring up for auction, Perdue considered her emotional connection to the gem. "The sentimentality reaches to the outer galaxies," she says, "but when I was deciding whether to do it or not, I was thinking, 'Oh, this ring has the possibility of saving people from a lot of suffering. 'In the grand scale scale of weighing things, which counts for more, really doing some good for a lot of people, or having it benefiting one person?"

The choice she made is clear: Sotheby's will auction the ring on December 7, and it will be a landmark moment for the New York City-based auction house. Sotheby's confirmed to T&C that this is the first piece of jewelry offered at Sotheby's where a consignor has chosen to donate proceeds to humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.

mitzi perdue
Mitzi and General Andriy Nebytov of the Kyiv Regional Police in Ukraine.Mitzi Perdue

Perdue has seen the need for support in Ukraine firsthand. After she wrote an article about the region earlier this year, Andriy Nebytov, of the Kyiv Regional Police, invited her to come see Ukraine up close.

"I spent five days there," she recalls. "My first night was in a bomb shelter, so it was eventful, but I came away with just infinite admiration for the people of Ukraine and their strength, their backbone, and courage."

Perdue credits her interest in philanthropy to her father, Ernest Henderson, who co-founded the Sheraton Hotel Chain. When she was just 10 years old, he offered her some wisdom that she says influenced the rest of her life: "The greatest pleasure that my money ever gave me has been in giving it away," he said.

portrait of ginger rogers dancing with ernest henderson
In 1957, Mitzi’s father Ernest Henderson donated $10,000 to Hungarian relief "for the privilege of a whirl on the dance floor with Ginger Rogers" (pictured).Bettmann - Getty Images

Still, to auction off one's own engagement ring, and one with such a rich history, is a big decision.

"When one considers that this emerald is part of one of the richest discoveries of sunken treasure in all of history, the appeal to collectors in search of superlatives is extraordinary," Alexander Eblen, Senior Specialist of Sotheby’s Jewelry Department in New York, tells Town & Country over e-mail. "A collection of emerald gems and rough crystals known to have been mined prior to 1622, at a time when the fabled Colombian mines of Muzo and Chivor were producing some of their most historically important gems, sitting unperturbed at the bottom of the ocean for over 350 years is a unique occurrence indeed."

Eblen continues,"For discerning collectors seeking a gem of great beauty without compromise as well as a story of unparalleled romance and determination, it is difficult to imagine anything more desirable."

emerald ring sotheby's
The 5.7 carat octagonal step-cut emerald ring.Sotheby's

The emerald itself, separate from its provenance, is also rare. "Any emerald over perhaps three carats enters into a rarified level of value when it has an even, strongly saturated and relatively pure green hue with a tone that is neither too light nor too dark," Eblen shares. "This gem embodies those criteria, possessing a superb color. Considering that this stone is also over five carats in size, has been expertly cut and faceted to produce lively internal reflections, and exhibits a high degree of clarity without extensive use of clarity enhancement (so common in emeralds), the rarity becomes even more significant. The fact that this stone is of Colombian origin adds a level of distinction that is unequaled in emeralds from any other global source."

mitzi perdue
Frank and Mitzi in an undated photo.Mitzi Perdue

Perdue shared that she has a "pipe dream" for what she hopes comes out of the sale: That others will part with their valuables for a good cause.

"I've gotten a lot of personal satisfaction out of putting up this stone for auction," she says. "It occurred to me that there are other people who have either jewelry, or possibly works of art, that they would put up to help Ukraine. Very often, wealthy people have things that are in storage—they have things of great value that could be used to benefit Ukraine. I would personally adore it if other people got the chance to have the same satisfaction that I'm getting from knowing that this ring will have humanitarian help."

She adds, "I've never regretted offering this stone for auction."

Mitzi Perdue's emerald engagement ring from the Atocha wreck will be auctioned at Sotheby’s Magnificent Jewels auction on December 7, 2022.

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