Rare and Renowned Red-on-Black Opal—“The Flame Queen”
Lot 4365
Rare and Renowned Red-on-Black Opal—“The Flame Queen”
Sold for US$ 120,000 inc. premium

Natural History

22 Jun 2008, 11:00 PDT

Los Angeles

Lot Details
Rare and Renowned Red-on-Black Opal—“The Flame Queen” Rare and Renowned Red-on-Black Opal—“The Flame Queen”
Rare and Renowned Red-on-Black Opal—“The Flame Queen”
Property of a Family Trust

Bald Hill Workings, Lightning Ridge, Australia
Ever since it was found at Lightning Ridge in 1915 by miners Jack Philips, Walter Bradley and “Irish” Joe Hegarty, this famous opal has attracted worldwide attention as one of the rarest and most superb specimens of its kind.

At the time Lightning Ridge was a risky place to speculate for opals. Early miners used picks and shovels, battling fatigue and hunger in their desparate search to find opal-rich clay. The three men took over a claim that was abandoned by a miner who left to fight in World War I. Hegarty completed the partially dug tunnel, but when he reached the typical opal level, usually around 30 feet down the shaft, it did not reveal any color—usually an indicator of the presence of gemstones—and he suspected the claim was worthless. Once Hegarty reached the clay strata, he and Bradley tunneled vertically, a dangerous procedure that could result in the collapse of the entire site. At this level nearly 35 feet below the surface, in a tunnel little more than 2 ½ feet wide with little ventilation and light, Bradley discovered a “great nobby”. He was hoisted up so that he could examine the stone under daylight.

Of the three partners, Bradley was the most skilled lapidary and had the best equipment to cut and polish the rough. He took a “bite” at the great black nobby with his steel snips—which revealed the brilliance of the opal within—a dazzling red domed center with a greenish-blue border. The three men, broke and exhausted from their labor, and hungry from eating only pancakes and syrup for three weeks, hastily sold the 263.18 carats opal to a gem buyer for £93.

The most unusual color pattern of this remarkable opal is best described as having the appearance of a fried egg—gemologically known as the “eye-of-opal” effect—created when opal infills a cavity. “The Flame Queen” is the best known gem of this type. Polished as a broad, pear-shaped buff top cabochon, its flashes change from vivid red to fiery bronze when viewed from different angles and in different light.

The cut and shape are highly unusual and enhance the natural formation of the stone. Under differing lights and angles, the stone reflects numerous combinations of color in a unique and remarkable way. In his The Opal Book , Frank Leechman writes “It is interesting to note that Mr. B. Dustan, sometime Queensland Government Geologist, mentioned in a report that the back of the Flame Queen is impressed with what appears to be traces of a gingko, a prehistoric tree which still survives in eastern Asia, where it is known as the Chinese maidenhair tree. “

A unique stone with a rich history, the Flame Queen was exhibited in London in 1937 on the occasion of the Coronation of King George VI during the time it was part of the famous Kelsey Newman Collection of Opals. It was subsequently sold at Christie's Geneva on 21 November 1973, when it was bought on behalf of a client by David Callaghan of Hancocks & Co., then of Burlington Gardens, London. David Callaghan, appointed Chairman of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain in 1980, negotiated to borrow the stone from the client for display at the Geological Museum, South Kensington, to mark the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Gemmological Association. The stone was displayed in its own security case.

The “Flame Queen” takes its place in gemological history with other notable opals found in Lightning Ridge—but as a “red-on-black” opal it is a world-renowned, unique specimen—and one of only a handful of museum-quality examples ever to come to auction. Weighing approximately 263.18 carats and measuring approximately 72.13 x 57.73 x 11.5mm


  • Offered in an original fitted red leather box.

    Accompanied by an American Gemological Laboratories, colored stone report number CS36709 dated January 9, 2004 stating Natural Semi-Black Opal, Australian. No gemological evidence of enhancements/treatments present. This material exhibits a fine pattern of shallow crazing.

    Purchased by Ernie Sherman, Australian opal dealer, circa 1915
    The Kelsey I. Newman Collection of Opals, United States, until 1973
    Sold Christie’s Geneva, 1973
    Purchased by Jack Plane Collection
    A Family Trust

    The Geological Museum, London, in 1937 on the occasion of the Coronation of King George VI and again at the Gemological Institute, London, in 1980-81.

    “Field Guide to Australian Opals”, by Barrie O’Leary.

    Australian Opals in Colour”, by N & R Perry.

    “The Opal Book”, by Frank Leechman, published 1961, pages 198-200.
    Quoted as writing “The Flame Queen has remained a collectors’ piece to this day and is perhaps the most famous of all the great opals.”

    “The Book of Opal”, by Wilfred Charles Eyles, published by Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., Japan, 1964, page 94-95.
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