Ralph Esmerian put Fred Leighton into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to halt the auction Tuesday of a collection of fine jewels and gems, according to his lawyer.

The 115-piece collection was set to be auctioned off at Christie’s at 6:00 today, but the bankruptcy filing prevents any creditors from collecting on their debt, said Helen Davis Chaitman, who works at Phillips Nizer and is Esmerian’s attorney. At 5:00 Chaitman said she was going to stop the auction and had notified Merrill of the filing.

“The company’s solvent,” said Chaitman. “We just did this in order to prevent the desecration of this collection.” The other entities that held pieces to be auctioned off were also put into bankruptcy.

Esmerian still owes Merrill Lynch about $180 million on loans he used to finance his 2006 purchase of the Leighton business. He missed part of a payment in the fall and has been tangling with Merrill in court since.

After Esmerian bought the fourth-generation Manhattan fine jewelry dealer, he tapped Martha Stewart’s former stockbroker, Peter Bacanovic, to be chief executive officer.

For complete coverage, see Wednesday’s issue of WWD.

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