At jewellery auctions, provenance always pushes demand - and prices - sky-high. Attribute a gemstone to the collection of a celebrated actress or socialite and it will most likely achieve far more than the standard cost-per-carat. So it’s difficult to put a price on a collection of jewellery owned by the last Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette, which is set to be auctioned in a landmark sale at Sotheby’s in Geneva this November.
The sale features over 100 jewels from the Bourbon-Parma royal family, many of which have never before been seen in public. Among them are several pieces from Marie-Antoinette’s personal collection.
In March 1791, as she was preparing to flee France during the French Revolution, the queen wrapped her jewels in cotton and had them smuggled out of the palace, to be sent to a trusted Count in Brussels. From there, the Count delivered the package to the Queen’s nephew, the Austrian Emperor, in Vienna for safekeeping.
The Queen, of course, wouldn’t live to see her jewels again: she was beheaded on 16 October 1793. But her daughter, Marie-Thérèse, fled to Vienna after being released from prison, and was reunited with her mother’s precious possessions. As she had no children, when she died the jewels were passed onto her husband’s niece, Louise of France (granddaughter of King Charles X), and they have remained in the Bourbon-Parma royal family ever since.
Marie-Antoinette was renowned for her love of jewels, in particular pearls and diamonds. The notorious ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’ in 1785, in which the Queen was duped by a fraudster and wrongly accused of defrauding the crown jeweller of an extravagant diamond necklace, is widely believed to have contributed to the start of the French Revolution.
Five diamonds that belonged to the Queen have been incorporated into a diamond parure that’s set to be sold at Sotheby’s. The set includes a necklace, earrings and detachable pendant comprising 95 diamonds in total, many of which came from the sword of the Duke of Berry, son of Charles X. It carries an estimate of $300,000 - $500,000 (£225,000 - £375,000).
That pales in comparison to the $1-2 million (£750,000 - £1.5m) estimate for the auction’s star lot, Marie-Antoinette’s natural pearl and diamond pendant. Natural pearls are exceptionally rare, and the pendant sees a 26mm long pearl hanging from a diamond bow motif, which itself is suspended from a sizeable old-cut diamond.
More of Marie-Antoinette’s beloved pearls are up for sale in the form of a pair of natural pearl drop earrings (estimate $30,000 - $50,000 / £22,500 - £37,500), and a necklace of 331 pearls which are believed to be from the Queen’s collection, fastened together with a diamond clasp (estimate $200,000 - $300,000 / £150,000 - £225,000).
“This is one of the most important royal jewellery collections ever to appear on the market and each and every jewel is imbued with history,” commented Daniela Mascetti, deputy chairman for Sotheby’s Jewellery Europe.
“It offers a captivating insight into the lives of its owners going back hundreds of years. What is also striking is the inherent beauty of the pieces themselves: the precious gems that are adorned with and the exceptional craftsmanship they display are stunning in their own right.”
The sale also includes pieces from the collection of King Charles X, the Archdukes of Austria and the Dukes of Parma, each with its own fascinating backstory. And, as the experts at Sotheby’s continue to dig into the archive, it’s likely that more of these stories, alongside many other long-forgotten jewels, will come to light.
The Royal Jewels from the Bourbon-Parma Family auction is at Sotheby’s Geneva on 12 November 2018