HISTORICAL JEWELS FROM THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF PRINCESS KATHARINA HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK (1862-1929).
'She is a Russian, the widow of a Count Mouraview. A frail little woman, with a graceful wisp of a figure and wonderfully luminous Slav eyes. She is rather an exotic flower in this hale and hardy Prussian atmosphere.''*
Born Katharina Wassilievna de Slepzoff, 'Rina', as she was known, was the elegant and aristocratic young wife of Prince Guido Henckel von Donnersmark (1830-1916). In this rather wonderful description by the diarist Leila von Meister, recounting dinner with the Prince and Princess in their castle in Berlin in 1904, von Meister furthermore described the Prince: 'Prince Donnersmarck is an interesting personality both as to looks and intelligence. Tall and commanding in figure, with an exceptionally handsome, and characteristic head, it is not difficult to imagine that in his prime he must have been superbly good looking.'
Count Guido Henckel von Donnersmarck (1830-1916) was born into an aristocratic Silesian family whose enormous estates with rich mining deposits had brought them vast wealth. At the age of 18, the young Guido took over the entire running of the family estate and associated businesses, moving to Paris in the 1850s. It was here that the eligible young Count fell in love with and married the fantastic figure 'La Païva', one of the most successful and glamorous courtesans of the nineteenth century, famed for her initiative and hypnotic charm.
From a humble Moscow background, Esther Pauline Lachmann had been born to a shoemaker and seamstress, it is thought circa 1819, although she had always kept the exact date a secret. Having reinvented herself with several name changes, firstly to Therese, and secondly to Blanche, she had succeeded in propelling herself through two marriages, the second to the Marquis de Païva, and into the highest intellectual and aristocratic circles in Paris. Best known as 'La Païva', following her marriage to the Marquis, she also became known in Paris as 'La Lionne', an epithet earned on account of her green eyes and tawny hair, and undoubtedly her strong personality. Mirroring many of his own attractive qualities - looks, charm and astute business acumen - Count Henckel von Donnersmarck was naturally fascinated by this seductive Russian with alluring eyes, an extraordinary mind for artistic, literary and business matters and an equal love of all things beautiful. After meeting the Count, La Païva had amassed a large enough fortune to build the most lavish and grandest hotel in Paris, the Hôtel La Païva on the Champs Elysées. The project was a mammoth undertaking and the epitome of extravagance and luxury: the bathrooms were said to be of solid marble and onyx and the main staircase of lapis lazuli. No less impressive was her collection of jewels which were equally remarkable for their quality and opulence. The Boucheron archives alone show that she owned entire parures of the most magnificent diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and pearls, composed of not only the largest gems, but also the finest. In his memoirs, Baron Horace de Viel-Castel, conservator of the Louvre until 1863, and a sharp society diarist of the Second Empire, noted that La Païva routinely wore two million francs of diamonds, pearls and other gems.
The couple left Paris for Germany in 1871 and when La Païva died in 1884, Count Henckel von Donnersmarck absorbed her riches back into his already enormous fortune. A proportion of the wealth of La Païva was her spectacular collection of jewellery, which would pass into the hands of the Count's second wife, the young, beautiful and aristocratic Katharina. It was a superb match, with Katharina's background and beauty, and the Count's reputation as the richest man in Germany. Furthermore, in 1901, they were elevated to Prince and Princess Henckel von Donnersmarck.
With a fine eye for beautiful jewels, an inherited treasure trove and the generosity of her husband, Katharina formed a magnificent collection notable for its pearls, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Amongst these, was a superb group of emeralds once belonging to her predecessor, including a large emerald and diamond brooch (lot 395) and fifteen enormous emeralds, which Katharina later remounted with cushion-shaped diamonds as a spectacular necklace (lot 396).
Prince and Princess Henckel von Donnersmarck passed their time between their grand palace in Berlin and their prestigious castle in Neudeck, where the Princess lovingly raised their two sons and where Emperor Wilhelm II often visited to dine with the Prince and Princess and hunt in the fabulous grounds. Schloss Neudeck had been constructed between 1869 and 1876 by the eminent architect of the new Louvre, Hector-Martin Lefuel, in the French Style, with huge surrounding English Style parkland. The overpowering castle and immense grounds were very much on what was the eastern frontier at the time: half the parkland fell in Prussian, and the other half in Russian territory, and in November 1904 Leila von Meister recounted the end of her stay with the Prince and Princess: 'Our visit to Neudeck came to an end yesterday, and it was a most agreeable as well as a most interesting experience. It was really like something you read about in memoirs of the eighteenth century in Court circles before the French revolution.'
Leila von Meister, Gathered Yesterdays, London 1963
Baron Horace de Viel-Castel, Mémoires du comte Horace de Viel-Castel sur le règne de Napoléon III (1851-1864), published in 1883-1884
THE PRIVATE COLLECTION OF PRINCESS KATHARINA HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK