Stars of the Order of St. Catherine are very rarely offered at auction. Established in 1713 by Peter the Great to commemorate the heroic deeds of his consort — the future Empress Catherine I — following the Turkish wars, the order came in two classes: the Grand and the Small cross.
The Order of St. Catherine was the ‘first and only Imperial Russian order awarded to women’, which makes it particularly exciting to Helen Culver Smith, Head of Christie’s Russian Art Department. The Grand Cross of the Order was awarded to all female members of the Russian Imperial family upon their christening or marriage into the Romanov family. Beyond Imperial family members, the order was also presented to ‘a set number of elite Russian women of the highest nobility, who were honoured for their philanthropic work outside of the Court’, Culver Smith explains.
According to Imperial Cabinet ledgers, it appears that this order was purchased on 27 May 1908 from the jeweller Bolin, and presented to Victoria Battenberg on the same day.
Princess Victoria (1887–1969), known as Ena, was the youngest granddaughter of Queen Victoria and the cousin of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. The order was presented two years after she married King Alfonso XIII and became the Queen Consort of Spain.
Historically, it was possible to return the award in order to redeem its value. What makes this piece so unique is that it seems to have been retained by Victoria, Queen consort of Spain. ‘This one was acquired directly from the family by the father of the present owner, and has never been seen on the market before,’ says Culver Smith.
According to the specialist, the 3,750 roubles paid for the order represented a vast sum at the time, greater even than the cost of some of the top presentation pieces generally offered by the court. ‘The immense cost of this piece underscores the extravagance and wealth of the Imperial court,’ she says. However, Culver Smith stresses that the value of the piece ‘is not really in the diamonds’ with which it is set, ‘but rather the exceptional rarity of this kind of gift’.
In November 2007, Christie’s sold a full set of insignia of the Order of St Catherine for just over £400,000 (against a high estimate of £80,000). This Star of the Order will be offered in the Russian Art sale on 28 November at Christie’s London.