Worn by royalty, sold by Christie’s
Vincent Meylan, a leading expert and historian in haute joaillerie, has written many seminal books on the subject. His latest traces 250 years of jewellery auctions at Christie’s
‘Jewels play numerous and diverse roles in our lives,’ writes Francois Curiel, who joined the Jewellery department at Christie’s in 1969, in the foreword to Vincent Meylan's meticulously researched new book. ‘But, above all, jewels are the embodiment of beauty,’ Curiel states. ‘They have been coveted by the most memorable names in history, heroes and villains, famous lovers, glamorous stars, distinguished families, commanding dynasties.’
Meylan's book, Christie’s: The Jewellery Archives Revealed (ACC Art Books), is filled with fascinating stories about royalty and leading figures whose jewels have passed through Christie’s salerooms over the last 250 years. Here, we present a series of extracts on important auctions with a royal theme.
Sold at Christie’s in 1894, 1959 and 1961
Marie-Louise, Archduchess of Austria, niece of Marie Antoinette, second wife of Napoleon and mother of his son, the King of Rome, is as unpopular today in France as she was two centuries ago. Her marriage to Napoleon in 1810 marked the beginning of the end of the Emperor’s glory. Indeed, many blamed her for contributing to his downfall.
After Napoleon’s first abdication in 1814, Marie-Louise returned to her native Austria where her father, Emperor Francis II, made provision for her to have a quiet life. After the death of the Empress in 1847, her jewels remained in the Austrian imperial family, and a number of them were put up for sale at Christie’s during the 19th and 20th centuries.
After sales at Christie’s in 1894 and 1959, an ensemble of jewellery in sapphires and diamonds was offered in London in July of 1961. The provenance in the catalogue mentions Marie-Louise, although the composite style of the jewels suggests that certain elements may have been remounted at various times.
Offered again, in the Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva on 15 November, the jewels as they exist today clearly do not date from Empress Marie-Louise’s era. It is more likely that they were made after her death using some of the sapphires and diamonds she left behind in the Royal Palace in Vienna when she moved to Rome.
Sold at Christie’s in 1981
The Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara was made in the early 19th century, possibly in Germany, for Princess Augusta of Hesse Cassel, Duchess of Cambridge. It passed to her daughter, the Grand Duchess of Mecklenburg Strelitz, and her great granddaughter, Princess Jutta of Montenegro, before its sale at Christie’s in 1981.
A copy was made at the request of Queen Mary, who left it to Queen Elizabeth II. That copy has since been worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, and the present Duchess of Cambridge. Two other models were produced in Germany in the early 19th century. One was for Amalia of Oldenburg, Queen of Greece, which still belongs to the Bavarian royal family and is displayed at the Residenz Museum in Munich. The other, created for Princess Youssoupov, disappeared after the Russian Revolution.
Two additional models (possibly only one) of the tiara were worn in the 1900s by Princess Maria Immaculata of Saxony, Princess of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, and in the 1930s by the Maharani of Patiala. One of these two tiaras (unless, of course, there is only one) was sold at Christie’s in 1985.
Sold at Christie’s in 1969
Marie Mancini (1639-1715) was the niece of Cardinal Mazarin, the prime minister to King Louis XIV of France. When she fell in love with the young king some spied ambition in the infatuation, but Louis returned her love.
Anne of Austria, Queen Mother of France, violently opposed the romance. Her son’s marriage was political; the ideal fiancée was the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain, which had long been at war with France. Louis and Marie fought to pursue their love, but in 1659 Marie was forced into exile. Weeks before, Louis bought a string of pearls from his aunt, the Queen of England, who was living in exile in Paris. This was all he could offer the woman he had wished to give his crown.
Marie later married the Italian Prince Colonna, abandoning Louis XIV for good. When leaving France, she took an important collection of jewellery and gems with her. Even while pushing her out, Anne showed Marie great generosity. It was perhaps from Anne that Marie received two enormous pear-shaped pearls weighing approximately 200 grains each. The pearls were passed down through Marie’s descendants for over three centuries, before their sale at Christie’s in Geneva in 1969.
Sold at Christie’s in 1927
The 124 gems and precious objects on sale at Christie’s in 1928 had all the mystery of Atlantis. Ten years before, the Romanov empire had fallen in one of history’s most violent revolutions: the Tsar, his wife and their children were all slaughtered in Ekaterinburg in 1918.
The purge continued under Stalin in the 1920s. Paintings, gold, silverware, porcelain — everything seized from aristocratic households or the imperial palaces was assembled in warehouses, to which international dealers were invited. Alongside these valuables were the Russian Crown Jewels, amassed since the time of Catherine the Great.
It took nearly two years for Agathon Fabergé to inventory the gems for Leon Trotsky. Fabergé counted 25,300 carats of diamonds, 4,300 carats of sapphires, hundreds of emeralds, thousands of pearls, and fantastic diamonds such as the Orlov, weighing some 189.62 carats.
The collection was divided into three parts. The first, conserved by Russia and today on view at the Kremlin, unites coronation ornaments and jewels dating from the 18th century. The second consisted mainly of ladies’ jewellery, some of which was broken down and the stones discreetly sold. The third part, comprising 124 pieces, was ultimately offered at Christie’s.
Among the most important pieces was a diamond nuptial crown, probably made in the late 18th century at Catherine the Great’s request. It sold for £6,100, then a high price. Today the crown is exhibited at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C.
Sold at Christie’s in 1987, 1988 and 2005
At 302.68 grains, the Régente pearl is one of the world’s biggest, and its beauty is unequalled. When the pearl appeared at Christie’s New York in 1987, its history was unknown. The sale catalogue referred simply to a Russian provenance. But the Berlin Wall had yet to fall, and anything Soviet was shrouded in mystery. The anonymous pearl was, in fact, La Régente, worn by the empresses of France and Princess Youssoupov, one of the great ladies of Imperial Russia.
Officially, La Régente dates from 1811. Emperor Napoleon acquired the gem from Nitot, the jeweller, mounting it in a diadem worn by his second wife, Empress Marie-Louise. When the French Empire fell in 1870, La Régente and the other Crown Jewels were left in Paris. The Third Republic was proclaimed, leaving the future of the state treasure uncertain. Finally, in 1887, most of the collection was auctioned at the Louvre. La Régente went to a dealer called Rossel, apparently bidding for Russian prince Nikolai Youssoupov.
In 1919 the Youssoupovs went into exile, abandoning gems too difficult to transport. These they hid under the stairs of their Moscow palace, with the jewels of the Grand Duchess Xenia. The trove was discovered in 1925, and 62 years later, La Régente appeared at Christie’s New York. How it found its way from Moscow remains something of a mystery.
One year later the pearl, in its new setting, was offered at Christie’s in Geneva, before returning to Christie’s for a third time in November 2005, selling for $2.5 million.
Sold at Christie’s in 2008
This striking blue diamond of Indian origin is linked to three European royal families: the kings of Spain, the Holy Roman emperors and the Bavarian kings. In 1666, it formed part of the dowry of Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain on her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor. It came to Bavaria in 1722 when Maria Amalia of Austria married Bavaria’s prince-elector. During its long stay in the Bavarian royal treasure, the diamond was the centre of a pendant of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
In 1931, the Royal House of Wittelsbach was forced to sell parts of the Bavarian Crown Jewels at Christie’s in London. Although it was included in the catalogue, the Wittelsbach diamond failed to reach its reserve price, and was most probably sold privately at some point after the Second Word War.
It remained in a private collection until 2008, when it was again offered at Christie's London. Originally a 35.56-carat, Fancy Deep grayish-blue diamond of VS2 clarity, it has been recut to a 31.06-carat, Fancy Deep blue, internally flawless diamond, and renamed the Wittelsbach-Graff.