On 5 May 1821, as Napoleon Bonaparte lay on his death bed, it’s fair to assume his thoughts turned to his children. Exiled to the tiny Atlantic island of Saint Helena, he hadn’t seen them in more than five years.
Almost exactly 200 years later — Christie’s jewellery specialist Lukas Biehler calls it ‘serendipitous timing’ — a suite of diamonds and sapphires once owned by Napoleon’s adopted daughter Stéphanie is coming to auction.
The spectacular parure — a set of jewels designed to be worn together — consists of a necklace, a ring, a bracelet, a pair of earrings, two brooches, two pendants and a tiara. (The royal crown of Queen Maria II of Portugal was a later, spectacular addition.)
‘They’re of amazing quality,’ says Biehler. ‘The large, dazzling sapphires come from Sri Lanka. Back then, it probably took a generation to collect a set like this.’
Stéphanie de Beauharnais (1789-1860) was born to a minor aristocratic family in Versailles at the beginning of the French Revolution. Her father’s cousin, Alexandre, Vicomte de Beauharnais, had been the first husband of Joséphine Tascher de la Pagerie, who went on to marry Napoleon in 1796.
The young and beautiful Stéphanie was invited to join the newlyweds’ court. The proposition, however, was a diplomatic one.
Napoleon — who at the time lacked a legitimate heir — formally adopted Stéphanie, granting her lavish accommodation at the Tuileries Palace and the title of Imperial Highness, and arranged her marriage to Charles, Grand Duke of Baden, in order to form a political alliance with Germany.
The wedding took place in Paris in April 1806 and, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, among the many treasures in Stéphanie’s dowry was a diamond-and-emerald necklace from the emperor himself.
A note accompanying the parure at auction indicates that Stéphanie acquired it from her cousin, Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Joséphine and Alexandre. The pair shared a particularly close friendship after the premature death of Stéphanie’s husband in 1818 — the Napoleon Archive in Paris holds 80 of their letters.
‘We can only speculate on the precise circumstances in which ownership of the parure was transferred from Hortense to Stephanie,’ says Biehler, ‘as well as exactly when that happened.
‘The jewels could have been a gift, or Stephanie may have purchased them from Hortense, who is known to have sold other jewels to raise funds. Unfortunately the note we have tells us nothing more.’
Hortense’s son would go on to be crowned Emperor Napoleon III in 1852 and welcome Stéphanie back to the Tuileries Palace after many years spent living in Germany. She would, indeed, have been one of the few surviving members of the family to have been able to look back on the the coronation of the first emperor in 1804.
Stéphanie died in 1860, and her vast collection of jewels was divided between her heirs. The necklace thought to have been given to her by Napoleon is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, while a diamond and pearl tiara was sold by Christie’s in 2007 and now resides in the Mannheim Palace, where she used to live.
The parure offered at auction on 12 May — which was described in her will as a ‘necklace, pendant, earrings, 7 pins and a belt’ — passed to Stéphanie’s middle daughter, Princess Josephine of Hohenzollern Sigmaringen, who had the sapphire and diamond belt remounted to create a more fashionable tiara.
After Princess Josephine’s death, the jewels passed to her eldest son, Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern. In 1861, he married Infanta Antónia, the daughter of Queen Maria II of Portugal.
It was the union of Leopold and Antónia that saw Queen Maria’s spectacular crown join the set, bringing the total number of jewels to 10. They have remained with the descendants of their family ever since and have scarcely been seen in public.
‘It’s so rare to have a royal crown come up for auction,’ says Biehler. ‘Usually they’ve been remounted by subsequent kings or queens, or they’re locked away in royal treasuries or owned by museums.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘But my personal favourite is the necklace. It has the most beautiful and lively sapphires and is very wearable. Even the smaller rings and brooches are very touching. They are important symbols of European royal power, and you’re buying a little piece of history from the corridors of Napoleon’s court.
‘It’s tempting to think that the emperor himself might even have gazed upon them. If only they could talk.’